Tanzania Day 6 – The Central Serengeti and Kubu Kubu Tented Lodge – Birds and Cats

This is how Kubu Kubu Tented Lodge was described in the VENT materials for our Northern Tanzania Tour: “our luxurious home for the next three nights…Situated on a hilltop overlooking the vast plains of the central Serengeti this recently opened (Summer 2016) luxury tented camp is a delightful base of operations for our time in the Serengeti. The tents are incredibly spacious and well-appointed and are placed on permanent platforms, each with its own private balcony. In-suite, private bathrooms feature open air showers with abundant hot water (dubbed “the world’s best shower” by more than one participant) and flush toilets, and the entire camp is solar powered, with backup generators providing 24-hour electricity. The camp is full board (including all drinks), and WI-FI is available in the central area.” Right on all accounts, with my only slight challenge being why the accommodations were called tents as they in no way resembled my picture of such. The walls were so sturdy and solid that I would have considered them buildings – and that is not a complaint. The showers – one outside (private adjoining our indoor bathroom) and one inside really were awesome. The water was solar heated, plentiful and very forceful. There was a beautiful pool – of no interest – and a fine main lodge with good food and a good bar. Best of all the people were terrific.

Some photos of Kubu Kubu – hardly roughing it.

View from the Balcony of Our Tent
Our View from the Main Building Balcony at Kubu Kubu
Definitely Not Roughing it at Kubu Kubu
Cindy and Priscilla at Kubu Kubu – She Made Our Stay Even Better
Our “Tent” Was the First One on the Left – Blair Carrying a Lunch for the Road

Kubu Kubu was another place where we had to be escorted to and from our rooms at dawn and after dusk. Our escorts were local Masai tribesmen dressed in their beautiful red Shuka cloths and their beaded necklaces and bracelets and always accompanied by an iron rod/spear just in case the hyenas or lions (which we could hear at night) were on the prowl. Cindy asked one of her protectors if he had ever used his spear. “Why yes…on both lions and hyenas.” This is a good place to interject how much we were enamored with everyone we met in Tanzania. Incredibly friendly and always with a smile. It always seemed genuine and always welcoming. The standard greeting every time you pass someone was “Jambo”, Swahili for “hello” but there was so much more to it as it was always followed by “How are you?” (Habari) and it was often more than a platitude. Not too long after our arrival we found ourselves using these same words every time and we usually got a response of at least “very good” or even “wonderful”.

Our Masai Escorts/Protectors

On Monday February 20th, our actual Day 6, we started the morning with breakfast and then birded around the lodge until 8:30 a.m. We had 27 species including many new for the trip (Note once again that the Ebird lists did not always correspond to bird lists reviewed at night, but it all came out right in the end). The following is just a sampling of birds that morning.

Afterwards, we loaded up onto the safari vehicles and drove the Kubu Kubu entrance road to the park. It was excellent birding with 39 species of which 8 were new for the trip and a Greater Kestrel which was a lifer for me.

Greater Kestrel (Lifer)
Swahili Sparrow – Lifer

It was 9:30 a.m. and we were now in the park where we would bird and animal gaze for the next 3+ hours before lunch on the road in the Seronera area. Of our 61 bird species, half were new for the trip and 8 were lifers for me getting me within two of my self-important target of 3000 species in the world. Photos of 6 of those lifers are below.

I did not include a photo of one of the lifers that was really high on my list both to see and hopefully to get a good photo. That is the Collared Pratincole which is a shorebird but looks something like a swallow. We saw them several times during the trip – always next to water and always pretty distant and in poor light. So I got some photos, but all were disappointing as it is a really cool looking bird. I have added an internet photo that really shows it off to my own rather poor one.

There would be more birds later in the day and there were always lots of mammals – more views of species previously seen, but everyone was a wonderful experience – just so different from life in the US of A. But this day added some new mammals and lots of excitement. As I have mentioned in an earlier post, there are LOTS of safari operators and thus lots of safari vehicles in the parks at the same time. Maybe its not true for all of them, but there is a community of guides/drivers/operators that seem to be constantly in touch with one another over their radios. Like information posted real time on our WhatsApp groups, there is a constant flow of sightings over the radios. Of particular interest are any sightings of Big Cats – Lions, Cheetahs and Leopards. Over the course of our tour we would have many such sightings usually following some shared radio information and then maybe followed by a race to the place, less for the lions which were pretty much sleeping and resting and remaining for a long while, but definitely the case for the cheetahs and any leopard. I don’t recall if our first lions were found on our own or were tipped off by the radio community, but there is something very special about any lion sighting and not much compares to your first one.

This Gives an Idea of the Number of Safari Vehicles (from a lunch stop in the Ngorongoro Crater – a later post)

I had seen only two lions, both females, on my Kenya trip in 2007. That was disappointing, especially without a male, but it was somewhat made up for by their proximity – as in literally on the hood of our vehicle – an open vehicle. They had been resting very close and then one decided to check the comfort level on the hood. That got the adrenalin going. There were more lions on my trip to South Africa in 2014, maybe a dozen or so including a couple of fully maned males. The Serengeti has more lions than probably anywhere else. During our tour we saw almost 100 lions, including many males, mostly in the Serengeti. We never saw any hunting activity, which occurs mostly at night, but we had great looks. The photos below are from several days in the Serengeti – a great collection of beautiful and very impressive animals.

Our First Male Lion – A Fitting Look for the King of the Beasts
Probably Two Brothers Resting in the Open – They Were Unmoved for Well Over an Hour

Most of the groups of lions we saw had a single Alpha Male and maybe 8 lionesses and a few cubs. We saw two or three lionesses that had radio tracking collars. Many of the lions (and other animals) in the Serengeti have been studied for many years. (See photo above.) Many of the lions, and many of the other animals we saw, were covered with flies – a fact of life on the plains. We had our own intersections with the flies but mostly in wooded/forested areas. With few exceptions, we never had a group of lions to ourselves as there would either be other vehicles there when we arrived or would join us while we watched. We heard stories of major traffic jams and skirmishes at some sightings, but all went smoothly for us. The photo below taken on Cindy’s iPad is typical of how we saw most of the lions – sleeping in the shade under a tree. There were probably at least 4 other safari vehicles around this group when we were there.


Five of maybe 10 Sleeping Lions – Our First of the Trip

When we were around the lions, we completely forgot about the birds and kept hoping for some action – it never happened – just lions at rest. After maybe 20 minutes or so it was back to birding. We had lunch at a safe stop where we could get out of the vehicles – and like every other meal in Africa, there was too much food. Somehow that did not stop us from eating all of it, burying any guilt feelings. An interesting part about birding in Africa, and animal watching, too, is that even though there is mostly grassy plains, there is water and both mammals and birds are drawn to it. As an example, over the course of the trip we saw 75 species of “water birds” including waders, shorebirds, gulls and terns, waterfowl and such. Except for some of the large waders, none of the species were new for my world list, but how cool to get great looks at species that are mega rarities when seen in the US – shorebirds like Marsh, Wood and Green Sandpipers, Common Greenshanks and 11 species of Plovers/Lapwings. There will be a big section of the next blog dedicated to shorebirds, but it was particularly fun to see them and then a few minutes on the plains seeing species like Common Ostrich, Secretarybird and Guineafowl or one of the four species of bustard or one of the 8 species of gallinaceous birds that were often feeding on the dirt roads.

Common Ostrich
Helmeted Guineafowl

We were told that vulture populations seemed to be down and this matched our experience and it also seemed that there were not as many raptors seen as we expected. That said during the trip we found more than 40 raptor species even if not in great numbers of some. Without question the Secretarybird was my favorite – as it had been on my first African trip in 2007. Altogether we probably had more than a dozen sightings of this species. They were not new life birds, but on this day I was happy to add photos of 4 kestrel species to my world photo list, the Greater, Eurasian and Gray Kestrels shown above as well as a Lesser Kestrel. The most common raptor was Tawny Eagle.

Lesser Kestrel
Tawny Eagle

Birders in the vehicles could not hear the conversations over the radio, but every once in a while, a word would be heard. As we were driving along one of the dirt tracks, we thought we heard a word that brings instant excitement, “Leopard”. Shortly thereafter there seemed to be a lot less attention to bird sightings and a quickened pace of the vehicle. Maybe 15 minutes later we could see a group of safari vehicles surrounding a tree in the middle of the savannah. Guide and driver confirmed that we had our first leopard of the trip. We did not know it then, but it would also be our last one as well. Lions are awesome, and cheetahs are beautiful and elegant, but most people on safari would agree that leopards are special. Part of it is their beauty, part their rarity and part that they are so often seen up in trees, usually with the partially eaten carcass of a prey animal hung over a nearby branch and it seems impossible that not only could such a large animal climb up into the tree but that it could carry a heavy animal up with it. They are amazingly strong and powerful animals. And yes they are quite beautiful. I had seen only a single leopard in Kenya and only two adults and 4 cubs in South Africa. Each was breath-taking. This one was as well even though it almost looked like you could pet it with its sleepy lazy look as people in maybe 8 vehicles looked on.

Leopard
Leopard Balancing Act

Unlike lions and to a lesser extent cheetahs, leopards are solitary animals with defined territories. Males which are larger than females, can weigh up to 200 pounds and measure 28 inches at the shoulder and over 8 feet in length (tail included). They are the smallest of the “Big Cats” – lions, tigers and jaguars all being larger and cheetahs not included in the group. Smallest, yes but pound for pound also the strongest being able to carry prey weighing more than it does up a tree. Leopards are still found in Africa, India, China and Southeast Asia. Snow Leopards of the Himalayas are a different species. Like lions, they hunt mostly at night and rest during the day. Our leopard definitely had mastered the resting thing. We did find an antelope stashed on a lower branch, but we could not identify it. When I was in South Africa, I saw a huge male leopard carrying a Steenbok up a tree. We watched the leopard for maybe 30 minutes, maneuvering for different positions as one or another of the safari vehicles would finally leave.

We birded some more on the way back to Kubu Kubu. What a great day, familiar mammals again adding lions and our leopard, more than 100 species of birds including 45 that were new for the tour and 13 new lifers and many photos. Many would later consider the leopard the best sighting of the trip. Cindy thought it was the giraffes, until there was a close up elephant and then the lions and then the leopard. Africa is a smorgasbord of delights. It was February 20th – less than a week into the trip with anther 12 days ahead.

Tanzania Day 5 – Speke Bay and the Serengeti

I did not keep Ebird lists during the trip relying on Kevin Zimmer for that. We did, as usual on most tours, do group bird lists each evening before dinner checking off each species seen that day. Kevin shared a few lists early but as the tour pressed on, it became an overwhelming task to keep current and most lists were not entered on Ebird until well after we returned and as might be expected, there was not always a full correlation between the Ebird lists and our checklists as we recounted them each day. In this post I have pretty accurate information for the morning of Day 5 at Speke Bay and then our drive to the Serengeti after lunch, but it falls apart a bit after that. The following details the morning of the 19th and the drive to the Park, but thereafter I am combining all of the sightings for our days in the Serengeti – one of many highlights of the trip.

Sunday morning at Speke Bay got off to a great start. One of the staff at Speke Bay had located a roosting Barn Owl and two Three Banded Coursers on the property. It was a bit of a walk especially stumbling over the Hippopotamus tracks, but some really great birds. Like the Osprey, Barn Owls are found on every continent except Antartica. I had seen them in Australia and of course North America, but this would be the first one in Africa. I had seen Three Banded Coursers in Kenya at Lake Baringo in 2007 and even had photos, but they are a very cool looking bird and I was very happy to see it and photograph it again. We birded for several hours at the Lodge before heading to Serengeti National Park in the afternoon. The first set of photos are all from Speke Bay.

Barn Owl – A Very Tough Photo
Three Banded Courser
Chinspot Batis
Klaas’s Cuckoo
Red-billed Firefinch
Buff-bellied Warbler
Swamp Flycatcher

These next photos are not necessarily in sequence as explained above regarding Ebird lists. Some sightings that can be specifically linked to a place are photos of Bare Faced Go-Away Bird, Hamerkops, Pin-tailed Whydah and Eastern Plantain Eater that were taken at the Grumenti River in the Serengeti. This was also where we had one of my favorite experiences of the trip. We saw at first one and then several large white birds in a field. They were White Storks. I had seen some in Pecs, Hungary in 2002 but had no photo. They are the birds that “delivered babies” in some European folklore. I got my photo and then we saw more and more including a group perched on an open branched tree. They are gorgeous, magnificent birds and seeing them flocked and then perched was very special. The Plantain-eater was a lifer and earlier we had a Karamoja Apalis, the only other lifer among the many dozens of birds seen.

Karamoja Apalis (Lifer)
Bare-faced Go Away Bird
Eastern Plantain-eater (Lifer)
Hamerkops
Yellow-billed Stork
Pin-tailed Whydah
White Stork
White Storks
Village Indigobird

Not at the river, but some other great birds seen that day in Serengeti National Park were our first Secretarybirds, Southern Ground, African Gray and Von der Decken’s Hornbills, Kori Bustards, Gray Capped Warbler, and our first of what would be many Lilac Breasted and European Rollers.

Secretarybird
Southern Ground Hornbill
Von der Decken’s Hornbill – Female
African Gray Hornbill
Gray Capped Warbler
Kori Bustard
Lilac Breasted Roller
European Roller

It was at the river that we also saw our first Hippopotamuses and our first Nile Crocodiles. We would see hippos many times later always in large groups. The Crocs were less abundant and neither looked very friendly.

Our First Hippos
Our First Nile Crocodile

These photos provide a great transition from birds to mammals for it was at the Serengeti that we experienced the great diversity of African mammals. Some would be on this first day in the park and then others each day later we would see Elephants, Hippos, Impalas, Zebras, Baboons, Hyenas, Lions, Jackals, Warthogs, Giraffes, Wildebeest, Cape Buffaloes, Waterbucks, Topi, Gazelle’s and Kongoni (Hartebeest) and our only Leopard. These photos were from that first day – many more will be added later in this post which combines the following days. The Serengeti may well be the most famous of the African National Parks. It was both a very favorite place and a huge disappointment on the trip. The disappointment had nothing to do with the place itself – only the timing of our visit. VENT had scheduled this trip when it did to be able to see the great migration of wildebeests and zebras (among others) that occurs annually. Unfortunately this year the rains came late so the migration of a million animals was delayed. We saw maybe the start but instead of hundreds of thousands of animals, we saw “only” thousands – still amazing but how awesome to have been able to see “the real thing”.

The Serengeti is a vast grassland plain of more than 11,500 square miles (about the size of Massachusetts and Connecticut combined) of which about 5,700 square miles are in the National Park, a World Heritage site that was established as a park in 1951. The Entrance to the park is $60.00 ($70.00 in peak season) per person per day with additional costs per vehicle and per person for each night stay (part of the accommodation cost). This generates a lot of money which is used for maintenance etc. As an aside the restroom facilities in the park were spotless!! Only 4-wheel drive vehicles are permitted in the Park and driving is allowed only on existing tracks – no cross-country exploration. Tourism is big business with many levels of accommodation ranging from basic to super-luxury. It is estimated that more than 350,000 people visit the park each year!!

A Sampling of Mammals of the Serengeti (Saving the Cats for Later)

African or Cape Buffalo
Serengeti Elephant
Baboons
Spotted Hyena
Silver Backed Jackal
Blue Wildebeest or Brindled Gnu
African Zebra
Giraffe
Impala
Topi
Waterbuck
Thompson’s Gazelle
Grant’s Gazelle
Kongoni (Hartebeest)

Since I was only using a telescopic lens (100-500 mm with a 1.4 extender) I could not really get any wide-angle photos showing the scale of the migration that we did see – often hundreds or even thousands of animals of numerous species at one time. This photo gives some sense of the mixed herds with some birds mixed in. By far the largest groups were of Wildebeest followed by Zebras and then Buffalo. There were often small herds of Impala – usually a single male with his harem of females or maybe a small group of non-dominant bachelor males together.

Life on the Plains

This post has largely been a collection of photos and there is just no way they can give anything but a snapshot of what really has to be experienced in person capturing the diversity of life, the immensity of the plains, the gatherings at waterholes and the constant moving and grazing of the animals with amazing birds in every niche of the Serengeti. I have included most of the mammals seen in the Serengeti here except for the Big Cats – always favorites of every visit, even those by list building birders. We would leave Speke Bay Lodge and move on to Kubu Kubu Tented Lodge from which we would continue to explore the Serengeti. And in the next post, there will again be lots of birds and there will also be Cats!!

Tanzania Days 3 and 4 – Travel and Speke Bay

To avoid a long drive, we would be flying from West Arusha to Mwanza from which we would then head to our next accommodations at Speke Bay Lodge on the shores of Lake Victoria. Our flight was preceded by some birding on the grounds of Ngare Sero Mountain Lodge and would include some birding on the drive from the Mwanza Airport to the Lodge. This limited birding added only 18 species to our trip list, but three were new life birds as well. One of the life birds, Abdim’s Stork, was found at the Kilimanjaro Airport where a group of 40 were circling just as we arrived. We would see many later with good views and photo ops.

The entrance to the airport was chaotic as maybe 200 people were in line outside the entrance to the small terminal waiting to get through security – there was not enough room inside to accommodate the crowd. It was pretty hot and there was no sun cover but the real concern was making our departure time. It was not a great case of efficiency, but the line moved faster than feared and we were there in plenty of time. It is about 500 miles from Arusha to Mwanza – a drive of 10 hours or more. The flight was only an hour and 10 minutes and saved us the long drive and made for a much more efficient itinerary.

The new life birds seen at Ngare Sero Mountain Lodge that morning were Green Malkoha and Green-backed Honeyguide. Not the best of photo ops for the Malkoha as it was buried in foliage, but getting any picture was greatly appreciated. I am also including photos of some other fun birds seen that morning.

Green Malkoha
Green-backed Honeyguide
Little Greenbul
African Pied Wagtail
White-eared Barbet
Black-backed Puffback Female
Amethyst Sunbird

We made no serious stops on the way from the Mwanza Airport to Speke Bay but had passing looks at a number of waders that we would see again later in the trip. Cattle Egrets seemed to be in every field and we easily saw more than 500 of them. Other “waders” included Great and Little Egrets, African Sacred Ibis, Black-headed Heron, Marabou Stork and African Openbill. Speke Bay Lodge is located on the south-eastern shore of Lake Victoria in Tanzania, East Africa. It is 15 kilometers from the Serengeti National Park. It would be our comfortable home for the next several nights and our take off place for exploring the wonderful Serengeti. At the end of the day, our trip list was at 134 species.

Black-headed Heron
African Openbill

Our accommodations at Speke Bay were in individual bungalows fronting on Lake Victoria. As would be the case in many places we stayed, after dusk we were supposed to be escorted back to our rooms after dinner. Why was that? Because we were in Wild Africa and hippos often would amble through the grounds to feed at night. We never saw a hippo but we saw many hippo tracks even a quarter mile or more from the Lake.

Our Bungalows at Speke Bay Lodge

After breakfast on Saturday, February 18th, Day 4 of our tour, we birded all day on and around the extensive grounds at Speke Bay Lodge. In about 10 hours we had 77 species, including 53 new birds for the tour and 5 new life birds for me: Eurasian and Square Tailed Nightjars, Common Reed Warbler, Black Bishop and Blue-capped Cordonbleu. I don’t know how many were new but I got photos of more than half of the species seen.

Eurasian Nightjar
Square Tailed Nightjar
Blue-capped Cordonbleu
Black Bishop

It is tempting to add all of the photos, but I am doing some self-imposed selecting and just including favorites from the day including the 4 Kingfisher species we saw.

Woodland Kingfisher
Gray-headed Kingfisher
Malachite Kingfisher
Pied Kingfisher
Dideric Cuckoo – The Cuckoo that Says Its Name
Nubian Woodpecker
White-browed Robin Chat
Golden-backed Weaver
Malachite Sunbird
Black-headed Gonolek
Blue-cheeked Bee-eater
Blue-Naped Mousebird
Water Thick-knee
Silverbird
Brubru
Red-chested Cuckoo – The Most Common of the 11 “Cuckoo” Species Seen on the Tour – Heard Often
D’Arnaud’s Barbet – “Usambiru” maybe a split later

Our weather was great and there were very few bugs. Food was good and we even got in some walking, which would become much more limited as we got into wildlife parks where we could be in danger. Our trip species count was now at 187 species. I had added 20 lifers and probably more than twice that many life photos. The next day we would bird again at Speke Bay Lodge and then head into the iconic Serengeti National Park.

Tanzania – Day 2 – Arusha National Park

After the multi day/multi hour flight to Tanzania and the 11 hour time change, we had no idea how sleeping would go and how we would feel for our first morning in Tanzania. Breakfast was a civilized 7:00 a.m. and our trip to Arusha National Park would not start until after 8:00. Under the circumstances, sleeping went well and we made it to the generous breakfast on time and were ready to go, excited for the adventure. The basic set-up for the tour would be travel in two safari vehicles – Toyota Land Cruisers with 8 passengers each and a pop top. Each had the driver and guide in the front two seats and six tour members in back with three rows of two passengers each with a window. A good policy was that each day, passengers would rotate – the two in the back would move up to the middle, the middle would move to the front and the two in front would go to the other vehicle, replaced by two from that vehicle who had been in the front and now would go to the back. This completely removed some of the friction that has occurred on some tours where seats are literally fought over.

A bit more background: Our two guides were Kevin Zimmer from VENT and Anthony Raphael from Tanzania Birding Tours (tanzaniabirding.com), the local partner for VENT. Our two wonderful drivers were Godbless and Moses. Kevin has been leading this trip for VENT for many years but is probably even better known for his guiding excellence in Brazil. In addition to his formidable birding skills, Kevin is a great storyteller and all around good company. Just give him a Coke Zero and he is a happy guy. Anthony also has amazing birding skills, extremely knowledgeable with an uncanny knack for finding birds in dense foliage and high up in the trees. Anthony was also the go to guy for any administrative needs or help finding anything you needed. Godbless and Moses were excellent drivers and really fun to be with. If you are wondering about those names, in Tanzania, when you reach a certain age (maybe 18) you get to pick your own name. Those were their choices.

Our Safari Vehicles

After breakfast we boarded the vehicles and were off. In what would be a familiar pattern, we would head for a destination but might bird along the way once we got off city roads, stopping at likely places or where one of the guides spotted a bird of interest. Our main destination would be Arusha National Park, a small park of only 215 square miles. Being only 8 miles from our lodge, we went directly to the Entrance gate where we birded on foot for a while and then turned off the main park road onto the side track to the Fig Tree Arch. In just under 2 hours, we saw 28 species (no lifers yet). As tempting as it is to detail each species and include photos, if I want to get these blogs done, that is too large a task. Instead I am going to include a list of species as reported on Ebird, including just a few photos. We were now in mammal country so there will be lots of those photos as well.

Yellow Breasted Apalis
Spot Flanked Barbet
Cinnamon Chested Bee-Eater
Speckled Mousebird
Variable Sunbird

At the entrance gate, we also had our first “elephant” – an amazingly life-like creation. From the Momela Gate Entrance, we drove to Fig Tree Arch – a giant fig tree with an arch at the base large enough to drive through – truly an awesome tree. Along the way we observed 18 bird species – 12 new for the trip, including two spectacular birds: Hartlaub’s Turaco and Bar Tailed Trogon. In addition to the Trogon, I had 5 other lifers including Scaly Spurfowl. It seems like there is confusion or disagreement about using names “spurfowl” or “francolin”. We would see many on this tour.

Momela Entrance Gate “Elephant”
At the Fig Tree Arch
Scaly Spurfowl (Lifer)
Hartlaub’s Turaco
Bar Tailed Trogon – Lifer

We spent the rest of the afternoon birding in the Park along the Momela Lakes Circuit. Now our birding would be mixed with our first mammal watching including giraffes, elephants and zebras. And this is where it gets really hard to pick what to write and what pictures to include. with a variety of habitats we had forest birds, water birds, shorebirds, and birds of more open country – 56 species in all including 6 species of waterfowl, 6 species of swifts, and 8 species of shorebirds. The only lifer was a Moustached Grass Warbler – sadly no photo. Among the avian highlights were our first Greater and Lesser Flamingoes, Little and White Fronted Bee-eaters, 50 Ruffs and our first Gray Crowned Cranes.

Greater Flamingo
Lesser Flamingoes
White Fronted Bee-eater
Little Bee-eater
Gray Crowned Crane

All told we had 70 species for the day bringing our trip list so far to 116 species. This included 12 world lifers for me and many new photos (I did not keep a running account of these.) I expected that the parade of lifers would slow but I was feeling pretty good that I would get to my minimum target of 37 to get to my self-imposed important target of 3,000 species. Cindy was enjoying the birds but it was really the scenery and the mammals that got to her. She was hooked when we saw our first distant tableau of giraffes, impalas, wildebeests and zebras.

Later we had a herd of zebras very close including a mother and colt and then had a giraffe that was towering over us from maybe 25 feet away and lots of warthogs. The first elephant was also pretty close and knowing that it could charge and tip over the vehicle brought home that we were most definitely in Africa.

Zebra Colt
Warthog Boar
Giraffe Above Us
A Very Real Elephant

It was then back to Ngare Sero Mountain Lodge for another fine dinner and a celebratory Gin and Tonic, which soon became our favorite drink in Africa. It was a bit warm in our room which did not have a fan (turned out we should have asked for one), but we left the screened windows open and it got comfortable pretty soon. My best moment of the day was when Cindy called the trip “life changing”. You really have to see the animals in the wild yourself to understand; and we were just beginning.

Our Room at Ngare Sero Mountain Lodge

Africa Again — Finally

The Prelude – When Cindy Bailey and I first started dating now going on five years ago, one of the subjects we explored was travel goals. Close to the top of the list was my telling her she had to get to Africa before it disappeared. I had been fortunate to have traveled to Kenya and to South Africa and each trip had been magical. We also talked about travels to South America. She had not been to either area and we agreed to make them early travel priorities. We found two trips that greatly appealed: a trip to Tanzania with Victor Emanuel Nature Tours (VENT) and a birds and wine trip to Argentina and Chile with Field Guides. Given that Cindy was not a birder, these at first seemed like a bit selfish on my part, but the sale was easy. It was the wine that made the Field Guides trip easy and as for Africa, it was my assurance that even avid birders quickly forgot about the birds when there were cheetahs, lions or leopards to be seen.

We committed to both trips and then…Covid. Both of those trips were wiped out as were possible trips to Cuba and to Charleston S.C. and Savannah, GA. Two years of exciting travel disappeared as the world isolated and tourism vanished. When a comfort level with travel finally returned, the trips we had planned were no longer available. I was desperate for a great birding trip and Cindy just wanted to travel somewhere new. So we traveled to Ecuador – a top birding destination and a trial run for other travel later. Ecuador was great and even though there was maybe a bit more birding than Cindy would prefer, she loved the nature, the people and the place and even many of the birds, especially the colorful tanagers and hummingbirds that visited the many feeders at fun lodges. OK Africa was back on the agenda – even a “birding” trip. When we found two spots open on the VENT Tanzania trip for February/March 2023, we signed on. It was months ahead and when Cindy had her fall on some ice in November 2022 and tore her rotator cuff, there was a possibility that we would have to cancel. The surgery went well. The recovery went well; and we were good to go. In this series of blogs, I will share the rest of the story, in Cindy’s words, “a life changing trip.”

All told our trip was 20 days – leaving Seattle of February 13th with an 11.5 hour flight on Qatar Airways from Seattle to Doha, Qatar. an 8-hour layover and then a 5.5 hour flight from Doha to Kilimanjaro, Tanzania, reversing that with a somewhat shorter return to Seattle on March 5 – with an 11 hour time difference making that 28 hour trip seem a lot less. I probably could write an entire blog post about flying on Qatar Airways (not as great as advertised) or our two layovers at the Doha Airport – otherworldly and not necessarily in a positive way. We had “economy premium” seats. Basically that meant a few extra inches of leg room – same food as economy and that’s it. Before we left, we had seen a list of movies on the Qatar Air entertainment system. Not the case. They advertised 4000 options. Maybe so but the sound quality was poor, the picture not much better and, understandably, many of those thousands were either Arabic or Bollywood movies. Maybe three of the movies that had caught our interest earlier were available, the rest ones we had barely heard of. On an 11+ hour flight, anything to kill time is welcome. We did watch “Rear Window” and that was about it.

Doha, Qatar at Night

The flight was smooth and did leave and arrive on schedule. Flying into Doha is quite an experience. After miles/hours of nothing, we could see the bright lights of the City of Doha – almost a Disneyland of architecturally flamboyant high rises. Cindy likened it to the strip in Las Vegas. The airport is over the top as well. It is humongous. We got off the plane down a stairway that was brought up to the plane. Then we boarded a bus and had a fairly long ride around the tarmac to get to the terminal itself. Then, even though we had obviously cleared security to board the plane, we went through even more stringent security to get into the terminal itself – as connecting passengers. I think it was around 5 in the evening local time and the terminal was busy but not crowded. There were helpful guides around to direct people to wherever they were going. (“Go the giant bear and turn right” was our direction.) We were going to a lounge where we would spend the next 7 hours until our flight to Kilimanjaro. This was no ordinary terminal shopping place. A partial list of stores includes Harrods, Jimmy Choo, Apple Store, Samsung Store, Swarovski, Duty Free, Coach, and Michael Kors among others. A simple magazine shop? Not really. The lounge was nice although somewhat crowded. For the entry fee of $55 each, we got nice seats, free drinks, some decent food (a great soup) and access to a very limited sleeping area with some horizontal seats that were ok, but the room was too small and too noisy (including people talking out loud on their phones – really?!!??). We each got maybe an hour of sleep once sleeping spots opened up. Our departure was set for 1:30 a.m. on the 15th. We left the lounge at midnight and OMG, there were thousands of people in the terminal. Definitely a mix of folks from everywhere, Africa, India, Europe, America, and Australia. Surprisingly not many East Asians and no noticeable Hispanics. Not too many were shopping except mostly at the duty free shop. It was a LONG walk to get to our gate, but we were there in plenty of time and boarded for the next flight which at 5 hours seemed a dream after the previous one. No improvements on the entertainment system, but adrenalin and excitement was kicking in and despite so little sleep, we felt pretty good when we arrived. Tanzania is 11 hours later than Seattle so we left on the 13th and arrived on the 15th. Altogether, we had flown almost 10,000 miles.We were ready.

Seattle to Doha to Kilimanjaro

Tanzania is in East Africa, largely south of the Equator with an area of 364,900 square miles, almost 900 miles of coastline on the Indian Ocean and a population of 64 million. As points of reference, that is 100,000 square miles larger than Texas and a population almost twice that of California with a longer coastline. It is only the 13th largest country in Africa – a big continent indeed, second only to Asia. Our tour started in Kilimanjaro – about 250 miles west of the Indian Ocean and basically was a circle route going west to Mwanza and then back with stops at 8 lodges – all way more than comfortable.

Our Tour Route in Tanzania

After considering other approaches, I have decided to write this in a similar fashion as other travel blogs, a mostly sequential log of what we did when although there may be some jumps or references backwards and forward. There will be a lot left out, but I am going to try to include places and birds and animals and peoples and stories and impressions without an absolute consistent linear connection. First though a continuation of this prelude for context if nothing else.

I had four main goals for this trip. First and foremost was for Cindy to enjoy Africa, seeing the animals I had talked about as well as some beautiful birds but mostly to feel the magic of a very special place so different from anything else she had experienced. Secondly I specifically wanted to add at least 37 species to my World Life List of bird species seen to get me to 3000 species. Third was to get pictures of some of the new birds as well as of species I had seen in Kenya or South Africa but for which I had no photos. The hope was to get photos at least 130 new photos to get me to around 1770 species hopefully on my way to more than 2000 someday. The last goal was to have both of us come away wanting more. This was not a trip to add that many species to my life list. Looking at the bird list from previous VENT Tanzania trips, even though the species list promised over 400 species, there was great overlap with my 2007 trip to Kenya and 2014 trip to South Africa, and at the very most it looked like maybe a chance for maybe 70+ lifers. Not going to make you wait for the end to find out. The final numbers were 432 species seen including 77 World Lifers. I got photos of 339 species including 150 new species photographed. (As a side note: when I returned home I had a chance to go over all of my photos from earlier trips – something that took well over 100 hours. I discovered I had previously unidentified photos of another 15 species including another 7 world lifers. So bottom line a very good listing and photography trip plus the trip-initiated review process resulting in more lifers in both categories. The official Ebird stats are a World Life List of 3040 species and 1810 world photos. Since I took almost no photos on many early trips and relatively few until fairly recently, I guess I am pretty happy – just wish I had taken photos earlier.)

In Africa Officially Day 2 – Arrival at Ngare Sero

I have friends that have undertaken international adventure travel on their own. We are not that brave. We did have to arrange our own air travel – a lot more challenging, a lot less fun, and a lot more expensive than it was even not that many years ago. But everything else was in the hands of VENT. I had excellent experience with them on earlier trips to Kenya, India and Texas and was pleased with the itinerary, the planned accommodations, the guides and office administration. The only moment of tension was upon arrival at the Kilimanjaro Airport, just Cindy and me, hoping that as we departed the airport, someone would be there holding a sign with our names on it – our secure entry into our adventure and transportation to our first accommodation, the Ngare Sero Mountain Lodge, where we would join the group, all of whom had arrived the previous night flying through Amsterdam. Thankfully, there he was, holding that welcomed sing: Bernson/Bailey. We were now officially “On Safari”.

Eco-tourism, especially the safari business, is a big part of the Tanzanian economy – over 10% of GDP. This is similar to many European Countries like the U.K., Italy and France but contrasts greatly with not even 3% in the U.S. And unlike those countries, the large majority of Tanzanian tourism is international. Accordingly the tourist infrastructure in Tanzania is highly developed, with many well-maintained National Parks, superb lodges and numerous travel companies. For example, all of the safari vehicles we saw had company signs/logos on their sides or on their spare tire covers at the back of the vehicle. We noted over 100 different safari companies. It’s a big business. That’s not to say the roads were all that great – except the main highways between cities, we almost entirely on dirt roads/tracks, dusty and bumpy. A surprising measure of that bumpiness was the “steps accounting” on the digital watches of many travelers. The watches counted the bouncing as steps and at the end of a day when we were barely out of the vehicles, total steps often were in excess of 12,000.

We encountered our first bumpy, dusty dirt road on our way from the Kilimanjaro Airport to Ngare Sero Lodge, our first home away from home. The Lodge is about 21 miles from the airport. The first 19 or so miles are on the good 2 to 4 lane T2 (Kikatiti) Road. The road provided our first glimpse into non-tourist Africa with commercial activity on both sides of the road and also agricultural fields. Shops were generally very small and constructed very differently from familiar development back home – mostly simple construction with materials at hand, adobe bricks, corrugated iron, some wood – not built for the long haul. The road was fairly busy with a mix of small cars, small trucks, jitneys, and many motorbikes. Fruits and vegetables were often being sold right at the curbside perhaps by the families that had grown them on small pieces of land. Intersections along the way were with dirt roads that headed off to small lots and small homes away from the highway. It was on one of these intersections that we left the pavement and headed off on dirt. One would not have guessed that a mile or so in, passing some very rundown looking properties we would turn onto a paved driveway and a gate that took us to our lodge – manicured lawns, beautiful plantings, a main building and lodge rooms which would be our very comfortable home for the next two nights.

All of the other members of the tour had arrived at Ngare Sero the night before, met for breakfast and had a first bird walk with VENT guide Kevin Zimmer early that morning. We arrived a bit after that first bird walk had finished and checked into our room and then walked the grounds, met some of the others and looked for some birds on our own. The first species I saw was a Red Headed Weaver, which I had previously seen in Kenya. The group reassembled and we walked around the grounds, the small pond and the little stream that were on the property. It was not the greatest look, but I quickly added my first life bird for the trip, a Taveta Golden-Weaver at its nest on some reeds in the pond. On that first walk we had a total of 41 species including additional lifers Little Sparrowhawk, Common House Martin, Kenrick’s Starling, and Gray Olive Greenbul. Some other highlights were Cindy’s first hornbills, Silvery Cheeked and Crowned, an African Fish Eagle, and a Tambourine Dove. I was happy to get several photos including of a very lovely Yellow-breasted Apalis.

Red-Headed Weaver
Taveta Golden-Weaver
Kenrick’s Starling
Gray Olive Greenbul
Common House Martin
Crowned Hornbill
Silvery Cheeked Hornbill
Tambourine Dove
Yellow-breasted Apalis
Peter’s Twinspot – Sadly Not Seen by Me

Unfortunately a species we did not see was a Peter’s Twinspot. It was high on my target list and this was the only location where it was a possibility. It had been seen by two birders briefly at breakfast and despite looking for it with many eyes and at many times later, it was not seen again. There were very few disappointments on this trip, but this was one.

After lunch and then a chance to rest, we had another bird walk on the grounds in the afternoon which added a few more species although no lifers and then after dinner we reassembled and Kevin called in an African Wood Owl. There is a resident pair at the lodge. Unfortunately I forgot to bring my camera. The male perched in the open and with Kevin’s spotlight we had great looks. I borrowed Kevin’s camera so I could say that I took a photo. I have not received a copy of that photo yet so am substituting one from online and will replace it if I get one from Kevin.

African Wood Owl

The tally for the day was 47 species with some lifers and some new photos. Missing the Twinspot hurt but I at least thought there was always tomorrow. And tomorrow meant into Arusha National Park – great birds and our first African mammals. Sleep came easily.

November – Starting and Ending with NO!

The period from late October through early December has been an amazing time for rarities at Neah Bay at the Northwestern tip of the Olympic Peninsula in home state Washington. On a Washington State level there have been at least 25 observations during this period that would be considered very rare and many of those would be considered rare even on an ABA level. If time of year is also considered and the test is whether the observation would be considered as rare on an Ebird post the list would be much longer – with 50 or 60 species meeting that test.

Consider these rare birds: Eurasian Hobby, Brambling, Rustic Bunting, Arctic Loon, Eurasian Skylark, Snowy Owl, Tufted Duck and Slaty Backed Gull. All would draw attention wherever seen. Then there are the ones that are extremely rare for Washington (and many other places) like Zone Tailed Hawk, Lucy’s Warbler, Dusky Capped Flycatcher, Eurasian Tree Sparrow, and Gray Crowned Rosy Finch. Not rare elsewhere but definitely so in Washington would be Blue Gray Gnatcatcher, Prothonotary, Hooded, Blackburnian, Tennessee and Palm Warblers, Dickcissel, Blue Grosbeak and Cattle Egret. And there are many more that would be either rare for November or rare for Western Washington etc. I have seen many of these species there – some of my best sightings in Washington.

Dusky Capped Flycatcher

In late October this year, reports from Neah Bay included Blue Gray Gnatcatcher, Tropical Kingbird, Eurasian Skylark and Palm Warbler – each of which would be a First of Year for me with the Gnatcatcher and Skylark really good birds in Washington for any year. It was time to head to Neah Bay. Birding friend Jon Houghton had the same idea and we made plans to go on November 1st not because it was the first day of the month but because it was the first day we could go. Another friend and new birder Tom St. John was also game for the trip and our plan was to catch the first ferry from Edmonds at 5:35 a.m. and to return late that night. On the ferry we met another birder Jordan Gunn who had been in the Seattle Audubon Master Birder class with Jon and me 10 years ago.

We arrived in Neah Bay just after 9 a.m. and began our birding in town along the Bay with particular attention to the creek mouth where the Palm Warbler had been seen and checking the wires hoping for the Kingbird. No luck on the Warbler but after an hour or so we finally located a Tropical Kingbird. It seems odd to have a “Tropical” anything this far north especially in November. They are common in Middle and South America with a few coming into the Southern U.S. in the Spring and summer. But every year in late October or November some juveniles travel up the Pacific Coast and some are found in Neah Bay each year. Oddly a year ago, Cindy and I were in Southern Mexico in November where they were seen almost daily.

Tropical Kingbird

There were a number of species along the beach, in the Bay and at the creek mouth. Uncommon for the area was a Marbled Godwit which we found quickly along with some Black Turnstones, Dunlin and a Western Sandpiper. The creek mouth is a favorite place for gulls to gather and we had 5 species: Short Billed, Heerman’s, Herring, Glaucous Winged and Iceland. In the Bay, there were six duck species, grebes, loons and cormorants – nothing unusual.

Marbled Godwit

Iceland Gull

We would return to this area often in the day never finding the Palm Warbler. Our next stop was near the Neah Bay Sewage Treatment Plant where the Blue Gray Gnatcatcher had been seen often in the previous few days. We found a couple of Ruby Crowned Kinglets but nothing else – a major disappointment which would be repeated on two later visits. This disappointment would be repeated on our next search – along Hobuck Beach where the Eurasian Skylark had been seen. We walked the dunes in methodical fashion covering the grasses and the sand and had no success. The Skylark was on the top of my target list. It is a mysterious rarity. As the name indicates, it is a Eurasian species. Small populations were introduced near Vancouver, B.C. and on San Juan Island in Washington. I saw one on San Juan in June 1976, before I was taking pictures. That population died out many years ago and it remains my only record in Washington. I have seen them in Vancouver twice finally getting a photo of one on May 18, 2018. That population is almost gone as well. There is a debate as to the origin of the one seen in Neah Bay. One had been seen there in the same location several years ago. Most people assume it came from the British Columbia population – not that far away. Some folks think it may have come from Siberia. Seems unlikely to me. I really wanted to get a photo of this species in Washington – one of about a dozen species I have seen here but without a photo. It was just not meant to be and as it turned out, it was not seen again after the October 31st sighting.

Eurasian Skylark – British Columbia

We visited all the “hotspots” in Neah Bay, some more than once looking for rarities or specialties – species harder to find in other areas. Although we were not trying for a big species list for the day, it is such a good location that we added them one by one or in groups. But we did not find the targeted rarities. Just as we were ending our day and getting ready to return home, we added two very nice ones: a Black Oystercatcher – a lifer for Tom and a Black Legged Kittiwake – the first of the year for Jon. I asked them how many species they thought we had seen that day. Both thought it was something around 35. I checked the lists and we had seen more than 50 and I am sure if that had been our goal, we could have gotten to 60. But the disappointments were hard and as will become clear later in this post, missing the Palm Warbler and Eurasian Skylark would become more important for me. So the month whose name starts with “No” started with yes for fun and a nice list but definitely with a “No” for the rarities missing three of them.

Black Oystercatcher

Black Legged Kittiwake

The weather remained beautiful on November 2nd and since several rarities for my home Snohomish County the previous day, I set out to find them. At the Edmonds waterfront – very near my home – I easily spotted the Brown Pelicans that had been there for two months. Then it was off to look for a Tropical Kingbird, the same rarity that we had seen in Neah Bay but regular there but seen only once or twice previously in Snohomish County. It took some doing but after moving to a second viewing spot, several of us finally relocated the Kingbird, species number 270 in Snohomish County for me. Hoping to continue the good fortune. I joined a young birder I had just met, Joey McCracken, and we moved on to the Marysville Sewage Treatment Ponds and the Ebey Waterfront Trail where two county rarities had been seen the previous day – a Harris’s Sparrow and a Franklin’s Gull. There were hundreds of Bonaparte’s Gulls. The similar Franklin’s Gull had been seen among them earlier but we were not able to locate it. Fortunately the Harris’s Sparrow was easier as it foraged along the trail.

Harris’s Sparrow – Ebey Waterfront Trail

Continuing the chase for Snohomish County Rarities, I went to Jennings Park and found Maxine Reid looking up into an oak tree. Of course she was looking at the Acorn Woodpecker that has been there for over a month. Terrible photo but a good bird – one that usually requires going to Lyle Washington on the Columbia River in Klickitat County to see. I also made stops that day at some parks near my home and at the Edmonds Waterfront. By the end of the day I had again seen more than 50 species and the total for the two days was 80 species and that’s when it hit me. I had recently finished a big Month of September with almost 240 species in Washington for the month. That was the 7th month for which I had 200 or more species in the State. I thought I might try for another Big Month in 2023 but what if I could get to 200 for November – this November. There were some complications as Cindy was off to Texas for a short trip and we would be dog-sitting for part of the month – including those days she would be away. Also it was a short month with only 30 days and then, too, there was Thanksgiving – a day when the only bird would be a Turkey, a non-countable one. Maybe more importantly there would be no pelagic trips this month – those ended in October.

I did some quick research on Ebird and concluded that it was possible to get to 200 – maybe even 210 – IF everything broke right. I had already seen some really good birds BUT I had also already missed some. Had I known, Neah Bay would have been done differently. I also would have planned day 3 differently also – heading east immediately for some of the migrating birds that had not yet departed as I had learned in Big September that every day counts in that regard. But a trip to Eastern Washington takes more planning than I had time to do – so instead I was off to familiar territory – north to Skagit County – just adding numbers. There were a couple of specific targets – somewhat rare – but mostly it was adding species that I knew (or hoped) would be there and that would have to be found if there was a chance to get to 200. The best species found were a White Throated Sparrow seen with a group of White Crowned and Golden Crowned Sparrows as is usually the case and the Northern Waterthrush that has been seen or actually heard regularly at Wylie Slough. I heard it many times, but unlike the last time I was there, there were no visuals. The last stop on the 3rd were along the Edmonds Waterfront where the only species I added for the day was a Black Scoter – not always easy to find. At the end of the day I was up to 98 species. With 27 days left, this seemed like a good start but the beginning is always the easiest.

Black Scoter

I stand by the statement that May is the easiest month to do a Big Month. Some of the wintering birds are still around early in the month and migrating birds are arriving daily. The birds are in their brilliant breeding plumages and are setting up territories and are calling and singing. Pelagic trips are leaving almost weekly adding significantly to the possibilities. And to top it off the weather is pretty good. In November on the other hand the only plus is that most, but not all of the returning wintering birds are around even if in smaller numbers early in the month. I knew all of this when I decided to go for it, but I had underestimated the impact of weather. On day 4 the weather took its toll limiting my birding time and effectiveness. I almost drowned finding the American Dipper at the Fortson Mill Ponds but could not find a Red Breasted Sapsucker there or on nearby C-Post Roads – my go to spot. Black Turnstones are relatively easy to find in Washington, but Ruddy Turnstones are very rare. The one that has been seen fairly regularly at Tulalip Bay was my main target for the day – a “need” even more than a “want”. In heavy rain I found the Ruddy on the log booms in the Tulalip Marina – one of only five species added that day. I was more than half way, but some challenges were ahead.

A series of personal obligations limited my birding on the 5th to about 90 minutes at the Edmonds Waterfront and two local parks – just looking for “sure things” that were only “sure” when they cooperated – present, but not necessarily accounted for – like the Pileated Woodpeckers at Pine Ridge Park that were silent and invisible. Fortunately a Hermit Thrush was a bit more cooperative, a heard only checkmark – number 111 for the month. There were two birds that were clearly on top of my list for November 6th – a Seahawk and a Cardinal – watching our surprising NFL team who came through and thumped the Arizona Cardinals. Thankfully another bird made its appearance. I got a call from Jon Houghton in the morning before the game and was able to rush down to the waterfront and quickly found both Jon and the Surfbirds that he had called about. They are seen at the Edmonds breakwater irregularly. This day there were 15 of them, more than I have ever seen there – and then they were gone later – timing is everything. #112 for the month.

Surfbird

March 7 was the day Cindy was off to Texas to visit some high school girl friends. I would be alone with two dogs for the next 4 days. And this day also meant chauffeuring duties to get her to the airport. You can translate those two sentences to mean not much birding this day – just a single stop at the Everett Sewage Ponds after the airport and before heading home for dog duty. Our lab Chica is not the best traveler in the car – whining when she feels it is time for her to get some attention. Our guest dog Frankie is a much better traveler and is a calming influence on Chica. Time for an experiment. I loaded them into the car early and set out for the Coast – birding for me and romping around for them. The weather cooperated and it worked out pretty well – except for the camera – more on that later. I built in plenty of stops for the doggies to run around.

The first was at Weyerhauser Pond where there were no Redheads – just two Coots and a Domestic Muscovy Duck.

The next was the Bishop Athletic Complex in Aberdeen where I had one Snow Goose among my first Greater White Fronted and Cackling Geese. for the month.

Next at the Tokeland Marina they romped after I saw Willets and the Bar Tailed Godwit among the 150+ Marbled Godwits. It was super windy making it difficult to search for a Clark’s Grebe among the scattered Western Grebes. All three of the above Geese were there as well and I also added a Red Throated Loon for the month. A surprise there was a single Eared Grebe.

Marbled Godwit and Willet at Tokeland Marina

The dogs were super well-behaved roaming along Fisher Ave while I scoped Graveyard Spit. Shorebirds there included Dunlin, and Western Sandpipers and two contrasting studies. The first was a single and surprising Snowy Plover among numerous Sanderlings. Both looked very white at first with one being clearly smaller. A scope view showed the gray brown back and the so- called broken collar for the Snowy. The other pair included a Red Knot mixed in with the Black Bellied Plovers – all plumper than the other shorebirds but the plovers were larger and shorter billed than the Knot which also was much more horizontal as opposed to the more vertical plovers. A great stop.

We drove onto the open beach at Grayland. The dogs got two chances to run and fetch and I got a lot of shorebirds, a small group of American Pipits and a Lapland Longspur. Some estimates (all probably low): 150 Black Bellied Plovers, 8 Semipalmated Plovers. 170 Sanderling, 250 Least Sandpipers, 30 Western Sandpipers and AT LEAST 5000 Dunlin. The Dunlin were amazing – one group of several thousand and several smaller groups of more than a hundred each plus scattered small groups. There were also numerous really pure Western Gulls. No more doggie stops as they slept most of the way home, but I had one more good observation – two Great Egrets visible from the highway just past Monte Brady Road. All told another 16 species for the month – now at 132 and trying to figure a way to go for 200.

Semipalmated Plover – Grayland Beach

Oh yeah the camera frustration. There were lots of details needed to take the dogs (water, food, treats, poop backs, leashes, bowls, towels) and dealing with those I forgot my good camera. Only had back-up SX70 and an SD card with a VERY low capacity – room for only 8 photos. I had to continuously delete photos as something else popped up. One erroneous deletion was of the Bar Tailed Godwit. Thought I had deleted the Willet but blew it. (I have great pictures from our first sighting of it back on September 12, but plumage is even more distinct now.)

The trip with the dogs had worked out pretty well but now Greg was coming back and would be picking up Frankie. It meant I had only a half day for birding. Canvasbacks were reported at Tracy Owen Log Boom Park with a single Redhead with them. I found the flock of Canvasbacks pretty easily but it took a lot of doing to pick out the Redhead as the group was pretty far out. There are usually Common Mergansers at the Park. I found one and also added a Eurasian Wigeon so 4 new duck species for the month to get to 136. I would need a good trip the next day in Eastern Washington to stay on pace. Cindy would be back the day following but I could take Chica with me on this trip.

As is usually the case, my first stop in Eastern Washington was at Bullfrog Pond in Kittitas County – although not at the pond itself but at the road just past it that leads to restrooms (now closed). Even with the dogs running around I was able to find three nuthatch species – Red and White Breasted and Pygmy, the latter two new for November. I did not even bring out the camera as I needed both hands free for Chica and Frankie. I was hoping for a late Cassin’s Finch at this spot but no luck. Following my normal routine, I next went to the Norther Pacific Railroad Ponds in South Cle Elum after driving past the still seedless (and birdless) feeder across from the Cle Elum Ranger Station where I have had Evening Grosbeaks before. At the ponds I added Mountain Chickadee and Varied Thrush for the month. All of these species were “must get” (Group 1) in my projections for the Big Month. So that was good, but a surprise something else would have been even better,

White Headed Woodpecker was in Group 2 in my planning. I calculated that I needed 80% of that group so the woodpecker was important. It had been reported regularly at the Swauk Cemetery. It is always a bit eerie birding at cemeteries but there are many Birding Hotspots around the country that are at cemeteries where the trees are perfect habitats. It was a beautiful day and I thought I heard a White Headed Woodpecker calling, but it turned out to be another White Breasted Nuthatch with an unusual call. Again I found all three nuthatches – this time with camera ready. I would have traded them all for a White Headed Woodpecker.

Pygmy, Red Breasted and White Headed Nuthatches

I had birded at the cemetery before but it was not on my regular route. The same was true for my next destination, Robinson Canyon where a number of new species were possible. It was also a place where the doggies could run free for awhile. On the way I added California Quail, Black Billed Magpie, Merlin and Purple Finch. At Robinson Canyon there was snow and as I drove into the canyon, birds flushed from the road. They were Varied Thrushes – except for a much larger one that was a much appreciated Sooty Grouse.

Varied Thrush in the Snow at Robinson Canyon

It was 11:30 and normally I would have continued on for several more stops including crossing the Columbia and birding in Grant County. but I did not bring food for Chica and needed to get back to Edmonds around 4:00 pm. I figured I had time to bird at Rocky Coulee in Vantage where I hoped for (and needed) Rock and Canyon Wrens. I had both there in September and it is a good place for both. Alas it was not to be. No wrens at all but in the “migrant trap” camping/picnic area at Rocky Coulee I did add a Townsend’s Solitaire, my 10th new species for the day and #146 for the month. That was the good news, but missing the wrens and the White Headed Woodpecker and one or two “something elses” was disappointing.

Cindy was back, so I was a free agent again, but an honest assessment of the numbers did not look good even through it was only November 11th and I needed “only” another 54 species – fewer than 3 a day. A Black Oystercatcher had shown up at Tulalip Bay – a very rare bird for Snohomish County. Not optimistic about 200 for the month I decided to chase the Oystercatcher and then continue north maybe adding some new species for November as well. The Oystercatcher proved easy to find – especially since David Poortinga was looking at it through his scope when I arrived. I told him about my Big Month attempt and as I was leaving he knocked on my window and asked if I needed a Pileated Woodpecker. I did. Just as I got my camera on the distant bird, it flew off – unmistakable, countable but hardly satisfying. I drove up to the area where it had been. I never saw it again but heard it several times – good enough for #147. Then it was back to the Marysville STP to find a Cinnamon Teal that I had missed on my earlier visit. I found it but the Franklin’s Gull that was also missed was no longer there.

I continued on to Semiahmoo Spit in Whatcom County – a good place for Long Tailed Duck. I found only two that flew by and never landed. Surprisingly I also had a flock of 35 Brant. This small goose is regularly found along the Edmonds Waterfront and can often be seen from my home. But they had not arrived yet so this was a good add to the list.

Short Eared Owls had been reported at the North Fork Access on Fir Island my last stop for the day. There were 3 owls and at least twice that many photographers. They never got close but I got some photos of them and also of a Ring Necked Pheasant – or at least so I thought. When I checked photos later at home I found that the SD card was defective and none of the pictures could be opened. I did not care so much about the Brant and Owls but having one of the Oystercatcher – species #270 for Snohomish County – would have been great. I reformatted the SD card and it now seems ok. The six new species brought the running total to 152. I was feeling “iffy” at best.

In any pursuit of a goal with a plan, there need to be changes pursuant to changing circumstances. There are also always choices to be made. Two of the challenges in this time delimited undertaking were balancing the pursuit of what were perceived as “easy” birds with the pursuit of “difficult” birds which in turn was complicated by the second challenge, the need to balance shorter trips with longer trips. Big Months in Washington require many kinds of trips including ones to relatively distant places like Walla Walla County, Tri-Cities, the Okanogan, Clark County, Neah Bay and possibly Spokane or even Pend Oreille Counties. Some of these distant trips really need to be for more than one day to be effective especially as the shortening days of the year leave fewer hours for birding. Another complication was that “easy” species were found only on those distant places as well, and particularly further into the month now, many of the more “difficult” species that were nearby had already been found. It was decision time. Continue to look for the “easy” ones closer by or make the longer trips to both go for the “easy” ones found only in those distant places as well as chasing some of the rarer ones in those locations as well. At least in theory, there were more new species available in distant places compared to the dwindling numbers nearby. In deciding what to do next, I figured it would be impossible to get to 200 if I could not find those “theoretically easy” ones close by, and if I could not find them, there was no point in making the increased investment to go further afield for multiple days.

All of that was a roundabout way of saying that on November 12th I decided to again stay closer to home and see if I could get some of those “easy” species that were essential to ultimate success. It was down to the 212th Street Ponds in Kent, Washington where I was hoping for American Bittern, Green Heron and possibly Black Phoebe which had been seen there in the past (including by me in March 2022) but not recently. Again it was one step forward and one step backwards. A Green Heron flushed from the northwest corner of the ponds as I approached. I found a Hairy Woodpecker in the trees surrounding the ponds and a Lincoln’s Sparrow called from one of the the thickets. Three new species but no Bittern and no Phoebe. Next I went to Juanita Bay Park – where Wilson’s Snipe are “guaranteed”. The water level of Lake Washington was higher than usual and the mud where the Snipe hang out was non-existent. Without Snipe and a Bittern this was going to be a complete loss for the day and perhaps one more nail into the coffin. I checked Ebird reports and found that Snipe had been reported at the park the previous day. Maybe they were at a different spot. I walked out on the long path at the north end of the park and there they were, at least 4 of them probing the mud with their long bills and posing nicely. In the trees on the other side of the path, I heard a familiar call – Hutton’s Vireo – not an easy species on my targets list. My last effort for the day was scanning treetops in neighborhoods where I have had Band Tailed Pigeons in the past – no luck – so the day ended with 5 new species – a couple of misses, a couple of hits and some add-ons that helped enough to keep hopes up.

Wilson’s Snipe – Juanita Bay Park

In my original planning, the only birds on Sunday November 12th were going to be Seahawks – watching the game between the Seahawks and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in Munich, the first ever NFL game in Germany. It did not go so well. After several good games in a row, the Seahawks were both outplayed and outcoached by the Buccaneers and still almost won. This being football and not horseshoes, however, close is not good enough. The only good news was that the game was very early in the morning and that enabled me to go over to Marymoor Park in Redmond after the game chasing two King County rarities that would both be new for the month as well. Once I got to the right area, it took all of 5 seconds to find the Horned Lark. It took another 15 minutes to find the Clay Colored Sparrow that had moved further afield than where it was originally reported but still pretty close by. The Lark was one of those “easy” birds on my list – but only in the right area in Eastern Washington. The Sparrow was a rarity – at most a “maybe” if the one reported the previous week in Neah Bay remained. The two additions brought me to 159 for the month and were sufficient encouragement to head back to Neah Bay the next day. The Clay Colored Sparrow was species #258 for King County.

Clay Colored Sparrow – Marymoor Park

I previously explained how Neah Bay is such an incredible place for rarities in addition to the specialties that are regularly found there. It was the great trip there on the first of the month that had started this crazy project in the first place. At the time I had felt bad about missing some rarities there but had not realized how those misses might come back to haunt me. This second trip had some similar aspects as in addition to continued appearances by the Blue Gray Gnatcatcher that I had missed earlier, two new rarities had been seen – a Rusty Blackbird and a very late Bullock’s Oriole. The latter two were projected as highly unlikely in my original planning. It took five visits to the “Gnatcatcher Spot” to finally find it. The earlier visits had essentially been birdless. I also made numerous visits to the spot where the Rusty Blackbird had been seen “easily” the previous day and where the Oriole had been found. I found neither. It helped my feelings only a little that nobody else reported either species again – a day late and a dollar short, so to speak.

Blue Gray Gnatcatcher – Neah Bay – Fifth Time Was the Charm

On the way to Neah Bay, I had flushed a Ruffed Grouse along the Pysht River and in the Bay itself, I finally found a Pacific Loon among many Common Loons. On one trip to Butler’s Motel looking for the Oriole and Blackbird a small accipiter flew overhead and disappeared into trees across from the motel. I could not find it perched but by its small size, it was clearly a male Sharp Shinned Hawk, new for the month and one of those “easy” species that are only “easy” when one finds you. A much harder bird to find was a Swamp Sparrow. They are regularly found along Backtrack Road along the Wa’atch River but are very secretive and are generally located only by their metallic chip notes. I found one in much the same spot where I have had them a few times in the past. It is a long drive (and ferry ride) to get back home from Neah Bay and with the now shorter days, there was not time to try for Snow Buntings at Ediz Hook in Port Angeles where some had been reported. The day ended with 5 new species for the month – just ok and once again two rarities had been missed. Given that there would be no birding on Thanksgiving – unfortunately only Wild Turkey was countable – I was essentially half way through the month. With 164 species seen, that seemed pretty good. If I could bird another 14 days, I would need to average just over 2.5 new species each day to hit the target. There would be no room for misses.

Tuesday November 15th was one of those days where changed plans were a positive and yet not. I was scheduled to give a program on Birds of Ecuador to our Condominium Community. It would be the fifth birding program for me but only the second in the Post-Covid period which meant it would be given to both a live audience in our Club Room Theater and also via zoom to a larger audience. The last program I had given, with a similar two audience approach, had a live group of over 20 and another 50 or so online. In the end it went very well, but there had been a number of technical challenges and glitches along the way as we struggled to be able to access the internet both for the zoom audience and to play some imbedded videos. The person who had handled the technical details in the end made it successful, but we found out only early Tuesday that she would not be able to help. The plan had been to have a practice run through early in the day with the program in the evening. That would leave no time for birding anywhere other than a close-in location. We ended up canceling the program with new date to be determined. Had I known earlier, I would either have stayed in Neah Bay and environs another day or instead of Neah Bay would have gone on a multi-day trip to Eastern Washington. Oh well. Too late to set off elsewhere on Tuesday I returned to the 212th Street Ponds in Kent trying again for an American Bittern which had been reported there on Monday with a follow-up visit to the Theler Wetlands in Mason County trying for a Pectoral Sandpiper that had been there for more than a week.

I was able to find an American Bittern at the 212th Street Ponds but despite being joined by another birder at the Wetlands who was also looking for the Pectoral Sandpiper and knew the area well, we did not find it. Granted that this was a day that originally was not going to be available for any birding, still it was a big disappointment to not add the Sandpiper as it was one of those uncommon species that was on my “got to get it list”. The Bittern was species #165 but opportunities to get to 200 were falling off the target list too frequently. When I got home I reassessed real chances to succeed and concluded that unless some new birds showed up in the state, I would have to make several long trips and be lucky to get to even 198 species and very very lucky to get to 200. I was ready to call it quits. THEN…

THEN…Back home, I got a chance to look at some photos of a sparrow I had taken at the 212th Street Ponds. It had struck me as “different” but after a couple of distant shots, it had disappeared in vegetation near the ponds. If I had not been so focused on the “next target” on my 200 list, I may have spent more time either chasing it further or at least going over the photos carefully. Actually I should have done so regardless of those other considerations. At home, significantly magnified I discovered I had found an American Tree Sparrow. Quite rare although regular for King County, it was on my list as a “maybe” on a couple of distant locations in Eastern Washington. It did not really make up for missing the Pectoral Sandpiper but it provided just enough of a boost to my spirits to stay with the project. 166 species and counting.

American Tree Sparrow – 212th Street Ponds

Not feeling at all confident but still hanging on to “maybe”, I got up early the next morning and headed south to Clark County. There were three species that I absolutely needed to find if there would continue to be any chance for 200 species in November and a couple of other possibilities. The three “must haves” were all potentially to be found at Ridgefield National Wildlife Refuge: Black Phoebe, Sandhill Crane and Red Shouldered Hawk. When I had last been to the Refuge as part of my Big September I had not needed the Red Shouldered Hawk because I had seen one at the 204th Street Pond in Kent but had needed the other two and found them both there and also added a Barn Owl. That was just as well since I did not see a Red Shouldered Hawk there then. As soon as I got to the Refuge I heard the distinct clattering of Sandhill Cranes. (Later I would see many more at the Refuge and even more elsewhere.) One down and two to go. At the pullout leading to the blind is a spot I have often at least heard Red Shouldered Hawks. Today would be another such time, as one was calling as I parked and then flew out over the marsh. A second one called from a group of trees across the autoroute from there. Now for a Phoebe. As I walked out to the blind I had the Merlin Sound recognition app on and fairly quickly it registered a “Black Phoebe“. A few moments later I heard the call myself and then with some doing finally found one barely in the open – not great light or a great photo, but pretty nice to get target #3 so quickly. On the way out of the Refuge I watched a Great Blue Heron stalking something in the field, after a lightning fast strike it came up with a small rodent. Within seconds, it was swallowed.

Sandhill Crane – Ridgefield NWR

Black Phoebe – Ridgefield NWR

Great Blue Heron with Rodent – Swallowed Immediately thereafter

There were three other possibilities on this trip: American White Pelican, Great Horned Owl and Lesser Goldfinch. All were possible and possibly more likely elsewhere, but I was at the stage where every species found meant not having to look for it at another time or place. The goldfinches were not at the one public spot where I might have found them (and have in the past) and I did not find a Great Horned Owl at two places where they had been reported in the last week or so. At American Lake I did find American White Pelicans – a group of five at one spot and then a large flock of maybe 70 at another – all distant but impossible to miss as large white forms in the lake. If this had been later in my pursuit and if I had tried for them and missed them in Eastern Washington, I would have spent more time looking for the Lesser Goldfinches – probably needing to visit some private feeders.

And then there was something else. If things had been different, I may have continued on to Klickitat County and into Eastern Washington for a longer trip, but something had happened that morning that changed everything. Since I had departed early that morning, Cindy had dog walking responsibilities after her morning training workout. It was cold and a little icy and she slipped on some black ice. She landed on her butt and also hurt her shoulder. There had not been plans to continue on, maybe a stop at Nisqually NWR on the way home, but now I needed to get back. I returned home with the count at 170 species and had to seriously confront the future. At most there were 13 more birding days left and with 30 species to go I was still on pace IF I could get 2.5 species on average each day. The problem was that there were not that many places to go where I could count on even two or more new species. Each day would be critical. And frankly it did not look very positive. Now with Cindy hurting, I felt it was time to stop. Cindy had been able to get to her clinic and had x-rays taken. The good news was that nothing was broken. The bad news was that the shoulder seemed to be pretty bad. She could not get an MRI until the following Wednesday.

Cindy had been encouraging and supportive throughout my month of birding as she had been on all of my birding ventures. Snow Buntings had been seen for several days at Crockett Lake on Whidbey Island and from there I could take the ferry across Puget Sound to Port Townsend. Chances were pretty good to find Ancient Murrelets either on the ferry crossing or at Point Wilson in Port Townsend with a long shot chance for a couple of other species. If my project was to continue, that would be an option for the next day. I thought it best to just stop. Cindy thought I should go as there was nothing we could do about her shoulder that day. She is as good as they come.

With mixed feelings, after walking the dog early, on November 17th I was on a ferry leaving Mukilteo for Clinton on Whidbey Island. Thirty minutes after disembarking I was at Crockett Lake and checked and rechecked Ebird reports trying to figure out where the “viewing platform” was as the gravel road near it was where the Snow Buntings had been seen. I finally found what had to be the right spot and first drove and then walked the roads near it and also the dunes and log piles. All were great habitat areas for Snow Buntings (and possibly Lapland Longspurs) but I could not find any. All of the other reports made it sound like you just drove up and there they were, so I worried that maybe they had left. After at least 40 minutes I retraced steps and at the very end of the gravel road away from the platform ( a small raised area that might be a platform but was hardly good for viewing), I saw some white specks on the gravel. I got some very distant photos of what were clearly three Snow Buntings and then as I approached, they flew off – first over the dunes and then landing on the road fairly near the so-called platform. I stalked them taking photos along the way. The light had a beautiful golden glow – not perfect for photos at least with the white balance setting I had – but way better than the fog that might have been there. Snow Buntings had been one of the species that was projected as “likely but not certain” in my initial planning but was expected to be seen, if at all, in Eastern Washington.

Snow Bunting – Crockett Lake, Whidbey Island

The Snow Buntings were not actually at Crockett Lake but in the beachy area across the road that leads to the ferry terminal. Over the years I have had a number of great birds at Crockett Lake itself which has been especially good for shorebirds. My three best species there have been White Wagtail (January 1984), Red Necked Stint (July 2017) and Hudsonian Godwit (August 2019). Thirty seven shorebird species have been reported there.

Red Necked Stint – Crockett Lake – July 2017

Crockett Lake is essentially across the road from the ferry terminal for the Whidbey Island/port Townsend Ferry. My timing was pretty good and I was on the ferry heading west within 20 minutes of leaving the Snow Buntings. It was an almost windless day and the crossing was smooth in good light. I positioned myself outside on the second level of the ferry and watched for birds, hoping first and foremost for Ancient Murrelets among the other species in the Sound, mostly seen in flight. Unless they are pretty close or sitting on the water, the Murrelets can be a pretty tough ID separating them especially from the usually far more numerous Common Murres. It is not really possible to effectively use a spotting scope with the vibration and movement of the ferry even in calm weather. Fortunately though the light was behind me making it easy to see birds in flight, usually low on the water, dark forms or flashing black and white. I did not see as many birds as I expected on the crossing, but fortunately at least two of them were Ancient Murrelets. Other alcids were Common Murres and Pigeon Guillemots.

Ancient Murrelet – Keystone Port Townsend Ferry

Common Murre – Keystone Port Townsend Ferry

Even though I had good views and a picture of the targeted Ancient Murrelet from the ferry crossing, I continued on to Point Wilson at Fort Flagler and did a seawatch for about an hour. Not nearly as many individuals as other times I have been there but I had at least a dozen Ancient Murrelets, a couple of Marbled Murrelets, Common Murres, Pigeon Guillemots and Rhinoceros Auklets. I guess a Tufted Puffin was possible, but that was a good list of alcids. Later I went into the forested area behind the fort buildings where I have birded before and found the other species I had hoped for there, Red Crossbills, a group of at least 4 feeding on the abundant cone crop – too high for photos but noisy and good binocular views. I returned home via the Edmonds Kingston ferry and tried to again realistically look at possibilities to get to 200. My conclusion was that reaching that total would be very difficult at best. Executive decision time.

Cindy of course said to completely disregard her and go for it regardless. I could not disregard her but independently made the decision to call it off. NOT because of her situation but because I had not done well enough to feel good about getting there even without this new development. Then, too, even though Cindy could get by without my assistance, I wanted to be there for her as she has always been there for me. On the 18th Cindy somehow convinced a doctor at the same practice group where she had her knee replacements done to see her NOW!! He was pretty certain that she had a significant rotator cuff tear and scheduled an MRI for the next Monday. The MRI clearly showed a tear that was going to require surgery and the earliest that could be scheduled was December 9th. We got into countdown mode and that included the decision that we HAD to preserve that surgery date if there was any chance of keeping our trip to Tanzania scheduled for mid-February 2023 alive. Reluctantly Cindy agreed to full quarantine in our condo until the surgery date and I am now returning to fully masking everywhere I go. We also cancelled several parties and events. Even though fully vaccinated, we simply cannot risk ANY possibility of COVID before the 9th. Postponing the surgery would almost certainly mean we could not make it to Africa.

So there is NO longer a Big NOvember. The count got to 173 and that is where it ended. Now it is the end of the month and I can look back and wonder and look back and see what I missed and when and how things might have been different.

POSTSCRIPT — WHAT IF’s – Looking Back/Ahead

Especially at times like this with birds migrating out and others migrating in, timing can be everything. There are so many birders out in the field ranging from barely beginners to real experts that birds are reported all through the month and from all over the state. As examination of the Ebird reports showed, many of the species reported during the month were seen by only a single observer (or maybe two birding together) on a single occasion, never to be seen again. According to Ebird, 257 species were seen in Washington this November. Yikes – that means I missed 84 species!! I must be terrible at planning if not actual birding. But hold on there – I took a closer look and it’s interesting.

Of those 83 species, 6 were not really open to be found by mere mortals. They were found only on an offshore survey vessel – the closest to a pelagic trip for the month. Now we are down to 77 – and deducting…

For another 16 of those species there was only a single observation – one bird seen by one person or perhaps by 2 birding together. Most but not necessarily all of these observations are well-documented – who knows. So deduct them and we are down to 61.

Five of the observations were made on the first two days of the month and then not again. I wasn’t thinking “Big Month” until after that – so too late to find them in any event. Now down to 56.

Finally at least 11 of the remaining species were not reported until after November 17th – the last day I was still in the game. Take those away and 83 becomes 41 – or less. I cannot be exact but at least 35 of those were still on my “target list” when I hung it up.

As acknowledged throughout this blog post, I had lots of misses and it was those misses that were most in mind for my calculus that continuing after November 17th was not a good plan. Those misses included: Palm Warbler, Bullock’s Oriole, Eurasian Skylark, Franklin’s Gull, Pectoral Sandpiper, Band Tailed Pigeon, Canyon Wren, Rock Wren, Great Horned Owl, Red Breasted Sapsucker, Rusty Blackbird, White Headed Woodpecker, and Spotted Sandpiper.

Excuses, excuses, excuses… sort of, but moreso it is looking back like this that helps me plan for other undertakings. IF and it is a BIG IF, I had continued to push for 200 after November 17th, I think I would have had a reasonable chance to get 6 of the species not seen by others until after that date. Of the 35 that were still on my target list, maybe I could have gotten 22 of them. Add those two numbers to my 173 and BINGO – 201 species for the month. Yes, but, it would have meant birding every day except Thanksgiving and trips to Walla Walla, Spokane, Pacific County, Clark County, Okanogan County and elsewhere. That is what should be involved in a Big Month – Big dedication – birding everyday and travelling all over the state. It is doable.

ANOTHER SLICE – Ebird allows you to slice and dice your data in many ways. When I put together a list of all of the species I have seen in any November – over the entirety of my birding career – it told me I had seen 220 species – so 47 more than I saw this year. It was interesting to me that sort of cycling back to what I had written in the beginning of this blog post, was that more than half of those 47 species are real rarities – not even on my target list for the venture. This group included among others: Orchard and Hooded Orioles, Zone Tailed Hawk, Painted Bunting, Tennessee, Black Throated Blue, Hooded and Lucy’s Warblers, Steller’s and King Eiders, Snowy and Cattle Egrets, Snowy and Northern Hawk Owls, Black Headed Gull, Dusky Capped Flycatcher, Emperor Goose and Mountain Plover. Only one or two of these species were seen this November. They are species that would be proud additions to any Washington birder’s life list –anytime, forget November. Fully 14 of them were State Lifers for me – many at Neah Bay. So at least rarities-wise maybe this wasn’t such a great month to Go Big!!

That’s all folks – cannot leave without acknowledging that this has been a failure – the first time I have set a goal and missed. Not a good feeling, but while I do not undertake a project to fail and expect to succeed, it is not crossing the goal but the journey to get there that makes these ventures worthwhile. As in ALL previous “projects”, there were wonderful moments with good people, in great places and with great birds. May not do another Big November, but there will be other projects ahead. Right now the project is helping Cindy in every way I can – helping us get to Tanzania and beyond.

Closing Out a Big Month – the Last 9 Days of September

September 22 – East Again

Cindy was back home. I had a clear bill of health after my check up and was as protected against Covid as I could be. I had passed 200 species for the month sitting at 209. The long range forecast was good for my pelagic trip on September 26th. I had gone back to the drawing board and looked at potential species to be added and set new goals. 225 looked really good and there was a shot at 235 or maybe more. Time to go birding.

My friend Deb Essman in Ellensburg knew I was still looking for a Great Horned Owl and for Cassin’s Finch. The former had been roosting fairly regularly near her home and she was up for another trip up Coleman Canyon in her jeep where we had had Cassin’s Finches and Williamson’s Sapsuckers in August. Tom St. John was up for another Eastern Washington trip, so we headed East on Thursday morning again stopping at Bullfrog Pond and again being underwhelmed with the birds there. Nothing new so it was off to Deb’s. First things first Tom had to pose with “the Bear”. Over the years many friends have accompanied me to visit and bird with Deb. A photo with the bearskin on her pool table is a rite of passage. Tom is now a member of the club.

Tom St. John and Friend

We pored over the brushy trees nearby looking for the Great Horned Owl. I have seen one with Deb many times including in her front yard – not today. And I will get this out of the way quickly as well – no Cassin’s Finches at Cooke or Coleman Canyons. And I would see neither the rest of the month either – near the top of the list of disappointments. It was a gorgeous day again though and we had some nice birds including Tom’s lifer Lewis’s Woodpecker, some new for the month Red Crossbills, some unexpected American Pipits and some bright male Mountain Bluebirds. When we got out of the car to check out the Crossbills, two Sharp Shinned Hawks flew by, cartwheeled and flew by again – my first for September. Tom was in the back of the jeep, usually the seat with the worst view, yet it was Tom who spotted the Sooty Grouse next to the road. They posed just long enough for a photo of one and then flushed 1,2, 3. So no Cassin’s Finches but I had added three nice species to the September list.

Mountain Bluebird
Sooty Grouse

On the way back we made one stop – Irene Rhinehart Park where an Eastern Kingbird or Bullock’s Oriole was at least a possibility. We had a very cooperative Pileated Woodpecker but nothing else of any note. Still at this stage adding 3 species for September felt pretty good and 212 sounded good. Eight more days to go.

Pileated Woodpecker

September 23 – Birding the Coast before the Pelagic Trip

Foregoing the Ocean Shores side of the Coast my first stop was at Bottle Beach about 10 miles north of Westport. Birding at Bottle Beach is highly dependent on the tides – best to bird on an incoming tide and as it is a very flat, that can mean getting there 2 or more hours before high tide. I arrived about 9 a.m. with the high tide set for just before noon. When I hit the mudflat area, the water was way out but with the scope I could see lots of shorebirds at the edge in all directions but particularly south. I usually just walk straight out from where the path from the parking area hits the flats, but being early I headed further south than I usually go. It was unfortunately a very gray day and visibility was pretty poor. There were many dozen Black Bellied Plovers and hundreds of peeps – Western and Least Sandpipers. The birds were actively feeding and moving around quite a bit. One of the plovers was smaller and “golden”. I was able to make it out as a Pacific Golden Plover – new for the month. I tried to get closer for a photo but as the tide came in the plovers all flew north past me and joined others further away.

For the next 2 hours I played hide and seek with the ever changing flocks. I estimated close to 250 Black Bellied Plovers, many hundreds of both Western and Least Sandpipers. A flock of 50 Marbled Godwits made a brief appearance and then headed towards Westport – perhaps to join the huge flock that hands out near the Coast Guard Station there. Two Whimbrels fed for awhile and I was able to pick out at least two Dunlin – a bit larger than the peeps with their longer slightly decurved bills. I did not see any Baird’s Sandpipers although they could easily have been in the mass of peeps. I first heard and then saw a flock of presumably Short Billed Dowitchers. I never found the Golden Plover again. Returning to the parking area I had a Lincoln’s Sparrow calling and appearing briefly and a seemingly late Common Yellowthroat.

Lincoln’s Sparrow

After Bottle Beach, I went past Westport and again drove onto the open beach at Bonge Road. It would have been nice to get a good look at a Semipalmated Plover and I definitely wanted a Snowy Plover but as before I found neither. I went back to Tokeland where the flock of Marbled Godwits had grown to at least 200 and now there were 17 Willets and 2 Whimbrels and the Bar Tailed Godwit was harder to find but still present. I have often seen Greater White Fronted Geese at Tokeland but not this time – another species I thought would be easy for September but was never seen. Time to go to Westport itself where from the jetty overlook I found my first Pacific Loon for the month along with 5 Common Loons. I drove the beach again and again no plovers – just was not meant to be.

Bar Tailed Godwit – With Barred Tail

I scanned the rocky outcroppings for rockpipers but found none. Maybe we would have better luck on the Westport jetty returning from the pelagic trip tomorrow. It was clearer than it had been earlier in the day and there was little if any wind, so things looked good for that trip. I had added only two species for the day both Pacific Loon and Golden Plover – so I was now at 214 species. I thought that at least 10 species would be added on the pelagic trip and if it was an historic trip, as many as 20 new species were possible. This late in the year the boat leaves the dock a bit later than in the summer so I did not need to be at the dock until 6:15. Since I was staying in town that meant I could “sleep in” until 5:30 – no problem.

September 24 – Pelagic Birding

A number of the recent pelagic trips had encountered significant fog. It was clear when we boarded the M.V. Monte Carlo greeted by Captain Phil Anderson and First Mate Chris Anderson. Phil said it looked like calm seas and not much wind and there were a number of fishing boats working which is usually a great place to find massed birds. It looked like a great trip. Indeed it was smooth going and we crossed the bar without discomfort. The regular cast of characters were seen on the way out to deeper waters but it seemed a little slower than usual and it also seemed to take longer than usual to find our first true pelagic species, Sooty Shearwater. A bit later we had our first Pink Footed Shearwater and then some Short Tailed Shearwaters. We could see fishing boats ahead and Captain Phil steered the boat to them. The problem was that the fog we had avoided at the beginning of the trip was now challenging us. It never got really bad but it also never go really good either – an added burden to finding, watching and definitely photographing the birds.

I had been on many pelagic trips before and while they follow a general pattern, they are all different. The ocean is really big and the birds cover a lot of territory. There are some species that are seen every or almost every trip, although in differing numbers and closer or further away from the boat. Others are more variable and a species seen one day may be missed the next. Birds may gather in the dozens, hundreds or even thousands near the fishing boats – a great mix of species and great hunting ground for the pelagic trips. Best views are generally had at “chum stops” where Phil throws fish parts off the stern attracting feeding birds in close or when an oil slick (vegetable oil) is put out and the wind carries the smell to foraging birds that come in to explore and in the process become visual attractors to bring in other birds.

There are always three spotters on each trip who are expert at seeing and identifying the birds – often at great distance. A problem/challenge is that a bird seen by a spotter (or a birder) at the bow may not be visible to birders at the stern and the same applies to birds on starboard and port sides. They attempt to get the word out to everyone but sometimes the birds do not cooperate and are gone in an instant. Other times Phil is able to maneuver the boat to follow a good sighting giving everyone a chance for a view. I am not going to try to relate the sightings sequentially. Some were seen in small groups or alone and either right after another or 30 minutes later. It is not until the boat is out in deep waters (30 or 35 miles) out that many of the pelagic birds are found. There are quiet times but without warning a good species may appear out of nowhere, so best to be constantly on alert.

With that introduction, here are the species we saw that were new for the month for me: Sooty, Short Tailed, Pink Footed, Buller’s and Manx Shearwaters. The Buller’s is not seen until at least mid-August and is a key target on these late year trips. The Manx Shearwater is pretty rare – always a great find. Continuing the list: Northern Fulmar, Black Footed Albatross, Fork Tailed Storm Petrel, Sabine’s and Herring Gulls, Cassin’s Auklet; Pomarine and Parasitic Jaegers, and South Polar Skua. Some birders also saw an Arctic Tern but I did not and was unaware that it had been seen. That made 14 new species for the month – a good trip and the total for the month was now . The biggest surprise on the trip was the small number of Black Footed Albatross seen – a total of 3 – by far the fewest I have ever seen – with them sometimes numbering more than 100. More disappointing was that several other trips in September also had the much rarer Laysan Albatross. In addition to the Arctic Tern that I missed, the only other species that were good possibilities on the trip but not seen were Long Tailed Jaeger, Flesh Footed Shearwater, Common Tern and Leach’s Storm Petrel. Anything else would have been extraordinarily rare.

I had not taken my good camera on this trip to the coast, only my back up Canon SX70 Zoom – one of the reasons for no shorebird photos the previous day. [It was an experiment and one that did not work so well.] That and the fog also meant fewer photos than usual on this trip. Making matters worse, there was some glitch on the SD card I used and a lot of the photos could not be “read” – a complete mystery. Here are some of the photos that did come out (and some I took from an earlier trip).

Brown Pelican
Northern Fulmar – Light Phase
Pomarine Jaeger
Buller’s Shearwater
Short Tailed Shearwater
Sabine’s Gull – From an Earlier Trip
Black Footed Albatross – from Earlier Trip
South Polar Skua

Sunday September 25 – No birding – Sister’s Birthday

Monday September 26 – Mount Rainier

The last few years I have gone to Sunrise at Mount Rainier specifically to look for a Boreal Owl. Up until last year this had been successful to at least hear the owl. There was a brief distant visual but no photo joining Flammulated Owl on my photo nemesis list for the state. In the past I have gone the first week of October, but of course this year I wanted one in September and I knew the owls were there just perhaps not yet as vocal. There were other possible species to be seen there as well including Pine Grosbeak and especially Clark’s Nutcracker with Gray Crowned Rosy Finch being a more remote option. After a late start I arrived at Sunrise just before 5 p.m. I parked and started arranging camera equipment etc. I noticed someone else was doing the same at another car. I walked up to him and said: “Expect you are here for your Boreal Owl.” At first the birder was startled and then recognized me. It was Bruce Berman a birder from the Bay Area that I had met on the pelagic trip and we had discussed Boreal Owl’s at Sunrise. I had meant to get his contact info but missed him as we got off the boat. What a coincidence to re-intersect now.

Bruce and I joined forces in our shared quest for a Boreal Owl. It was a beautiful mostly clear afternoon and not very cold even at 6000 feet elevation. It would be cold later but we were equipped. Our plan was to check out the service road where we would return later and get a sense of the terrain and good places to owl later. First however, there was the matter of finding a Clark’s Nutcracker for the month. That proved quite easy as a couple were hanging around the parking area – probably looking for handouts. They were joined by their corvid cousins Canada Jays. Both provided good photo ops. The Nutcrackers were new for the month and it was good to get photos of the Jays as I had been unable to do so at Hurricane Ridge.

Clark’s Nutcracker – Sunrise Mount Rainier
Canada Jay – Sunrise Mount Rainier

Bruce had some intel about a meadow area down the service road that he thought would be good for the owls later. I knew of sightings along the road and particularly where the road split and a trail went uphill to the right. We covered the ground without hearing a sound – until near maybe 150 yards past the split in the road, we heard a woodpecker tapping sounding like it was coming from some bare snags on the other side of the meadow. From the cadence of the tapping I thought there was a good chance it was a American Three Toed Woodpecker. We did not have scopes so could not scan the distant snags. It would be a new bird for 2022 and of course for September, so while Bruce stayed on the road talking with some hikers. I set off across the meadow. I got within maybe 50 yards of the snags and saw a woodpecker but it was mostly behind the tree. I tried to slowly sneak up on it for a better look and hopefully a photo – again facing the choice of getting a view through the binoculars to ID it or to bird through the camera hoping for a photo. Still pretty far away, I chose the bins and was just able to get a view of the head and the golden/yellow forehead to confirm the ID. I crept a bit further and the woodpecker moved to the back of the snag. When I tried to change my angle it flew off across another meadow area and landed in another set of snags. Unlike the first meadow, crossing the second would have meant tromping on a lot of vegetation, so I decided not to follow. I was sure of the ID after the visual – number 230 for the month.

I really wanted #231 – the Boreal Owl. Bruce and I returned to our cars and got a bit of rest and then headed back down the service road scanning the trees and listening carefully. Nada. We stayed out for more than an hour in the dark and then split up with Bruce going further down the road and me re-covering the trail back up to the parking lot. On the way I had an odd experience as something flew past my face. It seemed way too big for a moth but not big enough for an owl. I also heard a sound that was at least close to the “skiew” call of the Boreal Owl. Was the flying object or the call an owl, a Boreal Owl? Possibly but definitely not enough to go on for an ID. It was not to be. Later I found out that Bruce also had no success and in fact he also had no success when he returned and tried again a couple of days later. It was very late (actually very early the next morning when I got back home.)

September 26 – Another Miss

A Sharp Tailed Sandpiper had been reported at Marsh Island/Foster Island in Seattle. This was near the same spot where many other birders and I saw a Ross’s Gull on December 1, 2019 – and “saw” includes not only really good looks but also watching it get taken and eaten by a Bald Eagle as soon as it took to flight. The gull was seen from the Arboretum Waterfront Trail. That is how I expected to get to where the Sharp Tailed Sandpiper was being seen, but due to work on the Highway 520 bridge which crosses Lake Washington, that trail was closed. Instead the viewing was actually from a pedestrian path that parallels the highway. I hiked out the half mile or so with my scope with another birder and found the mud. We searched diligently and found some Killdeer and a Pectoral Sandpiper (which is very similar) but no Sharp Tailed. Other birders had had this experience as well – only to leave and have the Sharp Tailed show up some hours later. We waited a while – and gave up – leaving disappointed as although one or two are found in Washington every year, it is a really rare one and would have been a good add to year and month lists – and for the other birder, it would have been a lifer.

September 27 – Making Up for the Miss

As had been the case for others, the Sharp Tailed Sandpiper did show up a couple of hours after we had missed it and it was being reported on the morning of the 27th. Jon Houghton was up for a go so we retraced my steps from the previous day and this time we were successful finding the Sharp Tailed Sandpiper and 2 Pectoral Sandpipers making the ID pretty easy as the chest marking is much sharper on the Pectorals and the Sharp Tailed has a rusty cap. For good measure there were also 3 Wilson’s Snipes. The walk back next to the 520 Bridge was much more enjoyable this day with species #231 for the month checked off.

Sharp Tailed Sandpiper

September 28th – Clark County After All

In my original logistical planning for this undertaking I had included an Acorn Woodpecker as a “guaranteed” species recognizing that would mean a long trip to Lyle in Klickitat County along the Columbia River – the only place in the state where they are regular and where I had already seen them this year when I did a “Big March” and really needed one for the number. I had assumed that would be part of a longer trip either including Clark County or more county birding in Klickitat and then returning home through some good Eastern Washington spots or even continuing on for a couple of days in the Walla Walla area. I changed plans, however, when nobody was finding Ash Throated Flycatchers in Lyle – the other big target there – and it was really really hot still in Walla Walla early in the month and there were also some forest fire issues. I thought I would only make the trip at the end of the month if I needed an Acorn Woodpecker to get to 200.

Now that I was over 200, the long trip to Lyle was not necessary. In my earlier planning I had also built in a trip to Clark County which would be a guaranteed spot for Sandhill Crane and possibly good for some other species including Red Shouldered Hawk, which I no longer needed for the month. In 2021, Cindy McCormick found some Acorn Woodpeckers at the Fort Vancouver National Historic Site and I had gone there in January that year as part of yet another Big Month – January 2021. Now she had found them there again and they were reported by others on September 27th. At least for me goals are meant to be not just reached but surpassed. At 231, I had clearly done that but now a trip to Clark County looked good for at least two more species and possibly a third as I had missed Black Phoebe earlier and it was regular at Ridgefield National Wildlife Refuge there would be Cranes as well.

Ridgefield is not quite 3 hours south of my home Edmonds so it was another fairly early start and I was driving the loop road at the River S Unit by 9:15 a.m. I was shocked. Due to a drier than usual summer and early fall and perhaps some management decisions (mismanagement?) at the Refuge, there was almost no water. The place is usually a great wetland full of waterfowl with some shorebirds in the mud. Granted that waterfowl migration was just starting, still it was amazing that I saw only two duck species and no other waterfowl at all. Thankfully I first heard, then saw and then photographed some Sandhill Cranes. It took some doing but I did find a Black Phoebe flycatching in the slough (or is that the River S?) next to the road so the targets I had aimed for were found.

Sandhill Cranes – Ridgefield NWR

Just before getting to the return leg of the loop road, I saw a car stopped with a lady looking at something in the distance with her binoculars. I asked what she saw and she said she thought it was an owl sitting on a fence. I got out my scope and confirmed that it was indeed an owl, in this case a Barn Owl, but it was not sitting on the fence, it was caught on the barbed wire. Yikes! I made the executive decision to head off across the field (a no no by Refuge rules) to see if I cold get it loose. The lady had a towel in her car and she came out as well. The owl was in pretty bad shape as its wing was completely wrapped around the wire and bones were exposed. I was able to calm it by putting towel over its head and then the two of us slowly worked the barb out of the wing and freed it. There was no way it could fly or survive on its own. We would look for a refuge official or try to get it to a rehab center. The lady had a companion in her car who could hold the owl (still calm in the towel) while aid was sought. I went online looking for an open center. The closest one was in Portland more than 30 minutes away. We parted with me driving the refuge looking for help while she headed off to the Refuge Headquarters. I never found anyone and I do not know her or the owl’s fate. This is NOT how I wanted to add a new species for the month.

Barn Owl – Before We Disentangled It

Saddened by the Barn Owl experience and wondering why there was barbed wire fencing at a refuge where there are many raptors, I continued south to Fort Vancouver. The latest reports of the Acorn Woodpeckers were from an oak grove different than the one where I saw them in 2021. A road closure made it a challenge to get to the area and I ended up parking not far from where I had them in 2021 and then headed east on foot to search in the new location. That was unsuccessful and when I returned to my car, I figured it was worth a try in the old location. Worth it it was as I found a group of at least 3 and probably 4 Acorn Woodpeckers actively feeding and flying around at the tops of the oaks. It was poor light and they never came very low but I got a few photos.

Acorn Woodpecker – Fort Vancouver

It had been a very successful trip adding 4 new species for the month including the unexpected Barn Owl and Acorn Woodpeckers without the additional 90 minute trip Lyle. The month total of 235 seemed like a good ending spot if I couldn’t somehow get to a nice round number like 240 – and there just was no way to see how that was possible.

September 29 – One Last Species

On the morning of the 29th I scanned the Edmonds waterfront and Puget Sound from our balcony hoping that Brant had returned or that maybe a Barrow’s Goldeneye would be there. If both of those species were seen I might try some crazy trip to try to get to 240 – most likely a trip to Salmo Mountain in far Northeastern Washington (6 hours away) where there would at least be a chance for Boreal Owl, Pygmy Owl, Saw Whet Owl, Boreal Chickadee and Spruce Grouse and maybe 50/50 odds at best for getting 3 of them to get to 240. The craziness of something like that was appealing (or should that be appalling?) as a great ending for this adventure. Sadly, or gladly, neither species was seen. I thought I would make one last trip to a local park maybe getting lucky and finding a Barred Owl. At Pine Ridge Park, I found 17 species and the last one I found was a Hermit Thrush – in fact I found three and with some playback I got one to come out in the open just long enough for a photo. Both Hermit and Swainson’s Thrushes had initially been on my probable list. I had to settle for just one of the two.

Hermit Thrush – Pine Ridge Park

I had birded Pine Ridge Park on the first day of September so this seemed like a good place to end the month as well. Sure I watched Ebird reports on the 30th and if something wonderful had been nearby I would have gone, but there was nothing new. I was done with 236 species for the month. Lots of great birds and yes still lots of misses. Looking back on my reports and my earlier projections, I found that I had specifically “chased” maybe 14 species that I did not find. Of course there were a lot of birds seen by others somewhere in the state during September that I did not see – 90 species to be exact. Of those 40 would be considered rare to very rare. As to the other 36 species – woulda, coulda, shoulda – with better planning and diligence and a lot more time on the road, I might have gotten half of them. So bottom line: the goal was 200; I got 236; I might have gotten 250 or even 260; and if someone really good and really lucky really wanted to go for it, well 275 would certainly be possible. So if you are reading this and are so inclined – go for it. I will have champagne waiting.

Big September – Week 3 – Moving the Finish Line

Week 3 – Day 1 – Target Reached in Neah Bay

Given all the good birding I have had at Neah Bay, I thought it would be fitting to find species #200 for September there. I did but definitely not with a special species as I had envisioned. In the morning I returned to Bahokas Peak hoping that being there early would find a Sooty Grouse family gravelling on the road. I did find a new species on the road but not a Sooty Grouse – a Varied Thrush. It had been on my most probable list but had eluded me until this observation. Glad to get it.

After Bahokas I returned to Butler’s Hotel to get my bag and head off towards home first checking the bay again and the Wa’atch Valley. As I got to Butler’s I heard a familiar chirping as a small flock of Pine Siskins flew in. Not an exciting species for #200 but a goal is a goal and reaching one feels good. I would have preferred a Pine Grosbeak, but I gave a short sigh of relief and started looking for species #201.

Pine Siskin #200 – Butler’s Hotel

Finding nothing new I headed back to the West Twin River Mouth armed with better insight into where to look for the American Golden Plover. Armed with that information I scanned the rocks on the beach carefully and was able to find it and get good photos. I am almost certain it was there the previous day and I had overlooked it among the rocks. In any event, it was a great species to start the add-on count beyond 200 species. On the rocks there were even more Black Turnstones before – at least 70 and in the water again over 50 Harlequin Ducks.

American Golden Plover
Black Turnstone

I tried for Sora at Kitchen Dick Ponds in Sequim without success and made a couple of other stops along the way, but found nothing new for the month. Still 201 had me feeling pretty good.

Week 3 – Day 2 – A Fly By and a Sewage Pond

My morning started with a sound I had not heard for a while – the cackles of Cackling Geese as a flock of at least 40 flew by our condo in Edmonds. I had often checked out the window for geese – not the Cacklers but Brant which I see daily in the winter. I had expected them to be back in September but had not seen any yet. This flock was a good substitute.

One more species was on target for the day – Ring Necked Duck. I had expected to see them many times already but they had not cooperated. Scope in hand, I went to the Everett Sewage Treatment Plant. Later there would be thousands of ducks there of many species, but migration was just underway and neither numbers nor diversity were there yet. I had seven duck species fortunately including at least 5 Ring Necked Ducks. Again I tried and failed to find a Sora – getting its cousin Virginia Rail only. That was it for the day – 203 species in hand and ready for another trip to Eastern Washington the next day.

Week 2 – Day 3 – East Again

My routine on this trip departed from my usual forays into Eastern Washington as I made no stops in Kittitas County and went directly to Soap Lake in Grant County hoping to find some Eared Grebes and possibly a Semipalmated Plover which had been reported their earlier in the week. I arrived at 9:00 a.m. and found the lake full of birds. At least 150 of them were Eared Grebes in every plumage you could imagine and another 500 or so were Ruddy Ducks – none in full breeding plumage. Maybe some other species were mixed in but there were 150+ Ring Billed Gulls also. I am sure I undercounted the Killdeer at 18 but most importantly there were 2 Semipalmated Plovers with a small group of Killdeer that flew from the south end of the lake towards the north end where I lost them. How strange to miss the Semipalmated Plovers on the ocean beaches (and at some western Washington tide flats) and to find them in Central Washington.

Eared Grebe Still with “Ears”
Eared Grebes – Nonbreeding
Ruddy Duck

Still hoping for a Sora, I then went to Rocky Ford. I have had Sora there before but have probably visited there more often years ago fly fishing. There are some very large but also very picky trout there, assuredly there that morning also but no Soras at least for me – some Wood Ducks and Pied Billed Grebes. A Marsh Wren was buzzing and I added it to the Ebird list not realizing that somehow I had either not seen one earlier or had forgotten to include it on my report. It was on the list now. This is also a good area for Burrowing Owls. Fortunately I had one earlier in the month since I did not find one on this day. Throughout the morning I had also kept my eyes open for a Western Kingbird still dreaming – and still not finding it.

Pied Billed Grebe – Rocky Ford

I had seen recent reports of Clark’s Nutcracker and Cassin’s Finch from the National Fish Hatchery in Leavenworth. My debate was whether to go there via Highway 2 or return home via Interstate 90 and try again for the Cassin’s Finch in the Cle Elum area. The Nutcracker was the deciding factor so went to the Fish Hatchery an hour and a half away. I am not real familiar with the area around Wenatchee and Cashmere which were on the way to Leavenworth. If I had planned the trip better, I probably would have made some other stops and found something new, but lacking that experience I went directly to the Hatchery. While there can be good birding at the Hatchery itself, it is the connecting trails (used for X-Country skiing in the winter) that is the better territory. I spent an hour walking the trails and had little to show for it. There were no Nutcrackers but I finally found a Cassin’s Finch or at least so I thought. I heard what sounded to me to be something close to the “kee-yup” call of the Cassin’s Finch and finally tracked down and photographed a single bird. There was not a bit of red on it. Was it a Cassin’s Finch or the closely related and similar (in this plumage) Purple Finch. Not an area of my expertise. Review of the photo later – mostly by others concluded it was a Purple Finch – still new for the month but again a strike out on what I thought would be an easy to find Cassin’s Finch. Nothing else of note but a photo I really liked of a Red Breasted Nuthatch.

Purple Finch
Red Breasted Nuthatch

As it turned out I did return via Interstate 90 since Highway 2 was closed due to the continuing Bolt fire. This meant first going over Blewett Pass down to Cle Elum, a lovely route. I considered stopping at Liberty where I generally go for night birds earlier in the spring but which also has good habitat for grouse, thrushes and yes Cassin’s Finch, but with the additional time going this route and thinking I may already have had a Cassin’s Finch, I bypassed it and just headed home without another stop. Looking back, this was somewhat of a wasted trip despite adding three ever harder to come by species for the month. I could have spent more hours in good habitat looking for other species. I think it was a combination of being a bit tired and also not as motivated to add species after 200 – although that was going to change. I was at 207 species.

Week 3 – Days 4, 5 and 6 – “Chicago”, Football and a Big Surprise

It was Sunday September 18th and I had no plans to bird – nada -nothing. I was going to watch some football, do some laundry and scrounge up something to eat with nothing in the refrigerator and with Cindy still in Germany, no incentive to produce something really good. Our Condo has a great view of the Edmonds waterfront and Puget Sound but also overlooks a bit of wooded area and can even see the Edmonds Marsh. My only chore in Cindy’s absence was to be sure to water the plants on the balcony. As I was doing that I heard the familiar “Chicago, Chicago” call of California Quail. Interestingly I had only seen them once in the month previously, so not a new species for the month, but it was a new Yard Bird. I only wish that I had heard a Barred Owl or a Great Horned Owl – both of which I have heard from home in the past and still had not seen for the month. I did watch some football – a not surprising poor showing by the Seahawks getting stomped by the 49ers 27-7. I guess that was bird watching in a way.

These next days were going to be slow like Sunday. On Monday I was scheduled for my annual physical check up and later to get yet another Covid booster shot. On Tuesday Cindy and Greg would be returning home and I would get them at the airport. No birding was scheduled either day but on Monday morning I saw a real time post on the Snohomish County WhatsApp number that Steve Pink was seeing a Franklin’s Gull from the Edmonds Fishing Pier heading south. I was within a few feet of my spotting scope pointed in that direction and raced to it. I caught the Franklin’s Gull in flight probably less than 2 minutes after Steve’s post. A complete and very pleasant surprise checking off a species from the very “unlikely list” from my target projections. It was a really pretty day and I spent 45 minutes birding from the balcony. Including the Franklin’s Gull I had 15 species ranging from Anna’s Hummingbird to Merlin and Osprey and Heerman’s and Bonaparte’s Gulls and a Rhinoceros Auklet. It is a nice birding balcony.

Week 3 – Day 7One More for the List

The annual check-up went fine. I got boosted with the only reaction a little soreness that disappeared the next day and Cindy made it home safely and well from her trip. It would not have been fair to abandon her to go birding the day after she returned and I wanted to spend time with her and begin hearing stories. However, she slept in a bit so I snuck in some birding at the Stanwood STP hoping to find some new ducks for the month. I had 20 species in maybe 20 minutes of birding and added Bufflehead for the month. They were just returning to the area and would be easy for the rest of the year.

Bufflehead – Stanwood STP

This ended Week 3 of Big September and the count stood at 209 – only 11 new species for the week. But I had known this was to be the down week with Cindy’s return – better than seeing any new birds – and medical stuff. But I had hit and then went past the targeted 200 species. My pelagic trip was ahead and there were six more days after that. The next and last blog will cover those nine days – with a lot more species ahead.

Big September 2022 – Week 2 – Major Progress

Week 1 had not been terrible, but it had not been great either – with too many “misses”. It had not been an intense week with a whole day “lost” on the unsuccessful chase for the Curlew Sandpiper in B.C. and some personal obligations that except for a single trip to Eastern Washington had kept me close to home. I had found only 119 species and felt very disappointed – maybe too hard on myself as there was a lot of time left, but it has been that internal pressure that produced the drive necessary to continue similar pursuits in the past. Somehow though this time felt different. I needed some good days to return to good spirits. That is essential, because the ONLY reason to do these kinds of projects is to enjoy them. Sure there can be some downs but there have to be some ups as well. Gotta have fun.

I first met Phil Bartley in May 2020 on Dennis Road in Benton County, Washington. He was “on” the rare Black Throated Sparrow that I was chasing when I arrived. We spent a few moments together and later had some intersections on Facebook and exchanged information about Canon mirrorless cameras and birding in Ecuador. We were birding acquaintances maybe moving towards birding friends. Plans for Week 2 of Big September included a trip to the Tri-Cities area where Phil lived and I contacted him for some guidance. That evolved into an arrangement to bird some together and then into an invitation to spend the night at Phil’s place and then bird together the next day including time at Washtucna, Washington – a migration/rarities oasis/trap about 4 hours from me and less than 90 minutes from Phil’s home. Phil knew the spot well and I did not. This seemed like a great plan.

Our Canon Camera Setup

Week 2 – Day 1 – Back (to the) East

So early on September 8th, I was again off to Eastern Washington, again stopping first at Bullfrog Pond – and again being disappointed there as it and the adjacent Wood Duck Road were very quiet – except for the patterned tapping of a woodpecker – a much sought after Red Naped Sapsucker. It never came close enough for a photo, but it has become an irregular species for me – so OK. I again went to the Northern Pacific Railroad ponds for my next stop looking mostly for ducks on the ponds. I found 16 – 15 Mallards and a single Hooded Merganser, the latter new for the year. Hoped for Common Mergansers, Barrow’s or even Common Goldeneyes, all of which I have seen there often, were no shows. The “Hoodie” was new – #121 and just over 60% towards the goal.

On my last trip to Eastern Washington, I had opted for Kerry’s Pond over County Line Ponds for possible Black Necked Stilts and Avocets. Failing to find the latter with that choice, I included the County Line Ponds on this trip which enabled me to make some other stops along the way, the first of which was Rocky Coulee on Recreation Road near Vantage, Washington. Although there would be other places that I might find one, a top target here was a Rock Wren, a sure thing at this location in my planning. Missing it would be a blow. Not as certain was a Canyon Wren. They are regular there but not always found. On this visit I found both wrens and had my first Lincoln’s Sparrow and several first of month Orange Crowned Warbler as bonuses.

Rock Wren – Rocky Coulee
Canyon Wren – Rocky Coulee

In June this year I finally got my Washington Lifer Black and White Warbler at Getty’s Cove – just off the Columbia River and 10 miles south of Rocky Coulee. It should have been a good place to find some needed warblers and maybe some other migrants, so I included it in my itinerary for the day. Along the way I found some Common Mergansers on the Columbia, but nothing new at Getty’s Cove itself which was quiet. Admittedly I did not spend as much time there as I should have and if I had I expect some of those warblers would have been found. I had a lot of other places to go and so I backtracked to Vantage, crossed the Columbia into Grant County and headed to the County Line Ponds – watching the fence lines and and wires along the way hoping for a Western Kingbird.

In my original planning I thought that Black Necked Stilts would be guaranteed and American Avocets would be likely at the County Line Ponds with some other species possible including Great Egret and Red Necked Phalaropes. When I visited there in May this year, I had Stilts, Avocets, Egrets and PhalaropesWilson’s Phalaropes. When I arrived on September 8th I saw two things that immediately brought a smile to my face. The first was several large beautiful and mostly white shorebirds with distinctly upturned long bills – American Avocets. The second was a group of smaller shorebirds swimming in circles in the northern pond – Red Necked Phalaropes – one of my phavorites – and yes I know I have taken liberty with the spelling. No Egrets but no (r)egrets as I would certainly see them elsewhere.

American Avocet – County Line Ponds
Red Necked Phalarope – County Line Ponds

It was 11:00 a.m. and I had added 9 species for month to get me to 128. The target list for the day was much longer though and hopes were high for my next stops – at or near Potholes State Park. But there was one concern – it was really really windy. This was probably part of the problem earlier at Bullfrog Pond and Getty’s Cove – the birds inactivity may well have simply been that they were hunkered down. Among the targets ahead were possibly three terns and some grebes and wind could be a challenge. When I arrived “could” changed to “would” as it was blowing really hard and terns were not to be found at places near the boat launch where I usually find them and also were not seen off O’Sullivan Dam Road. There were lots of grebes but mostly pretty distant and I found only one Clark’s Grebe with the dozens of Western Grebes. American White Pelicans were huddled together and not flying around. It was only at the semi-protected area at Lind Coulee where I found a single Forster’s Tern – no Common Terns and definitely no Black Tern. There were several Northern Pintails, 15 Great Egrets and finally some Western Meadowlarks. The other terns would have been nice but I added 7 species for the month and especially under the windy conditions was pretty happy about that. I had thought – hoped – that maybe I would find some good passerines in the campground and picnic areas at Potholes State Park, but it was just too windy.

Great Egret
Western Grebe
Western Meadowlark

Even though there were a number of species that might have been seen that day, the new for the month list was now at 16 and the total for the month was 135. It felt like there was some momentum for the first time in the month and at my next stop that continued when I found 4 Burrowing Owls at a rock pile on D Road Northwest in Grant County. This species had been harder to find this year at go to spots this year than last, so I had them on my not for sure list and was pleased to check them off – an excellent #136 and now it was off to meet Phil Bartley and continue birding with more eyes and great local knowledge.

Burrowing Owl – Road D Northwest – Ephrata Grant County

The first place Phil and I visited was Bateman Island. I had birded there before but was not that familiar with its intricacies. Phil was. No expertise was needed to find my first of month Greater Scaup. Phil’s sharp eyes were key to finding a Black Crowned Night Heron and his intricate knowledge was definitely the key to finding a Gray Catbird. Phil also knew a roosting spot for Great Horned Owl. Unfortunately the only Great Horned Owl we found was a dead one on the ground in the copse of trees where they regularly roost. Now what? Off to Lisa Hill’s house next to W.E. Johnson Park. I had been there before during my Big March this year adding a Blue Jay. The target there was a Black Chinned Hummingbird that had been regular at her feeders. It appeared as soon as we arrived. Lisa, a top birder in the area, came out and said hello and told us a Calliope Hummingbird had been coming in that day as well. Boom – there it was. Just for fun there was an Anna’s Hummingbird as well.

Black Chinned Hummingbird (Phil Bartley Photo)

Next was dinner and then we would return to Lisa’s house hoping for the Western Screech Owl that was in the adjacent park. It was barely dusk when we arrived and in less than a minute we heard the Screech Owl. This owl had been only a “maybe” on my planning list whereas the Great Horned Owl was thought to be “for sure”. Today was a welcome reversal as I figured there would be Great Horned Owls elsewhere in the future. So Day 1 of Week 2 was done. The 23 adds to the month’s list brought the total to 142 – a bit ahead of what I thought was likely. The next day had fewer prospects but included the visit to Bassett Park in Washtucna where anything was possible.

Week 2 Day 2 – Great Birding on Unfamiliar Territory

We got off to an early start and added the first new bird, a Horned Lark near Lind on Highway 26. We were at the Washtucna Sewage Treatment Plant pond just after 6:45 a.m. and among the 13 species seen there were three that were new for September – a Common Goldeneye and a Ruddy Duck, and a Savannah Sparrow good omens for what was to come. Washtucna is remote and with a population of 208, it is a town in decline with an uncertain future. For birders it is a magnet in the fall just as it is for birds migrating south. The trees and brush in and around Bassett Park are safe havens for birds on the move and the little drips and drabs of water are magnets within the magnet. Washington birders would drool for this list of rarities seen at this location: Bell’s, Blue Headed and Philadelphia Vireo, Northern Parula, Magnolia, Blackpoll, Chestnut Sided, Black and White, Tennessee, Mourning, and Black Throated Green Warblers, Rose Breasted Grosbeak, and Indigo Bunting. I have a pretty good life list of species seen in Washington (in top 15 for the state) and have only seen 6 of these species in the state. It can very hot there but this was a beautiful morning with temperatures comfortably in the high 70’s. No rain and no wind – an excellent day for birding.

Common Goldeneye – Washtucna STP

We spent three and a half hours in Washtucna covering and recovering the ground. Other birders arrived including friend Vic Hubbard also from Tri-Cities – a good birder and an even better photographer. We birded together and also crossed paths when we sometimes separated – sharing information and combining eyes to sort through the birds active in the trees – too often buried or high up. Including birds seen at the STP, we had 50 species at this location. In addition to the two new duck species and the Savannah Sparrow at the STP, I added 15 new species for the month in the town itself, the first Wild Turkey as small groups were constant company during the morning, and all the others in the trees or brush in and next to Bassett Park.

Wild Turkey – One of Many
Welcoming Committee

Many of the birds seen were buried in foliage so not always the greatest photos, but photos proved useful even when not perfect. We kept seeing a “different” warbler but never real well. It is always a challenge to decide whether to look more thoroughly with binoculars or to try for a photo trying to find the bird again through the camera viewfinder. Often the picture is of something barely seen but then when the image is checked, an important field mark is evident establishing the identification. Such was the case with this find. Phil got several decent photos that established the ID of a very rare for Washington Magnolia Warbler. I had seen the bird and noted its “difference” but did not get a photo. It was my second Magnolia Warbler in Washington, the first seen at the Gingko Ranger Station on June 5, 2013 – a breeding plumage male with a photo. The picture below is the best of Phil’s.

Magnolia Warbler – Bassett Park – Photo by Phil Bartley

All told we had 8 warblers that morning – 5 of which were new for the month for me: MacGillivray’s, Nashville, Wilson’s, Townsend’s and Magnolia. Actually Phil had 9 warblers. After we left, we heard from Vic that a very rare Blackpoll Warbler was being seen. When Phil checked his photos, he found a picture of the Blackpoll. I probably saw it but with no awareness of it and no photo, sadly I could not count it since it would have been new not just for September or 2022 but a new species for me in Washington…sigh. This is not my best kind of birding as I have difficulty picking a bird out of foliage and even more trouble getting my camera on it. I am including a few photos – nothing to be proud of.

Wilson’s Warbler
Townsend’s Warbler
Yellow Rumped Warbler

In addition to the 5 new warblers, I also had three new flycatchers for the month – Western Wood Pewee, Hammond’s Flycatcher and Pacific Slope Flycatcher and two wrens – a surprising Pacific Wren and a House Wren, plus Ruby Crowned Kinglet, Townsend’s Solitaire, Lesser Goldfinch and Golden Crowned Sparrow.

Pacific Wren
Pacific Slope Flycatcher
Western Wood Pewee
Townsend’s Solitaire
Golden Crowned Sparrow

We left Washtucna on a high after a very productive morning. Now I was in Phil’s hands as we tried for targets on my list one by one. Some of it was luck but mostly due to Phil’s knowledge of his turf we did very well and found Ring Necked Pheasant, Chukar, Gray Partridge, Sagebrush Sparrow, Loggerhead Shrike and White Throated Swift. All were great additions but three need special mention. I had all but given up on White Throated Swift as they were no longer being reported at my go to places. Phil thought there was a chance for one at Palouse Falls – Bingo!! We went looking for Loggerhead Shrike at an area with good sage. No Shrike but we found a very unlikely juvenile Sagebrush Sparrow. They are among the first of the sage birds to arrive and the first to leave. This was an excellent late record and we found a shrike later elsewhere. Lastly we came to a spot where Phil said he had sometimes found Gray Partridge. This had been a nemesis for me at go to places in Okanogan and Chelan counties earlier in the year – missed everywhere. No sooner had Phil said the word “Partridge” than a small flock flushed and flew off.

Sagebrush Sparrow

It had been a long and extremely productive and fun day. By 5:00 p.m. we had run out of targets and I had a long drive home. We returned to Phil’s place and with great gratitude for his efforts I headed back. We had added 25 species for the day and I had added 48 for this two day Eastern Washington trip. The total for the month was now at 167. Before the trip I had had my doubts. Now I was back to being confident that I would make 200 – especially since I had not yet been to the Coast and there was that pelagic trip ahead – probably. Buoyed by the success of this trip I agreed to a change of plans and committed to join friend Jon Houghton as a “co-leader” on a boat trip to Smith Island as part of Edmond’s Birdfest on Sunday September 11 rather than heading to the Coast for two days. But after this long trip the next day would be mostly one of rest.

Phil Working the Fields

Week 2 – Day 3 – Close to Home Again

After the two great days in Eastern Washington with early starts, this was an easy slow day around home. No Black Scoters or Brant visible from Sunset Avenue, but I did get my first Pelagic Cormorant. I went to Southwest County Park hoping for Barred Owl and maybe a couple of “easy” passerines that had eluded me until then. No owl but I finally got a Chestnut Backed Chickadee and a Pileated Woodpecker not believing it had taken more than a week. At Scriber Lake Park I added a Golden Crowned Kinglet. Four new species and the day was done. The list was now at 171. Wow that was easy…

Chestnut Backed Chickadee
Golden Crowned Kinglet
Pileated Woodpecker

Week 2 – Day 4 – Puffin Cruise for Birdfest

Hoping to find the ever elusive Horned Puffin that has been a tough find at Smith Island, Jon and I convinced the organizers of the boat trip to head to Smith Island instead of Protection Island which was what had been advertised. Since Tufted Puffins were also much more likely at Smith, it was an easy sale. The cruise would be on a high speed boat leaving from Edmonds with a capacity of maybe 100 travelers. It was scheduled to leave at 2:00 p.m. and that gave me enough time to try for a Solitary Sandpiper at the Redmond Retention Ponds where it had been reported the day before and where I had seen it last years. Since I had missed it at Smithson Road in Ellensburg this was a chance to make up for an earlier miss.

As I parked on the road next to the path into the ponds and saw a birder I did not know getting into her car. I asked how she had done and got an earful – those dang photographers getting too close to the birds and flushing them. Too many people now coming here since Ebird reported “Everything”. And there were just too many people now anyhow – depriving her of her private spot – not her exact words but pretty close. And no she had only seen a Greater Yellowlegs, no Solitary Sandpiper – again those photographers. OK, thanks, have a nice day… I had not taken my camera out of the car before this intersection – whew! As she drove off I got the camera and walked in. There was nobody else at the first pond and the first bird I saw was a medium sized shorebird that sure looked like a Solitary Sandpiper. I got closer, and yes, took a picture. Bingo – a lovely Solitary Sandpiper. Maybe it had just flown in. Maybe the other birder had gone to the second pond only (although you have to walk past the first one to get there). Maybe she did not know the difference between a Solitary Sandpiper and a Greater Yellowlegs. Maybe she will come back and there will be nobody else around and she will see it. Whatever. This was species #172 and atonement for earlier failings.

Solitary Sandpiper – Redmond Retention Pond

Phil Bartley had contacted me and asked it there was room on the Birdfest trip. There was and he came over to join us. Reciprocating his hospitality I invited him to spend the night in our spare room and that worked out perfectly. Jon and I met the boat crew a bit early and went over procedures essentially how we would be onboard naturalists to call out species and share our experiences and knowledge about the birds we would see. There was a company naturalist on board as well and he was great as was the weather and as was the boat Рthe Swiftsure operated by Puget Sound Express primarily for whale watching. Here is how the company describes the vessel: Built in 2022, the Swiftsure is a catamaran with 2 asymmetrical semi-planing hulls, and an articulated hydrofoil that allows the boat to efficiently travel at 35 knots (40mph). This propeller-less design, coupled with finely-tuned, wave-piercing bows, allows the boat to travel through both calm and rough water at speed, while keeping underwater noise to a minimum. It was indeed a smooth ride and the speed allowed us to get to Smith Island in less than half the time it takes with other vessels leaving from Anacortes the normal way to get there.

The “Swiftsure”

Jumping to the bottom line at the start, once again there was no Horned Puffin – my third miss in three chases. But we had great weather, calm seas and good birds with super looks at many Tufted Puffins in various plumages. It was the first time most of the people on board had seen this species. Our trip was high speed until pretty close to Smith Island and then we skirted the island slowly outside the kelp beds looking for puffins. Everyone had great looks at White Winged and Surf Scoters, Rhinoceros Auklets, Heerman’s and California Gulls, Common Murres, Tufted Puffins and Brandt’s Cormorants. Additionally on a small nearby spit/island there were distant views of Short Billed Dowitchers, Dunlin, Harlequin Ducks and Sanderlings. All but the gulls, Rhinoceros Auklets and Surf Scoters were new for September for me – making it 9 new species for the day bringing me to 180 species – 90% of the way there and although I would have traded them all for the Horned Puffin, I was feeling good. Phil spent the night and then he went off to the Redmond Retention Ponds the next morning and had a great visit, including the Solitary Sandpiper.

Common Murre
Brandt’s Cormorants
Tufted Puffin with Tufts
Tufted Puffins – No Tufts
White Winged Scoter
Distant Harlequin Ducks

Week 2 – Day 5 – First Trip to the Coast

For a trip to the Washington Coast there is always at least one critical decision – head to the Ocean Shores area or head to the Westport area. Both are possible in a long day and then the decision is where to go first. Fresh off our shared duties on the Smith Island trip, Jon Houghton and I were off again, joined by Tom St. John, we were going to get an early start and visit both areas. Just after 8:30 a.m. we were driving the open beach just north of Ocean Shores. Lots of Sanderlings and Western Sandpipers, some Least Sandpipers, various gulls including some first of month Western Gulls and a number of American Pipits – again new for the month, but no other shorebirds – a disappointment despite the two new species.

Western Gull

Undaunted we re-entered the open beach south of the Ocean Shores Casino and found even fewer birds and most notably no Semipalmated Plovers – which I had thought were guaranteed. Still lots of opportunities though and although they were far out at the end of the jetty, we had scope views of Black Turnstone and Wandering Tattlers – but no Surfbirds which are often there. We added a Red Throated Loon further out and as a bonus had some Brown Headed Cowbirds in the dunes – 4 more new species for the month. 186 species, smiling and counting!

Brown Headed Cowbird
Red Throated Loon

Over the years the Oyhut Game Range has had many great rare birds including Emperor and Ross’s Geese, King Eider, Lesser Sand, American Golden, Pacific Golden, and Mountain Plovers, Eurasian Dotterel, Upland, Buff Breasted and Sharp Tailed Sandpipers, Hudsonian and Bar Tailed Godwits, Ruff, Little Gull, Snowy Owl, McKay’s Bunting, Smith’s Longspur, Bobolink, and Clay Colored Sparrow – an incredible group. I have seen more than half of those species there and would have been happy for any of them on this visit. We thought there was at least a chance for the Golden Plovers and a Buff Breasted had been seen there the previous week. We trudged out into the salicornia and mud and unfortunately it was not a great shorebird day and although Jon got his First of Year Pectoral Sandpiper, there were no really good or even almost good shorebird species. We did have a lot of American Pipits and I will swallow my pride and admit that I also had a Lapland Longspur which I did not know it until someone reviewed my American Pipit photos and found that one was a Lapland Longspur. Shame on me…Three Red Breasted Mergansers in the bay were also new for the month.

Pectoral Sandpiper
American Pipit
Lapland Longspur

Time to head south – to the Westport area, about an hour away. How much better that drive would be if it did not include driving through the very depressed and depressing towns of Hoquiam and Aberdeen – hard hit by changes in the timber business and the opioid crisis. They are reminders to me of how good my life is and that birding like we do is a luxury to be appreciated no matter what birds are seen. We were back on the open beach at Midway south of Westport again looking for Semipalmated Plover but also for Snowy Plovers which we had missed on the Ocean Shores side. And again we found neither. But again there was a consolation prize as we had a single Whimbrel standing out on the beach which was my first for September and Jon’s first for the year. We also had much better (although not terrific) looks at Short Billed Dowitchers than we had on the Smith Island Cruise the previous day.

Whimbrel
Short Billed Dowitchers

A visit to the Westport side always includes a visit to the Tokeland Marina, the go to spot in Washington for Willets and in the last few years also for Godwits – mostly Marbled but sometimes the much rarer Bar Tailed or Hudsonian. My first Washington Willet was at the Marina on September 8, 2010 and felt fortunate to see 2. In 2012 I saw 6 there. The next year I saw 8. Since then I have seen more than a dozen and as many as 24 every year. On this day we had 15 and also had a small flock of 40 Marbled Godwits. Jon was the first to notice that one of the Godwits looked different. They were close and in good light and I got a photo. Bingo – we had a Bar Tailed Godwit, the first report of one there this year and a new bird for the year for all of us. [After our report on Ebird, dozens of birders have seen it there and it remains still.] All three of these larger shorebirds were new for September and added to the earlier finds brought the total for the day to 12 and my month total to 192.

Willet
Marbled Godwit
Bar Tailed Godwit

We made a final try for Snowy Plovers in the dunes near Grayland Beach State Park – and were not successful. I have had really good luck the last few years finding this often hard to find species and had put it in my “not for sure” group only because it can hide in the dunes and not be seen even though present. But I had been confident that I would find one. I f the pelagic trip happened I would be back at the coast, so put it on my “get it later” list. More surprising to me was the absence of Semipalmated Plovers. I thought they were a certainty. Looking over my Ebird reports, I found that I had over 100 observations of this species. While there were a few for Septembers in years past, the greater majority was during Spring migration or in August, so maybe some bad projections on my part.

Week 2 – Day 6 – Focused Birding

On April 14th this year I birded on C-Post Road in Eastern Snohomish County and had both Sora and Red Breasted Sapsucker – in fact 3 of them. These were both species I needed in September and I had missed them in some other locations where they had been seen recently – or for the Sora, had been heard. This would be my only birding this day as I had personal appointments. It was another beautiful day. Some enforcement officers from one of the wildlife organizations drove up and got out of their truck just as I started birding. They walked what I think is north on the road and disappeared. I heard some rhythmic tapping but it was too fast for a Sapsucker. A Downy Woodpecker flew over head. It was just birdy enough to keep me checking every few minutes. I did not know what might be there but was willing to be surprised. I had some sparrows, a Warbling Vireo and Black Throated Gray and Orange Crowned Warblers. A few minutes later I heard another woodpecker – this time a Northern Flicker. I tried playback for Sora at the spot I had them earlier in the year and again at some similar habitat further down the road. I kept going until I came to the river where an American Dipper was playing in the river – a much better photo than earlier.

American Dipper

At the river, I found the Fish and Wildlife officers. They were looking for illegal fishing, something they told me happened all too often there and at many other places in the area. We talked a little about birds and they wished me well. I mention this only because I had never seen this before and it saddened me to know that this was apparently a big problem. .Just as we parted ways, I heard the familiar “piterick” call of a Western Tanager. It made a brief appearance and flew off. I don’t know if it was migrating through or if it had found a good place to stay the winter. Then some more tapping and this sounded like the cadence of a sapsucker. It had been in the same tree as the tanager but had not started tapping until the tanager flew off – causation or coincidence. No matter, the Red Breasted Sapsucker posed nicely and I had one of the targets for the day and species #193 for the month. It had been a very pleasant hour. I wondered what I would have thought or done if I had seen someone fishing. I wonder what they would have thought or done if they saw me me birding.

Red Breasted Sapsucker

Week 2 – Day 7 – Heading to Neah Bay

Without question Neah Bay is near the top of my list of favorite birding spots in Washington. Located at the northwest tip of the Olympic Peninsula with the Pacific Ocean on the west and the Straits of San Juan de Fuca on the north, it is both a great spot for water oriented birds and also for rarities in migration or almost any time. The Covid 19 pandemic had closed the area for a couple of years as the Makah Tribe was devastated by the disease and closed the area off to visitors to prevent more problems. I felt bad for the birders who did Big Years in Washington in 2020 and 2021 as this resource for many incredible rarities was unavailable. I normally make at least two visits to Neah Bay each year often chasing rarities reported the day before. This would be my first visit in two years with the possibility of finding species #200 for the month there or on the trip.

I caught the 5:35 a.m. ferry from Edmonds to Kingston. With each passing day the sunrise came later and later and it was completely dark on the passage across Puget Sound – no birding at all. From Kingston I headed north and a bit west taking the road to Hansville and Point No Point. Although there were other possibilities, the main target here was Bonaparte’s Gull. I had probably seen one scoping the Sound from my condo but if so it was too far out for a positive ID. At Point No Point there can be hundreds or even thousands of them. Often Parasitic Jaegers are mixed in and I have seen a very rare Little Gull there. As expected Bonaparte’s Gulls flew by in groups ranging from one or two to many dozens. I conservatively estimated the count at 400 and moved on. It was still pretty gray at 6:35 a.m. so visibility was low and no decent photos.

I back tracked to Highway 104 and continued north and east by passing usual stops in the Sequim area as I was headed to Hurricane Ridge in Olympic National Park. The good news was that the road to Hurricane Ridge was open but the bad news was that it was scheduled to close for maintenance work beginning the next day and everyone seemed to know this and was visiting this day as their last chance. The fact that it was a beautiful day drew even more crowds. There were three specific targets on this visit with the chance for some others. The targets were Canada Jay, Clark’s Nutcracker and Sooty Grouse. I parked at the Hurricane Ridge Visitor Center and walked a number of the trails. There were people everywhere, not obnoxiously so but noisy and I am sure that is the main reason that I saw no grouse and only a single Canada Jay. There seemed to be Dark Eyed Juncos everywhere – flushing from the ground as people walked by, then returning as they passed, only to be flushed by the next group of walkers. I gave it an hour and then left hoping for better luck at the Hurricane Hill trails where I have almost always had Sooty Grouse.

Of course to find a Sooty Grouse on the trail you have to be on the trail and that would mean finding a parking space. There were none and at least a half dozen cars were waiting for a space to open. It was 10:30 a.m. and more cars were streaming in. I gave up and continued my trip west heading to Neah Bay. Alex Patia had reported an American Golden Plover at West Twin River Mouth on Highway 112. I had not knowingly stopped at this spot before. There is an easy pullout off the highway. A camper was there, but lots of room, so I grabbed my scope and headed to the water. There were lots of birds including more than 50 Harlequin Ducks and 25 Black Turnstones. It was a roosting and bathing spot for gulls including more than 250 California Gulls and a dozen Short Billed Gulls (sure wish they were still called Mew Gulls). I did not find the Golden Plover but stay tuned for a return visit. I left at noon and by 1:30 p.m. I was birding in Neah Bay. It seemed super quiet in town with very few passerines in trees near Butler’s or on the road (closed) out to the jetty. I watched continuously for birds perched on wires hoping for Tropical Kingbird – still a little early but a possibility.

Harlequin Ducks

In the Bay itself there were the usual suspects but nothing really exciting except for a single female Black Scoter – new for the year. Much better views of White Winged Scoters and lots of Hooded Mergansers.

White Winged Scoter
Hooded Mergansers

I birded the Sewage Treatment Plant and the Wa’atch River and added only a Lesser Scaup. I spent much of the afternoon hiking out to the end of the trail at Cape Flattery where fortunately I found a flock of 18 Black Oystercatchers – a species I thought was likely on the Birdfest trip but was missed and also could have been seen at any of a number of spots along Highway 112. I drove up onto Bahokas Peak hoping for Sooty Grouse where I have seen them before or maybe a Northern Pygmy Owl. No go.

Black Oystercatcher

Honestly it may have been the quietest day of birding ever at Neah Bay. Also honestly it would have been nice to find some other birders there, but I did not. Surprising. I spent the night at Butler’s, happy to bring some revenue to Nancy who survived the pandemic and was booked solid for the next day so still in business. All in all it had been a pleasant but relatively unproductive day at least compared to possible additions. For the day I had added 6 new species and was at 198 for the month. Nothing rare and there had been some misses that would have brought me to my goal. I had added 79 species for the week aided immensely by the two excellent days in Eastern Washington. I had ended Week 1 a bit unhappy. Now my spirits were high and I began thinking of what about more than 200. But that would just have to wait.

Big September 2022 – Week One

Day 1 – Starting Close to Home

It’s 6:00 a.m. on Thursday September 1, 2023, the first day of my Big Month of September 2022. I had considered having my first trip be to Eastern Washington which would have meant a much earlier departure, but I had chosen the Edmonds Fishing Pier as my first birding stop this month. It is only a few minutes from my home and while I did not expect anything extraordinary, you never know. Indeed there was nothing extraordinary and 15 minutes later I had my first 8 species for the month. At least the Pigeon Guillemots, Heerman’s Gulls and Caspian Terns had cooperated even if none of their rarer cousins made an appearance. I did see some Purple Martins. I had been mostly hearing but often seeing them on my walks with black lab Chica at our nearby condo. I was not sure when they would head south and wanted to be sure to get them before they did. I need not have worried as they stayed for most if not all of the rest of the month. The Belted Kingfisher flew overhead as I left and headed to stop #2 the Edmonds Marsh just moments away.

Just two more species at the Marsh. Ok 10 and counting as I started north to my first real chase of the month – to the spit and log booms at Tulalip Bay where I hoped for the Black Turnstones and much rarer Ruddy Turnstone (singular) which had been there off and on and possibly an equally rare (for there) Red Knot. Along the way I ticked off (as in added to my list not made them mad) House Finch, Barn Swallow, Rock Pigeon and Steller’s Jay. Maybe it was the wrong tide or just bad karma, but the only shorebird I saw was a Black Bellied Plover which together with Eurasian Collared Dove and Double Crested Cormorant brought me to an unimpressive 17 species and already two or three significant misses. The good thing about a goal of a specific number is that each species counts the same – one more along the way. But that is not really true when considered against “the Plan”. As laid out in my previous post, the goal of 200 species required some less than common species – so they really do count more since there is a chance that one missed early may not be made up for later.

After missing the targeted shorebirds, I made a brief stop at a pullout with a view of the larger bay and added Surf Scoter, Common Loon and Red Necked Grebe – nothing fancy, nothing even close to uncommon let alone rare, but the count continued. It was now just after 8:00 a.m. and I was one-tenth of the way there. 20 down and 180 to go. Next stop – Eide Road/Legue Island still in Snohomish County hoping that some shorebirds might cooperate. This has been a favorite birding spot in the county for many years with many great birds on my list from there totaling 112 species. In years past, there were small ponds in a marshy area which required a short walk but which collected some very nice shorebirds. Rare species seen in those ponds in years past included Ruff and Sharp Tailed Sandpiper. Last year the area was “rehabilitated” completely doing away with the ponds. A much different experience, but still good for shorebirds even if much more dispersed and harder to see. Yet it did produce my lifer Little Stint, so my complaint and wish for the good old days has to be somewhat tempered.

I did add 4 shorebird species at Eide Road including not always reliable Baird’s and Semipalmated Sandpiper and Lesser Yellowlegs. Not a bonanza but that may have been hindered by the two Peregrine Falcons (new for the month) that seemed to be a constant presence. Altogether there were 8 new species and the day was still young. Normally I would have continued north to another favorite spot, now in Skagit County, Wylie Slough on Fir Island. But by a unfortunate twist of fate, Wylie Slough was closed for yes, another rehabilitation work/changes. This actually was a bad break as I have had 145 species at Wylie Slough including some pretty good ones. Moreover it was a pretty reliable place for a good number of the common and a few of the uncommon species on my target list for the month. Although not necessarily in September, I have seen 18 species of shorebirds, 14 species of raptor and 24 species of waterfowl there. Plus 8 sparrows and 9 warblers. In 2021,118 species were seen at this one hotspot including 8 that I never did see this year and at least a dozen more that I worked fairly hard to see elsewhere.

Nonetheless there were other good locations in the area and that’s where I spent the next few hours. Again nothing special, although a Merlin is always a good bird and not always easy to find. I added some ducks and shorebirds and a variety of passerines – 20 new species for the day. The total now stood at 48 and it was 12:15 pm – 6 hours into the first day. No specific misses like the Red Knot and Ruddy Turnstone but several species that might have been seen were not.

Merlin

Time to start back south and I headed to Juanita By Park in King County. This is the best place for Wood Duck and is often good for Wilson’s Snipe. I found the former but not the latter and in the process added 10 new species for the day. I could not bird late that day but made a brief stop at Pine Ridge Park – close to home with a chance for Barred Owl and Pileated Woodpecker. I added neither but had a Hairy Woodpecker and Red Breasted Nuthatch, Not exciting but I was now at 60 species – 30% of the way to my goal – and of course by far the easiest 30%.

Wood Ducks – Juanita Bay Park

Day 2 – Chases in South King County

I started a little later on Day 2 with the first planned stop to be at the 204th Street Pond in Kent. A rare for the area Red Shouldered Hawk had been regular there for well over a week and it was my target. Finding it there would mean it would not be necessary to look for it in two other more distant places where it was possible but not assured. I found it almost immediately upon arrival – taking the pressure off for the whole day and very welcomed after the misses of the previous day. As bonuses there were also a Yellow Headed Blackbird and a Green Heron – neither rare but sometimes challenging. Ten additional new species including a not guaranteed Blue Winged Teal brought my total up to 80 and it was only 8:30 a.m. This was another day where I had afternoon obligations that had precluded a long trip so every addition to the list was important.

Red Shouldered Hawk – 204th Street Pond
Green Heron – 204th Street Ponds

Not far away was another target spot – Frager Road looking for Bank Swallows. This species is not widespread and would probably be heading south soon, so even the two found there were welcomed. When I first made my list of possibilities I counted all 7 swallow species found in Washington as essentially sure things with the Bank Swallow perhaps the most challenging. Either this was an unusual year or I had simply miscalculated. Other than the Purple Martins and Barn Swallows, the other species proved much harder to find than expected – many already gone South – and I never did find a Cliff Swallow.

The next nearby stop was the 212th Street Ponds. My targets here were American Bittern, Black Phoebe and Cinnamon Teal. All were probably present but that did not mean they would necessarily be found as Bitterns are always a challenge, the Phoebe was not always found and the Teal could be tucked away behind some vegetation and hard to see. I got lucky and found the Bittern easily and caught a “good enough” quick glimpse of the Cinnamon Teal. I never did find the Black Phoebe – especially disappointing since it would have been an easy find at the now closed Wiley Slough and other places to look for one were either far afield or unreliable. As I returned to my car after circling the ponds I remembered that this was a good place for California Scrub-Jay, a species that has greatly expanded its range in Washington but is not found everywhere. Sure enough two jays flew by and landed in a nearby tree. I also got what was surprisingly my first Red-winged Blackbird to bring the species count to 75.

American Bittern – 212th Street Ponds

Perhaps this is a good time to revisit a previous statement. In September many birds are pretty inactive, not calling or singing and in pretty drab non-breeding plumage. Ducks that in breeding plumage are easy to identify may be hard to distinguish in their drab winter attire. Same for many passerines. For example it was hard to find much red in the wings of these Red-winged Blackbirds. And then there was the near silence. There is good deciduous tree and shrub habitat around the 212th Street Ponds. I saw a few birds flitting about and did hear some Chickadees but mostly it was quiet. This would be a recurring pattern for most of the month.

I had seen an Ebird report with good birds at Sikes Lake in King County. I had birded there infrequently and departing from usual Big Month approaches decided to try a relatively new place even though I was unfamiliar with the best way to bird there. Along the way I added a Band Tailed Pigeon (#76). Maybe it was the time of day but more likely I just did a poor job of birding but I added only Northern Rough Winged Swallow at Sikes Lake. As I mentioned earlier, I had misjudged the timing for swallows so was actually glad to add the species, but it was a very poor return on more than 90 minutes including time getting there and birding.

My last four stops were all places very close to home: Yost Park (Red Breasted Nuthatch); Edmonds Fishing Pier (Brown Pelican missed earlier); Willow Creek Hatchery (Brown Creeper); and home itself (White Crowned Sparrow). The sparrow was the last bird for the day (#82 for the month) and another example of changing times. In August the sparrows were abundant near home – mostly first year new juveniles – and were quite active and noisy with their high pitched call notes as opposed to the abundant and even noisier adults that sang regularly until early August. On dog walks in the summer I would often see and hear them all along the way with up to a dozen or more individuals on territory. This day there were only two quiet juvies scurrying on the ground.

Red Breasted Nuthatch

It had been a short day due to other obligations so I had somewhat of an excuse for only being at 81 species. There had been a couple of good birds but again too many misses. No Chestnut Backed Chickadee – REALLY?? Day 3 would be a trip to Eastern Washington and I should do better. But should is not always what happens…

Day 3 – Eastern Washington

I have made this same trip to Eastern Washington many times – for Big Months, Big Years and just good old birding. It means leaving early both to beat the traffic and to get to my first stop Bull Frog Pond just west of Cle Elum early when the birds are first becoming active after their restful night – at least theoretically. Bullfrog Pond and adjoining Wood Duck Road are 95 miles from my home – an easy 90 minutes mostly on the Freeway if there are no road work projects with lane closures, traffic accidents or other mishaps. Even with the necessary restroom stop at Snoqualmie Pass, I was at Bullfrog Pond at 6:30 a.m. – yes I got up pretty early. I was there at 6:30 a.m. but the birds sure weren’t. It was as quiet as I had ever seen it. A couple of sparrows, a couple of Red Winged Blackbirds – and nothing else. The list of potential targets had been long – several warblers, maybe a flycatcher or two, maybe a Sapsucker, thrushes, vireos, finches – none were present or at least found by me. With fingers crossed I crossed over to Wood Duck Road and had six species – all new for the year: Western Bluebird, Mountain Chickadee, Chipping Sparrow, Yellow Rumped Warbler, Dark Eyed Junco and White Breasted Nuthatch. All except the Nuthatch were expected there but so too were some others especially Cassin’s Finches which were everywhere the last time I had visited.

I followed my regular routine checking to see if the feeder across from the Ranger Station in Cle Elum was active and if not then continuing to the Northern Pacific Railroad Ponds in South Cle Elum. The feeders were seedless and thus birdless. I added only three new species at the Railroad Ponds – Black Headed Grosbeak, Yellow Warbler and Pygmy Nuthatch (this is a guaranteed place for them). Again I had expected more and all in all felt that I was already 10 species down for the day – not a welcome feeling.

Pygmy Nuthatch – Railroad Ponds – South Cle Elum

Key targets for this trip included a number of shrub steppe/sagebrush species. Recent fires had destroyed some of the best sagebrush areas but one favorite area – Durr Road off Umptanum Road in Ellensburg had been spared and had recovered somewhat from some fires there last year. I did at least ok on Durr Road with Brewer’s and Vesper Sparrows and a Say’s Phoebe, but where were the Sage Thrashers, Western Meadowlarks, Mountain Bluebirds, Black Billed Magpies and Loggerhead Shrikes that I had seen on my last visit?

The Black Billed Magpie was easy enough to find along the western end of Old Vantage Highway in Ellensburg where I also added Swainson’s Hawk and some Violet Green Swallows close by. A Northern Harrier swooped by me on Hungry Junction Road and I found Wilson’s Snipe at the muddy field on Smithson’s Road but failed to find the Solitary Sandpiper that was the real target. It was decision time Black Necked Stilts and American Avocets were high on my target list. Both were possible at County Line Ponds in Grant County or at Kerry’s Pond in Yakima County. My choice would then determine other areas I would bird afterwards as they were some distance apart and in different directions. I chose Kerry’s Pond. I failed to find any White Throated Swifts at the I-82 Rest Stop – a disappointment but not a big surprise. At Kerry’s Pond, the Stilts cooperated but there were no Avocets. A bonus however were two Redheads (the duck kind). With those two species I was at 100 species – halfway home in less than three days, but these projects always start fast and then slow dramatically. More importantly I felt like I was at least a dozen species behind. And if I had gone the other route to County Line Ponds I may have gotten the Avocet and a chance for White Throated Swifts at Frenchman’s Coulee.

Swainson’s Hawk
Black Necked Stilts – Kerry’s Pond

Being in Yakima County I headed to Oak Creek a go to spot for Lewis’s Woodpecker and usually good for other species including Canyon and Rock Wrens if I were a little lucky and Ash Throated Flycatcher if I was really lucky. Along the way I finally picked up some California Quail at the Sunnyside/Mabton Boat Launch. It was my worst ever visit to Oak Creek – only a single Lewis’s Woodpecker where I usually see a dozen or so and no wrens. The only other bird was a Steller’s Jay. Quiet, quiet and quieter.

Lewis’s Woodpecker – Oak Creek

Another major reason for choosing the Yakima County option was being able to go to the BBQ Flats Horse Camp off Wenas Road where I have had good luck with White Headed Woodpecker, Cassin’s Finch, Evening Grosbeak and Red Crossbills. On this trip, now being called my Quiet Zone Trip, I had a single White Headed Woodpecker and nothing else. I headed back home via North Wenas Road where I finally found some Mountain Bluebirds to bring the days total of new species to 104. It had been a very disappointing day both for quality and quantity of birds and also for quality of experience. Being quiet and not birdy and missing maybe as many as 15 or even 20 species made for little fun. Doubts were creeping in…

Days 4 and 5 – Birding Light

Day 4 started with another dog walk around home – Point Edwards – where our often seen Cooper’s Hawk flew right overhead. Then it was back up to Skagit County where I waited with some other birders for the American Avocet that had been seen there for several days to make an appearance. Maybe it did not receive the invitation or had entered it wrong on its calendar, but it was a disappointing no-show – my second miss in consecutive days with the miss in Eastern Washington the day before. I was done for the day – with not much to show for it – up to 105 and barely counting.

Day 5 was thankfully a little better beginning with a quick jaunt down to the Edmonds off-leash dog park. A new mode of communication for birders is the advent of “WhatsApp” sites for birder groups. Around 7:30 a.m. a message appeared that an Ancient Murrelet had been seen south of the Edmonds Fishing Pier. I was down at the Park 10 minutes later and had a large flock of Mallards fly overhead. Next an Osprey flew by with a fish for breakfast. An American Crow cawed and a Song Sparrow called, bothered by my presence. Heerman’s Gulls whirled about and a Double Crested Cormorant winged its way north. I had my scope and scanned the water north and south and saw only a single dark spot not too far south of me. the size was right. The facial pattern was right. Yep – #106 an Ancient Murrelet.

The Whitehorse Trail in Arlington, Washington follows an old railroad route in the North Stillaguamish Valley with lots of deciduous trees and the potential for both residential and migrating birds. I had not birded there before and on a glorious morning thought it would both be enjoyable and provide a chance for some new species and also was near some other areas I wanted to visit. It proved to be a good decision as I added 7 new species and really enjoyed the beautiful day and some intersections with other birders. There were several female or juvenile Western Tanagers, a Warbling Vireo and a Black Throated Gray Warbler in the large trees along the train and a couple of Tree Swallows were a mix of Barn and Violet Green Swallows. Even better several Vaux Swifts were flying with them. A Spotted Sandpiper worked a sandbar along the river and a Fox Sparrow played hide and seek with us in a brushy area. These were all Group 1 species – counted on for my Big Month so nothing special, but especially in light of recent misses, they were welcomed additions to my count.

Willow Flycatcher

Earlier in the year, Ann Marie Wood had shown me her special spot for American Dipper at the Fortson Mill Pond. Having missed this species at Bull Frog Pond, I really wanted/needed it and sure enough it was doing its dipper thing at the same spot we had seen one previously. Mission accomplished I decided to return to Tulalip Bay and try again for the Black and Ruddy Turnstones. The turnstones are generally seen either along a spit at the west end of the bay or on log booms in the marina. The tide was high suggesting the spit would be mostly covered, so I went to the log booms. Usually the Ruddy Turnstone is with lots of Black Turnstones, some Black Bellied Plovers and maybe some other shorebirds. Today there was only a single shorebird on any of the logs. Hard to believe but indeed it was the Ruddy Turnstone – a species that is at best uncommon in Washington but has been seen regularly at Tulalip Bay the last few years. Finding the Ancient Murrelet and then the Ruddy Turnstone were bookend highlights of the day and I was now at 115 species for the month.

Ruddy Turnstone – Tulalip Bay

Day 6 – Going International

This was the day that Cindy would be leaving for Germany with cousin Greg. My job was to get them to the airport in time for the long check in process for an international flight. Horrendous traffic (far too common in Seattle these days) added time and stress to the trip but we got to SeaTac in time around 11:30 a.m. When originally planning my Big Month, I knew this would make birding tough in the morning but thought I might continue south after the drop off and chase some targets possibly ending in Clark County, spending the night and then continuing East. Then a Curlew Sandpiper showed up at Boundary Bay in British Columbia. This species is very rare in the ABA Area (US and Canada) and although I had seen it Africa, I very much wanted to add it to my ABA Life list. I had looked for one in B.C, some years earlier at Reifel Refuge with good friend Melissa Hafting. No luck. Now Melissa had found another one at Boundary, a famous shorebird area outside of Vancouver and invited me up for another go if it was seen again the next day. It was, so I changed plans and headed to B.C. after the airport run. Just before 2:30 p.m. I was with Melissa at Boundary Bay and the chase was on.

Mel is a great birder and a better person. I had seen many lifers in B.C. either with her or with her guidance and help. We walked up and down the shorebird flats where others were looking as well. After about 2 and a half hours we re-intersected with one of the people we had talked to early. She thought she had probably seen it on a piece of driftwood and showed us her photo. Yep that was it. Unfathomably she had not gotten the word to others including us and it would have been easy to do. So the bad news is we had missed it by maybe 10 minutes. The good news is that it was still around. We and others redoubled our efforts and continued searching for another couple of hours until the light and tide faded. No success. As I always say though, there are always consolation prizes. In this case it was spending quality time with Melissa and also seeing some other great birds including Pectoral, Baird’s and most importantly Buff Breasted Sandpipers. The latter is quite rare but seen briefly most years in Washington somewhere along the Coast. One had been seen within the last few days in southern Pacific County (a 4 hour drive from my home) and was on my “maybe go for it list”. It is a beautiful, subtly colored shorebird – a favorite. Unfortunately seeing it in B.C. did not count for my Big Month list – limited to sightings in Washington State only.

Buff Breasted Sandpiper – Boundary Bay, B.C.
Pectoral Sandpiper – Boundary Bay, B.C.
Baird’s Sandpiper – Boundary Bay, B.C.

Day 7 – Back to Canada? No.

I got home pretty late from B.C. with yet another miss for the year even if not for September. At the time I felt that I would have traded Big September for the Curlew Sandpiper – I really do want to see one in the ABA Area – maybe it will be next year and even better if it is in Washington!! I had a two day trip planned back to Eastern Washington on September 8th and 9th and some personal matters to attend to on the 7th so when Melissa texted that the Curlew Sandpiper was being seen well that morning I just could not head back north. If it was guaranteed that I would see it, I may have gone, but there are no guarantees in birding especially during migration and especially when tides may make a difference. I knew I would be getting an early start the next morning and limited myself to looking for waterbirds near home. From Ocean Avenue I was able to see some Rhinoceros Auklets, Horned Grebes, a Short Billed Gull and a Marbled Murrelet – not rare, all counted on for the month, but at this point every addition mattered so a good day under the circumstances.

The first week of the Big Month was done. The unexpected foray to B.C. and some personal matters had limited real birding time to just over 4 days. I had seen 119 species – almost 60 percent of the goal – but it had been a disappointing week, a less than expected start. If things had gone according to plan – or maybe if I had had a better plan and executed it better, I would have been between 130 and 140 species so far and would have felt better. The next week would start with that two day trip to Eastern Washington and I needed it to go well. Did it? You can find out in the next blog post.