Thursday, January 20, 2011

San Juan County 1/16

My first ferry ride of the year!  I will admit that I am still a kid with ferries.  I'm on a boat!  WooHoo!  Never mind that it was pitch black as we left Anacortes...

Actually from when I was leaving San Juan Island, but better than an all dark picture...
Got to Friday Harbor on San Juan Island, and grabbed some dinner at the Blue Water Bar and Grill - right near the ferry terminal.  Good chowder, and a very cool bar (a fairly faithful remodel of a 1906 salloon) and I ended up next to a couple who were from Renton and Issaquah originally.  The bartender was from San Juan originally, spent some time in Kent, "..and then I came back..." she said as if she was a little puzzled by the decision.  I don't know that I could do island life - it seems that a ferry commute, despite my stance on ferries, is not as energizing as I might imagine.  Staying on the island could feel isolating, especially when business is so seasonal.  Still... it was very hard to leave the island at the end of the trip... but I'm getting ahead of myself a little.

How often is it cheaper to stay somewhere than it is to get there?  Ferry: $40.  Room: $35.  The Wayfarer's Rest is a hostel in Friday Harbor, which may be quite busy in the summer, but I had the whole place to myself on this night in January (not unheard of in the off-season, I hear).  Full kitchen - wish I'd brought some eggs!  Grabbed a shower, and called it a night.

Got up early again for owls - something I'll feel obligated to do during this year if I feel like I've got a chance to see an owl I haven't for the year.  15 owl species can be seen in Washington in a good year (Snowy, Spotted, Northern Hawk-owl, Western Screech-owl, Burrowing, Barn, Barred, Short-eared, Long-eared, Northern Saw-whet, Northern Pygmy-owl, Flammulated, Boreal, Great Horned and Great Gray.  Great Horned are common on the island, so I drove San Juan Valley Road a bit - listening and calling... nothin.

American Camp - San Juan Island

Got to my dawn destination after that - the American Camp Visitor Center.  Walked out to the wide open fields and as soon as it started to get light - Short-eared Owls!  As it got lighter, they continued to swoop over the fields, stopping now and then to chase what I'm assuming were bunnies.  First time I've been able to see these owls hunting in good light... and I forgot the camera. Ah well.  Just kept watching them until they gave up for the morning.  I did some birding at South Beach at that point - nothing out of the ordinary, but an Eagle perched on a snag while I scoped the water.

Approaching Cattle Point Light
My next big stop after that was Cattle Point.  I have a few happy memories of this place.  I first came here with Bre to see the Cattle Point Lighthouse (and also Lime Kiln - not visited on this trip), and in my first year of teaching, we also came here for our ninth grade trip, which coincided with a lunar eclipse.  We drove the bus out to Cattle Point at night, and were treated to the moon rising in eclipse.  One of the most beautiful sights I've seen.
Cattle Point Light

Prickly rose bushes were pretty common

Cattle Point was the best stop of the trip for sea birds.  They were out a bit too far for good pictures, but I had Pacific and Common Loons - dozens of each - Harlequin Ducks, Marbled Murrelets, Common Murre, Pigeon Guillemots, Buffleheads, Red-breasted Mergansers, Pelagic Cormorants and Double-crested Cormorants.  In addition, walking the path to the lighthouse led me to House Finches, Golden- and White-crowned Sparrows, as well as a Merlin and a Sharp-shinned Hawk.

Bailer Hill Road and San Juan Valley Road run east-west across the farmland in the middle of the island.  Driving through here, I found a lot of ducks, including Canvasback at Lake Zylstra, and Geese, including Canada and Cackling.  I made a run up Roche Harbor Road after grabbing lunch in town, and found some Trumpeter Swans on one of the lakes.  Also found a perfectly fine telescope for $25 at the thrift store on that road.  Sadly no good mugs...

Went to the ferry terminal to wrap up my trip, and learned that the 2:50 ferry was walk-on passengers only.  I had another hour and a half!  First thing I did was to return to American Camp to look for a bird I knew would be hard to find on my other trips this year - Black Oystercatcher.  I hadn't seen any on the rocks earlier in the day, but decided to walk down to Grandma's Cove from the visitor center.  Success!
Black Oystercatchers!  Saw some more from the ferry flying overhead

Grandma's Cove
 Made one more stop on the way out - Jakle's Lagoon (below), then it was time for a nap while waiting for the ferry.  Good trip to the island, and 50+ species for the day.  I was sad to leave - I don't get up here often enough.  Happily, Bre's idea of travel also includes places like this.  I'll be back.

So happy to get home after four days out, but they were good days, and I had three counties 'done' with 39 birds or more seen in each.  A couple weeks away from a trip to the Southwest corner - Lewis, Cowlitz, Clark and Wahkiakum -  in early February.
Leaving American Camp - the moon peeking out

Jakle's Lagoon

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Intermission: Skagit and Snohomish

So these counties were Just-Passing-Through counties for this trip, but had some interesting experiences, and did get a few pictures, so I thought I'd share.  First of all, coming down through Skagit in the winter, I couldn't skip out on Snow Geese - I took Chuckanut Drive down, and came through some farmland.  I was a  little pressed for time with the conference about to start, but was able to pull over for a Eurasian Wigeon (not 'supposed' to be here with American Wigeon, but some of them head south down the wrong continent - a fair share of those give up on heading South once they're in Skagit), and an American Kestrel.  Ooh, also a barn (above)

Poked around some fields, and had 6 Tundra Swans fly overhead.  Thank goodness they were calling - the much easier way to tell them from Trumpeter Swans, which sound like... a trumpet.  Then I found a field full of Snow Geese: 

Snow Geese from Josh Wilson Road - Snohomish

...and in flight.  5 Bazillion of anything is cool, I believe.
At this point, I needed to scurry off to the conference in Everett.  Small thing, but I have to say I haven't quite figured out Everett traffic.  It always seems bunched up... and then today, the exit that I planned to take was only available from northbound 5.  Going south, I had to go right past the place I wanted to go, by a mile or two, and take the next exit.  From there, I wended my way back through town.  Leaving was about as bad - you can't hop right onto I5 from the Everett Holiday Inn from all I can tell... not northbound anyway, so I ended up driving a goooood bit of Everett!

What happened then was a little strange. I wanted to take 140th Avenue (Firetrail Road) over to Marine Drive, then up to Stanwood.  Not the quickest way to get there, but I'd seen posts for Great Horned Owls in the area, and it's a good enough time of year to look for them...  Again, the road I wanted was far enough off of the freeway exit, so I needed to wind around this way and the dark... without directions or Mapquest.  This is the Seven Lakes area (Loma, Martha, Goodwin, Ki, Shoecraft, Crabapple and Howard), so the roads get a little twisty. 

Wasn't planning on driving by the home where I lived from age 5-8, but I did.  Driving along some road, I saw the sign indicating a firehouse, slowed and stopped in front of the firehouse itself, pulling up vague memories of walking up here to buy a bottle of soda now and then.  I backed the car up and saw the driveway - still the same tangles of brush all along it up to the corner where I'd catch the bus.  So strange to be grasping for memories of a place where I lived when I was old enough to remember, but not old enough to really put a good map together in my head... 

Neat at the time, but very haunting when I tried to make my way back to a major road.  Got turned around, and ended up right back where I made the first wrong turn, with no idea how I had made my way to my childhood home.  Still couldn't trace it out on a map, exactly what happened, and I wonder if I should try?

A little lost here....

Good evening of poker with Matt once I got to Stanwood.  Talked to his friends about the year I'm doing, and they were puzzled that there were even 39 different kinds of birds!  That said, they tried listing some, and came up with some I probably wasn't aware of around me until very recently (Kingfishers, for example..).  I told them that 10 years ago, I believed that the Starlings I saw were just baby crows - a fact that always lets people know that I understand.

The next AM, I swung over to Eide Road outside of Stanwood.  I was hoping for Barn Owls, based on my Opperman book "A Birders Guide to Washington" (hereafter, just "Opperman" - apologies to my non-birding friends).  Looked up and down for a barn whrere they might be, and asked some hunters if they ever saw owls in the mornings.  They referred me to "Pierre", who told me where he saw them - "The howls used to leeve in the barn, but zey tore eet down."  Things change! 

Stanwood area - across the Stilliguamish

Snow Geese, Trumpeter Swans, Marsh Wrens, Dunlin, and a Fox Sparrow were the highlights of the morning, then off to a full day at the coaching conference.  Next up, the San Juans (two days behind now, but catching up as quick as I can!)

Monday, January 17, 2011

Northwest Washington - Entry one: Whatcom County

Had a Friday/Saturday coaching conference in Everett, so I made Whatcom and San Juan counties my bookends for the trip, inserting some visits with friends and family as well.  Left school on Thursday after my last class, and actually decided to take Chuckanut, rather than I5, to see if I would end up in a good spot to see some Short-eared Owls in Skagit before meeting up with a friend in Bellingham.  I did see a few - the clearest I'd seen these owls hunting, but it was not my best view of them for the weekend (stay tuned for a San Juan post!)

Boundary Bay Brewing Company - Bellingham

One of the things I'm looking forward to during this trip is spending time with friends and family that are spread around the state a bit.  Thursday evening was a great start to my year, meeting up with a high school friend at Boundary Bay Brewing in Bellingham.  A Western Washington grad at the lunch table at school told me that I had to have the BBQ pork sandwich here, and Mitch agreed.  It is, pardon me, a damn fine sandwich. 

I was hoping to do some owling in the morning - it's the right time of year - and chatted with Mitch about this.  He's not a birder, but gets out around the county a good bit on his bike, so he mentioned several places where he's seen owls during the day, including Whatcom Falls State Park.  In the morning, I checked my map, and realized that the park was really close, so I drove up, and almost immediately after getting out of my car was greeted by a Western Screech-owl calling in the tree right above me.  After two calls, he was done for the day - I walked the park a little more, then decided that wind+drizzle+dark-flashlight= time to go.

Next stop - Blaine!

Boundary Bay, and the Peace Arch

Take a walk with me
And talk with me about Blaine,
The City by the Bay,
Where the sky is blue and people true
And mountains are just a look away.
Blaine, the Peace Arch City.
Blaine, the City by the Bay.
Blaine, the place to live and play.
Blaine, Washington, is our home.

Okay... the sky wasn't blue, and I couldn't see any mountains, but I had to include that bit of "Blaine, the Peace Arch City", written by fourth grade students from Blaine Elementary back in 1979.  Had several college friends from Blaine - one of whom would pull out that song every now and then. 

Blaine Marina, with mixed scoter flock
The Blaine Marina was very windy!  I was able to find some good waterbirds.  The first of which was a Long-Tailed Duck as it was just getting light.  I got a dark dark picture of it, and didn't go back to it, thinking I'd see a lot of those on this trip - whoops!  White-winged Scoters were the bird that I saw the most during the day - nearly everywhere in large numbers - more than I have ever seen down in King county by quite a stretch.  The dots in the picture by the Peace Arch were geese.  Most were Canada, a fair number were Cackling Geese, and two Snow Geese were really easy to find as well.

Snow Geese?  I thought so, but no black
on the tail!  Some kind of domestic varmints..
From Blaine, I went around Drayton Harbor to Semiahmoo Spit.  It was a windy morning, and a spit is not a good place to be when the wind is blowing.  In the choppy waves, there were a lot of scoters - both White-winged and Surf- and Harlequin Ducks, beautiful ducks that love choppy water.  A Northern Pintail was a surprising find, and I also found one each of Red-throated and Common Loon.  The spit was beautiful - I hadn't visited it before, but would love to be there on a sunny day when I didn't feel the need to run for the car.

Cutting across to Birch Bay, I found a Pacific Loon among other birds, including Brant, scoters, and Harlequin Ducks.  Killdeer on the shore were my only shorebirds of the day.  Pacific Loon was one that I had really wanted to see here, as I have seemed to have a hard time finding them in my neck of the woods, although I thought I had one at Birch Bay (see photo below), another look at it, and I realized that this was another Common Loon - the bill is huuuuge compared to a Pacific.  Still a tricky one for me! 

Harlequin Ducks at Birch Bay

Pacific Loon?.... nope - it's a Common Loon that had me tricked

Birch Bay

...but at some point, a path is not a path.
From Birch Bay, I went away from the saltwater and over to Lake Terrell.  This is a hunting area - certainly not the last time that I'll pass through one this year!  The people that look at the birds and the people that shoot them don't always agree on things, but preserves like this are designed to make sure there's plenty of birds, which is fine by all of us.  Nice setting, and found some birds that I had not previously, but nothing out of the ordinary here.  Helped one person out by explaining that the black 'ducks' on the lake are called coots.  Didn't tell them that they're not ducks... nobody likes that...

Northern Pintail - out of curiosity, I looked it up on a hunting
forum... it says that they taste "like duck".

Lake Terrell

Sandy Point was my next stop - again, a lot of new birds, but nothing unusual.  Then it was on to the Lummi Flats.  This area was quite beautiful, sitting on the Lummi Reservation.  There's a lot of wide open land used by geese and swans (although I saw none on my trip), and that brings with it a lot of raptors (which I did see).  Bald Eagles, Northern Harrier and Cooper's Hawk were out today.  Found about 20 Common Ravens in a field, which seemed odd until I saw the deer carcass they were on. 

Lummi Flats
Northern Harrier - Lummi Flats
This was my last stop in Whatcom before heading south.  Wish I could insert a picture of Mt. Baker, but the clouds wouldn't give me a break.  A beautiful day nonetheless, and 58 different species of birds for the county.  Two down!

Sunday, January 2, 2011

One county down...

Got out this morning and poked around Renton a little bit.  Since I'm visiting all of the counties, and getting pictures as I go, I wanted to make sure to include some of my favorite things in Renton, so here's the library.  I love that it's built over the Cedar River.  Also warms my heart to think of all of the books purchased with my overdue fines...

Olympic Range from Gene Coulon Memorial Park


Also...Bufflehead and Common Merganser

Gene Coulon Memorial Park is also one of my favorite places in the city.  It sits on the very southern end of Lake Washington, it's pretty ducky, and there's great play equipment for the kiddos.  This morning, as I arrived, I caught the resident flock of Greater White-fronted Geese leaving - thirty of them leaving in a ragged line.  Canada Geese, Mallards, Coots and a single Pied-Billed Grebe were in the little swimming area in front of the beach. 

Greater Scaup? Lesser Scaup?
I walked out from the play area to Bird Island, and had a nice view of the Olympics, as well as a fair number of water birds: Horned Grebe, Northern Shoveler, Common Goldeneye and Double-crested Cormorant.   I like looking at ducks.  They usually stay right where you can see them.  Some of them dive, but they come back up, and they don't hide up in branches like so many birds do. They're also uuusssually easy to identify, although below I have a picture of one that I am going to just look at a bit more before I call it.  It's either a Greater or Lesser Scaup.  Almost identical, but the head shape is a little different between them.  Also shot some ducks flying overhead and found that they were Northern Pintails!

Northern Pintails flying overhead

Not a great picture... I just like that there are 10+ Great Blue Herons here,
and that the Boeing building is in the background.  Being around Boeing
buildings with binoculars and cameras can sometimes arouse suspicion, by the way.
Coulon is one of several natural areas in the county where this can be learned.

With Red-Tailed Hawk on the way home, I ended up at 43 species seen in the county, with two shortish trips.  I hope the rest end up being as easy!  Later in the day, I had an errand to run in Auburn and found seven more (Wester Scrub-Jay, Cackling Goose, Green-winged Teal, American Wigeon, Killdeer, Golden-crowned Sparow, and White-Crowned Sparrow) in a field near Emerald Downs to make it a nice even 50 in King County for the year. 

Ring-billed Gull

Saturday, January 1, 2011

Waking up in King County

Here there be coyotes!

Got out this morning thinking I'd make the first bird of the year an owl.  Each year, I keep a list of the birds that I've seen, and for the last several years, the first entry on that list has been American Crow.  In an effort to beat the crows this year, I got out to the wild area under the power lines running by Royal Hills in Renton.  It's open space, it's got little critters to eat and seems like a good place to find some owls.

7:00 A.M., I got out of the car, and am greeted by the sound of coyotes howling!  I've seen them now and then on these trails, but didn't really need to see one close up today, so I stayed close to the car, hooted a bit and listened a bit.  No owls, but the first birds of the year were not crows!  A Spotted Towhee, Song Sparrow and American Robin all woke up before the crows had made the commute.

The crows did arrive soon thereafter.  In my neck of the woods, they head east every morning, and then west in the evening.  There's a giant roost that seems to have moved around a bit over the last few years, but is basically down between I5 and Hwy 167.  Thousands of crows from miles around go there at night, and make the commute back out in the morning. 

On the way back home, I got this shot of Mount Rainier with a sliver of the moon still in the sky at sunrise.  The little black dot right of Rainier is one of the first crows heading east.

Renton Park
After breakfast, I set back out to walk the neighborhood, up to Lindbergh High School, through Renton Park and back.  Highlights of the walk were a Common Raven being chased by crows through the neighborhood (usually hard to find unless you're a little farther out), a Varied Thrush (my favorite bird) in Renton Park and two Red-Breasted Sapsuckers.

The sapsuckers were interesting in part because they were tough to find last week.  The Kent-Auburn Christmas Bird Count took place on the 26th, with dozens of people birding the area extensively and it was a species that wasn't found.  One of them I found in Renton Park (left), and the other (below) was on a tree right next door as I got back home.  The systematically drilled holes are a sure sign that a sapsucker has been working on a tree.

Red-breasted Sapsucker

Other birds of the morning: Bewick's Wren, House Sparrow, Black-Capped Chickadee, Dark-eyed Junco, Northern Flicker, Chestnut-backed Chickadee, Downy Woodpecker, Rock Pigeon, Glaucous-winged Gull, Yellow-rumped Warbler, Anna's Hummingbird, Starling, House Finch, Golden-crowned Kinglet, Fox Sparrow, American Goldfinch, Pine Siskin, Steller's Jay, Ruby-crowned Kinglet and Mallard.

27 birds for the morning, and a nice start to the year in my own neighborhood. :)

39 birds in 39 counties

Okay, let me explain three things that have come together here: 

1.        I’m turning 39 in 2011.  Kind of the thing you do before turning 40.  Going into my 40th year, I’m hoping to take some time to clear the brain, reflect, look for clarity, etc.
2.       When Bre and I first started dating, we went on a road trip around Puget Sound looking for lighthouses.  I love maps, and I traced out the roads we travelled in my big Washington gazetteer.  Over the years, we kept tracing new lines in there as we drove them together.  Eventually, we realized that it was a good bit of the state we had covered together – why not hit all 39?  We eventually finished this up on a trip to Pend Oreille County, and fell in love with a lot of little corners of the state.  Orondo, Republic, Goldendale, Clarkston, Coupeville, all the national parks, waterfalls, Grand Coulee Dam…
3.       Just as we were finishing up our 39th county was about the time I started noticing the birds in the back yard, and everywhere else around me.  I think it was a Killdeer at Cedar River Park that finally pushed me to get a field guide – it was nesting, and I was walking too close to the nest, so it did this crazy thing, leading me away from the nest and pretending to have a broken wing.  I’d wondered enough about some of the things that I’d seen, and this was kind of the last straw! 

So our state has SO many different beautiful places: rainforest, islands, lakes, sandy beaches, mountains, sage, farmland and prairies.  Each of these places is home for a slightly different set of birds – and whenever I go to a new spot in the state (or out of state), the different things that I see and hear have added to my sense of place.  I’ve been back to some of these places since the end of our 39 county tour, but there are many that I’m dying to see again.

So… in 2011, I’m going to try to hit all of the counties in the state.  While I’m there, I’m hoping to see at least 39 species of birds in each county.  Just playing around with it this year, it seems like this usually means making a couple of stops in different places in the county.  One visit to a seashore, or lake, or trail, or park will usually give you a couple dozen different kinds of birds if you’re paying attention, but 39 will probably take another stop.  Many of these will be hit shortly after school ends in June.  This is the time when most of the birds are done migrating and are still singing before they get to July and start serious nesting.  There will be some other trips here and there, and some of the trips I’ll make with the fam, but I’m really looking forward to seeing a lot of the state in this big swing, and getting some much needed time to think.