Sunday, March 27, 2011

Back from Othello: Saturday Afternoon 3/26

Sadly, my best Sandhill Crane picture of the day.
Okay, when there's a bazillion of something nearby, you're supposed to get the pictures.  I'm not sure that the doorstop here stacks up well against the real thing, but there was pressure to come back with pictures ("Just come back with good pictures", Bre has usually added each time as I set off on these trips.)  I was close enough to Othello, though, so I thought it would be wrong not to at least pop in, and see what a festival looks like.

The Othello High School Gym - home base for the Sandhill Crane Festival

Okay, worth pointing out that the Washington/Oregon Potato Conference was also underway.  I had to get a picture of the French Fry Man - my daughter is looking over my shoulder and laughing at him right now.  Personally...can't stomach the costumes - Disneyland... keep away Eeyore;  Mariner's game...the Moose is fine from a distance.  I was too late to sign up for most of the tours that went out on buses (Burrowing Owl tours, boat tours, crane viewing tours), but it was still interesting to see what groups were set up, including WSU's raptor center.   They had some raptors that couldn't be rereleased to the wild - amazing to see a Golden Eagle up close.  They really are huge.  Haven't seen one in the wild before, and it was just amazing how big they are (and how small a Sharp-shinned Hawk is!)

Bob and I scan the fields for signs of his brethren...

One thing I grabbed in the exhibits was a map of Burrowing Owl sites.  If my daughter would have enjoyed any picture, it would have been one of a Burrowing Owl.  I even brought Bob, our stuffed Burrowing Owl along for the ride.  I swung by three different active nesting spots, and struck out.  The only encounter I've had with these owls is still the one that inexplicably showed up at the Downtown Renton Post Office!  It stayed for the better part of a week before moving on to places where the burrow building is easier.  

I was only in Adams county for a short bit, but picked up 16 species before I was out.  I missed Sandhill Cranes, but got all of my doves (Rock, Mourning and Eurasian Collared-Dove), a lot of blackbirds (no Yellow-headed yet though), and before I left - some White-crowned Sparrows, which were singing with a distinct accent.  These were the Gambelii subspecies, rather than the Pugetensis that I'm used to - a little grayer on the breast, and an orange-ish bill, rather than yellow.  Little things, but when you see enough of a bird, you know when something's different!  One of them posed for me:

White-crowned Sparrow - Gambelii subspecies

Off from the county line, I moved on to I-90 and the area south of Ephrata.  I totally drove around the Potholes area and Moses Lake, but will hit them in the summer!  After checking out some more possible Burrowing Owl sites, I moved on to HWY 28 which goes east to Quincy.  Here I found one of the birds I'd hoped to find on this trip - Long-billed Curlews!  A dozen of them were feeding in the field south of the highway.  Wouldn't have noticed them, perhaps, but a Northern Harrier (the 80th of the day) caught my eye.  These curlews are some funny birds.  It's like a little sandpiper was given some goose DNA, and then given bill erectile dysfunction.  Giant shorebirds with droopy bills.  They were far away, but I had to get what photos I could:
Long-Billed Curlews - East of Quincy

a closer look
I finished the day on Monument Hill in the Beezley Hills. While I was hoping for a Sage Sparrow up here, once I took in the view from the top, it didn't matter that the only sounds around me were the meadowlarks.  I could probably see to Moses Lake in one direction, to the Columbia in another, and off into Douglas County to the north.  I'll finish this post with parts of the panorama.

Doesn't half do it justice here.  I was just stunned by how beautiful this was.  It was so big.  We don't get that in the Seattle area all that often, where you can just see forever...

Driving back with the light of the afternoon (all of this, and I was done by 3), I was struck again and again by these trees with orange - bright orange branches. I don't know what they were, but there were many of them lining the west bank of the Columbia, and I had my breath taken from me again. 

And I made it back in time for dinner! 

To Othello: Saturday morning 3/26

Came down with a fever on Thursday, so I stayed home Friday and rested up in preparation to drive our team to an invitational meet in Ephrata on Saturday.  In the late afternoon, I got a call from one of my coaches - illness, injury, and ineligibility had reduced our team considerably (and we're not huge to start with!), so that we were facing a 15 hour day with 6-7 athletes, and no relays, rather than 12-15 athletes, several relays, and lots of reasons to cheer.  I'd actually looked into what might be flying around as we drove, and was hoping to catch some cranes passing overhead during the meet, or maybe some Long-billed Curlews in the fields on the way home.  Life gave me a lemon here, so I decided to make a lemonade trip to Grant County!

Almost dawn - East of Ellensburg
 One idea I've concocted in this whole process is that it's good to get where I want to go by daylight.  Spending the first hours of dawn in King County in a car and arriving after the morning chorus was done would be less than ideal!  So I left reeaally early, and found the sky starting to light as I got on the Old Vantage Highway headed east from Ellensburg.  I was happy to hear my first Western Meadowlark of the year at an early pull-off.  Hundreds more of them would be the soundtrack to my day!

Loggerhead or Northern Shrike?
 It's spring, so the birds are just starting to change.  One change that I should have prepared for a bit better was the changing of the shrikes.  There are Northern Shrikes (which I've seen), and Loggerhead Shrikes (which I haven't).  Both of these hang out in the part of Kittitas County I was driving, and both of them are possible at this time of year.  I pulled over at the visitor center at the Gingko Petrified Forest, and was greeted by a shrike.  A quick look at it and at my Sibley, and I called it a Loggerhead Shrike - enjoyed a new life bird for a few minutes, took a picture, and continued on with my short walk.  These things are harder to tell apart than that, however, and when I got back, I had all kinds of reasons to doubt the ID.  It's on top of a tall tree, for one, which isn't what the Loggerheads usually do, and the breast in this picture is looking pretty gray - should be whiter in a Loggerhead.  I will lean towards Northern, and more importantly, leave it unidentified for now, and be better prepared in the future. 

Fossilized wood - Gingko Petrified Forest State Park
All of that aside, they really are cool birds.  The only songbirds, I believe, that will eat other birds!  They eat a lot of insects as well - nabbing them, then saving them for later by skewering them on anything sharp they can find, like thorns or barbed wire.  On the Christmas Bird Count back in December, we saw a Dunlin skewered on barbed wire, and puzzled over whether it had done that to itself or if a shrike had done it...

Petrified wood is also very cool - although I didn't do the full walk today, I snuck up the trail far enough to take a peek at some Douglas Fir that grew millions of years ago.

Dawn from Gingko PFSP

Read your signs, Tim!
 Off and away!  I made my way across the Vantage Bridge to enter Grant County for the first time this year.  On the far side, there were a few choices:  I-90 and Hwy 26 are the big east-west roads through the county, but I took a right and went further down the Columbia River to Lower Crab Creek Road.  I stopped along the way to scope the Columbia, but found very few ducks from the places I stopped, including Wanapum Dam.  Snapped a picture of a very informative sign that was too much reading for me at that hour (at right).  Was worth a read later, though, and I kind of wished that I had gazed over to the other side and thought "Firing Center", as it would have helped knit together my mental map of the state.

Saddle Mountains, sagebrush, and sand dunes

Okay, got this straight - if you head east on I-90, the Frenchman Hills are on your right.  If you head east on HWY 26, the Frenchman Hills are on your left, and the Saddle Mountains are a bit farther off on your right.  I was on Lower Crab Creek Road, which hugs the Saddle Mountains tightly.  The view above was most of the drive - beautiful dramatically sloping hills with clouds easing over their tops.  My only real stop along the way was at a short hike to Nunnally Lake, a fishing spot on the north side of the road.  Meadowlarks were still everywhere, and I also heard my first Ring-necked Pheasant of the year, calling from deep in some brush when I startled it.  The lake was also not incredibly birdy, although I did hear the chattering of Marsh Wrens.

Western Meadowlark - Grant County
Lower Crab Creek Road at its most primitive - not so bad
The road was a very easy place to bird - you could see things and pull over!  There wasn't much in the way of traffic, and the people that did come through would give you the raise-a-finger-off-of the-steering-wheel wave - very friendly.  Pulling over when I saw things flitting around in the trees helped me to find a lot of songbirds, including some Townsend's Solitaires, also the first of the year.  At one point, the road stopped being paved.  "Primitive road ahead" is not usually a good sign, but this turned out to be very drivable, even as it wound up into the Saddle Mountains a little bit. 

As I came back down from high points, and got close to the Adams county line, I saw something I was hoping to see - hundreds of Sandhill Cranes filling the sky in the distance, then coming down on a field.  From here, I couldn't make my way over to where they had landed, and I didn't get a shot of them in the air.  I'll include my Sandhill Crane picture in the next post (oh it's something to see...).

The Grant/Adams county line from Lower Crab Creek Road

Monday, March 21, 2011

A Bit of Ineffective Chasing: Snohomish County 3/20

Yesterday was the first track meet of the year - and a lovely day at the track.  I got home and found on Tweeters (a birding listserv, from back before there was twittering...) that there was a Red-faced Cormorant in Clallam County, and a Little Gull at Edmonds in Snohomish County, along with a Glaucous Gull.  The cormorant is only the second state record for that species, the Little Gull is fairly unusual, and would also be a life bird for me, and the Glaucous Gull.... well they're around plenty, but I've been missing them all winter, including one or two that were right here in Renton!

Bre's had the kids on her own this track season, so I was freeing her up from them on Sunday - but how far to drag the two of them....?  I fired up Google Maps to find out just how far away Joyce, WA out in Clallam County (on the Olympic Peninsula) was from Renton.  2 hours 45 minutes... yikes!  But the suggested route was going to take me to Edmonds to catch a ferry... hmmmm... :)  Although I considered it, I gave the cormorant a pass (it was not seen Sunday, despite several people out looking), and packed us up for Snohomish County. 

This was the county next door, so I hadn't really planned trips to Snohomish, planning to wait until something unusual popped up like this so I could chase it.  So the year list for the county was at 15.  The life list for the county, however, was at 81.  I was kind of curious about how close to 100 I could push it!  Edmonds has a couple of good spots in a small area - lots of beach access, and a little marsh close to the ferry terminal that holds freshwater ducks and songbirds.

A level 4 Eastern Kingbird that Declan and I saw in the summer.  Special move: Flycatch!
We headed up I5 armed with the yummy little Starbucks donuts, ten tulips, some crayons and coloring books for Maura, and Declan's Nintendo DS.  The DS has become our standard agreement for Declan coming along to look for birds.  He's happy enough to enjoy the out-of-doors when we get where we're going, but it makes a long car ride shorter for him.  He's playing Pokemon games on there right now - you run around and try to catch wild Pokemon, some more rare than others, and there's certain places where you have to go to find certain Pokemon, and different types with different abilities.... I've told him it sounds frighteningly like birding sometimes!  We even started concocting a similar game with birds - see a bird, get a card.  Rare bird? Higher level.  See it again?  It levels up.  Osprey's special move? Plunge Dive.  Brown Creeper's special move? Camoflague.  Haven't gotten around to printing those cards yet, although I may be too late if this post is read by an enterprising individual.

First stop, Holyrood Cemetary, right on the King/Snohomish line on the highway out to the Edmonds Ferry.  I've been here a lot, and there are no unusual birds flying through, normally, but it's got a lot of nice trees, including a willow that I'm quite fond of, so you get a lot of the usual birds.  Today - crows, starlings, Pine Siskins, chickadees, Red-Breasted Nuthatch, a woodpecker which stayed hidden, and some Golden-crowned Kinglets, which I think I have decided are the birds that remind me of Kieran most.  Very cute, very delicate birds that are always singing. 

I have a colleague that paints dead birds, and I once came across a Golden-crowned Kinglet, lying at the foot of a tree on the path up Echo Mountain not too far from home.  So strange - I've seen dead birds, but usually it's been the work of a cat, or hawk, and there's not much left to speak of.  This one was in good shape - a beautiful bird - but it was so strange to see it silent and still.  I packed it into a fruit snack wrapper which Declan had cleared out for me, delicately pocketed the bird and continued to race him up the hill - years ago now.

This is King - over there is Snohomish
 We left five tulips with Kieran, and I cleaned up his stone while Declan and Maura played on "The Montana Rock", a giant rock directly behind him.  Maura was able to climb it for the first time today.  From the top she asked if this was seven.  "Seven?"  "No, Dad.  Is.. this.. heaven?"   Ah - because this is where Kieran is... Declan took that question for me, and I just kept cleaning and let them discuss theology, and the doctrine of the resurrection of the body.  Declan probably did it better than me.  We took another moment, and got back into the car with our five tulips, ready to drive on the Snohomish side of the road all the way up to Edmonds.

Edmonds Marsh
 Chasing birds:  running off to see a rare bird that may not be around for long.  I've done a bit more of it in the last year or two, although I think that even this one is the farthest away I've gone strictly for that purpose.  There are people that will cross the country, if there's a good chance of seeing something new.  I'm glad there are still a lot of things I haven't seen!  Just across the county line is fine with me for travel.  I actually pulled us over at the Edmonds Marsh first.  A Bald Eagle flew overhead, and two Anna's Hummingbirds zipped around the brush on the side of the boardwalk.  It was, however, a little cold, so this was not a terribly long stop!

Puget Sound, Mount Baker, and the little spit that I couldn't quite get to..
Next, I passed the ferry terminal and started to look for the places described in posts.  I should have printed it out!  To be fair, I correctly guessed which sandy spit held the Bonaparte Gull flock that the Little Gull was hanging out with, but I was convinced that there was a way to  get closer to it than I was.  There is, as it turns out, a significant bit of Edmonds shoreline which cannot be accessed by car, including this little spit.  I drove the side streets a bit to discover this information independently. 

Red-breasted Merganser
 I kind of expected there might be someone visible somewhere with a pair of binoculars hanging from their neck to point me in the right direction, but it was not to be.  No Little Gull today, and not as many birds for me as I'd hoped.  I'm sure out there, more were out there but the cold drove me back to the car after a few short scans of the water.  Still, I was able to find dozens and dozens of Brant, Surf and Black Scoters, Buffleheads, Common Goldeneyes, and Red-Breasted Mergansers, among others.  I moved Snohomish up to 35 for the year, and up to 85 for my life list in the county.  It was a good day despite the failed chase!

Brant on Edmonds waterfront

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Early spring birding at the Montlake Fill 3/17

Spring is on its way, and track season is here.  This confluence of events means that most of my spring birding is done locally, with the exception of a few of our invitational meets, and some spring break trips I've got planned.  Today I decided I was overdue for an entry, so I hit the Montlake Fill by the University of Washington.  Technically, this is the "Union Bay Natural Area", but it is referred to by most birders as the Montlake Fill, or just "The Fill" because it is a natural area that has been built over a former dump. 

Bewick's Wren
I parked by the UW's Center for Urban Horticulture, and as I changed shoes with the doors open, I heard robins, a Spotted Towhee, Song Sparrow, Bewick's Wren, Steller's Jay, and Black-capped Chickadee.  So many birds were singing today, and the species continued to roll in as I walked past the greenhouses - American Crow, Glaucous-winged Gull, Anna's Hummingbird, House Finch.  I can still remember vividly seeing my first American Goldfinch along this stretch.  None here today, but I ran into plenty as I continued.

I caught two birds today that I hadn't seen before at the Fill, but I'm sure I'll see plenty of in future visits, two Western Scrub-Jays.  These birds have been more and more visible farther and farther north each year, and this pair seems to have set up permanent residence.  Coming around the corner (I think onto Wahkiakum Lane - all thirty-nine counties have a street named for them on the UW campus, btw) I heard an unfamiliar song, followed it to its owner, and found that it was a Fox Sparrow!  I see them often enough in the winter, but they start singing in the spring, and move up to higher elevations, by and large, very soon thereafter.  This means I don't get to hear them singing all that often, so this was a nice treat.

A couple of birds I heard for the first time this year for King County - Virginia Rail, and Tree Swallow, which put me at 110 for the county for the year.  I also had my first Connie Sidles sighting of the year!  Connie is a birder that has basically adopted the Fill for the last 20 years or more, birding there most days (she has in fact "written the book" on the Fill, a book titled In My Nature).  Every time I run into Connie at the Fill, I learn a ton about the place, and about birds.  We chatted about Meadowlarks, Black Scoters, Canvasbacks and Virginia Rails - also a little about luck and birding, and how to tell a female Cinnamon Teal from a female Blue-winged Teal.

It's still early in the year, but she pointed out that the total species count at the Fill is down about 10 species from last year at the same time (and last year was 20 species fewer than the year before).  One idea I had was that some of the same birds that might drop by the Fill are staying at Magnuson Park instead - I didn't stop by, but there has been so much work to put together good bird habitat there.  A nickel says that there have been more birds showing up there each year.
Wood duck
47 species by the time I left the Fill.  No Say's Phoebe's or Mountain Bluebirds or early warblers, but a very nice morning nonetheless.
The Montlake Fill  (Union Bay Natural Area) - Husky Stadium in the background