Sunday, November 20, 2011

Snowy Owl Invasion? 11/20 Sequim Trip (Clallam County)

Wait!  There's no Snowy Owl pictures in here!  I had to throw that in here before anyone read on.  Randy and I got out today chasing the Snowy Owls that had been seen the day before in Sequim, out on the Olympic Peninsula.  (Fun fact - it is against the law for it to rain in Sequim... not sure how that is enforced, but there ya go!) 

Dungeness Spit - Admiralty Light in the distance

Insert Snowy Owl here
Four total Owls had been seen here, two more in Stanwood, and at least two more at Ocean Shores.  How do you decide which owls to chase?   While the Stanwood owls were closer to home, it seemed like these would be closer to us once we got there.  The Stanwood owls were seen at a distance by people who found them, whereas there were two Snowy Owls on Dungeness Spit alone.  This 6 mile (or so) long sand spit is extremely narrow, meaning that any owl on it is going to be approachable within 30 feet or so.  With the weather so beautiful today, we had visions of beautiful owls perched on driftwood against the blue sky.  :)

I met up early with Randy in Federal Way, and we drove out to Sequim, with only two brief stops.  Once on the Hood Canal Floating Bridge (which sounds like a very bad idea... but there was no traffic for minutes!), and once in Jefferson County to look for a Great Egret that has been seen off and on there since August (no luck there).  We got to Three Crabs Restaurant at about 8AM, and started our search!
Trumpeter Swans and Greater White-fronted Geese

Randy had only visited the pelagic waters of Clallam County, and I had been only between July and September, so we both were able to find a lot of birds we hadn't seen before throughout the day.  The Clallam count actually started soon after we crossed the county line, with Trumpeter Swans in a pond off of the road.  At Three Crabs, we encountered a bazillion American Wigeon, and quite a few shorebirds as well (mostly Dunlin, with some white-ish Sanderlings mixed  in.)

Northern Harrier flying away
We rolled down Three Crabs Road, peeking in the ponds and checking the rooftops for a Snowy Owl.  Bald Eagles and Northern Harriers were the highlights on this stretch, which ended at a dead end fairly quickly.  We were not too discouraged at this point - the owls on the spit seemed like they'd be easier to locate anyway, and it was still early.  We made our way through town for coffee, and then started out towards the spit. 

I've walked Dungeness Spit a handful of times.  We have been out here for 9th grade trips in the past, and have done the walk all the way out to Admiralty Head Lighthouse at the end.  I love being able to see the end of the hike almost as soon as you start.  I end up wanting to yell - Look!  We're almost there! and break into a sprint for the lighthouse.  If I ever failed to resist that temptation, I'm sure the sprint was short-lived relative to the 6 mile hike out!

Randy definitely came out with one bird in mind - the Snowy Owl - and it was difficult to convince him of the existence of other birds as we traveled.  I came out looking for 20 birds - the 20 I needed to bring my Clallam County life list to 100.  I hadn't planned on doing that this year, but it was hard to pass up an invitation to head out to Clallam.  At any rate, it was probably just as difficult at times to get me away from watching American Wigeon and moving farther down the spit to find the owls.

A couple of the Long-tailed Ducks we saw on the way
The ducks out here were pretty awesome though... by the time we were done on the spit, we'd had Hooded and Red-breasted Merganser, American Wigeon, Green-winged Teal, Harlequin Ducks, Long-tailed Ducks (the best views Randy or I had ever had of so many - even though it was only a dozen or so!), Surf Scoters, White-winged Scoters and Buffleheads. 

Red-throated Loon
The loons were the highlight of the walk - especially the Red-throated Loons that came so close to shore.  We were able to get some nice shots of them (and I should mention that nearly any bird seen here was shot a little better by Randy and will probably end up on his flickr site - Randy Bjorklund if you want to look up.)

Dang!  Not as sharp as I wanted, but nice to have Baker
and Admiralty Head like this in one shot.
Black-bellied Plovers and Black Turnstone
In Dungeness Bay, there were hundreds of Brant, and some shorebirds as well, including some Black-bellied Plovers, Sanderling, and a Black Turnstone.  But... no Snowy Owls!  At one point, we gave ourselves 30 more minutes to walk, checked one more time down the spit, and peered over to the East side - nothing!

On the way back, it was more loons (including Common), all three species of Cormorant, and more Long-tailed Ducks (probably a good dozen by the end of the day.  We were a little footsore and hungry when we got back to the park entrance, and had about an hour left to search before we needed to get going back home.

One of these ran in front of the car for 200
meters or so on the way out... now that was
fun to watch. :)
We gave the area one more search at the spots we'd visited before, and came up with bubkis.  Beautiful, beautiful day, but no Snowy Owls!  I was able to finish the day with a life list of 105 species for Clallam, but Randy missed a life bird on this trip.  All in all, I thought it fair that he should no longer owe me an adult beverage for the 99/100 fiasco back in August in Whatcom County! 

Here were some of the other highlights of the day:

Brant in Dungeness Bay

Monday, November 7, 2011

Home from Othello - 11/6 - Adams, Grant and Kittitas Counties

Adams County

Adams County Fairgrounds
Okay, this is a short one, but I had a great morning of birds and beauty on the way home from Othello.  I got up way too early, and made another try for owls.  Having found a dead Barn Owl on the side of the road back in May, I wanted a chance to see one alive and flying this morning!  I tried the cemetery, and the Adams County Fairgrounds south of town while it was still dark, and tried for Great Horned Owls - nope.  I then made my way to Lemaster and Steele Roads hoping for Barn, Short-eared, or maybe even a Burrowing Owl hanging around - nope, nope, nope.  I grabbed some breakfast and hit the road.

Frosty Adams morning
Adams County was the only county left in Eastern Washington where I hadn't seen 50 birds for the year (45), so I had hoped to see some ducks in lakes along McManamon Road heading north out of Othello.  As with Columbia County, I found the area to be surprisingly duckless, but did eventually find five more birds (Ruddy Duck, Prairie Falcon, Dark-eyed Junco, Song Sparrow, and Double-crested Cormorant) by about 8:00. 

Some pictures from the morning:
Para Ponds with ice - Adams County
This lake looked duckless, until I drove past it.
No way to get back to see the backlit ducks I left behind.
Spent all my time in Adams County birding down there - beautiful from up here! 
Drumheller Channels National Monument.  Also where I found bird # 50 - Dark-eyed Junco

Leaving Adams County behind
Grant and Kittitas Counties - on the way home

Juvenile Peregrine Falcon
On the way through Grant County, I really didn't plan to stop anywhere, but a few things required a stop.  The first was a juvenile Peregrine Falcon on a pole.  The 'Name that Raptor' post has generated so much speculation (still trying to nail it down - there are efforts afoot to measure the branches in Brewster to aid with ID'ing the juvenile falcon in the picture), so I was happy to get a picture that was a little more definitive.

A flock of geese along Highway 26 had Canada and Cackling Geese, as well as a lone Snow Goose:

I had to get gas in Vantage, in Kittitas County, and I was still mighty short on ducks, so I swung down to the boat ramp, and quickly found a handful of species, including five new ones for my Kittitas County life list (Cackling Goose, American Coot, American Wigeon, Horned Grebe and Surf Scoter), bringing it to 100. :) 

No more stops, and I went back over Snoqualmie Pass, ending my year on the east side of the mountains.  One more county left where I'm short of 39 for the year (Skamania - 35), and if I can find a way to swing into Grays Harbor County (41) during that trip, and pick up some winter ducks/sparrows/raptors/geese, it'll be 50 in every county for the year.

Definitely waiting for December for that trip, and I think the blog stops there.  It's been a lot of fun to try to capture this harebrained chase for 39x39 in stories and photos, but the extra time... well it's been a lot of time!  Before I close shop, I have to say, I've been a little curious about who is reading this, to be honest - the stat page says someone in Romania keeps checking in, and I know there are some folks from Tweeters as well.  Drop me an email, anyway -  especially if you've been along for a lot of the trips here, or if it's got you thinking of doing something just as harebrained, let me know.  If there are any places or birds that you have questions about - please ask, and I'd be happy to help as much as I can. 

Apologies for the ridiculous grammar, fixation with Varied Thrushes, apples, small towns, clouds and most of all for listing.  I don't think any of the above are fixable for me at this point.  Apologies too for missed pictures - I don't know if it's lack of patience, skill, aggression or equipment, but I just can't bring myself to shoot every bird I find out there.  Worse yet, my tolerance for a bad picture of a bird is quite high! 

In trying to get everywhere, there are dozens of trips that were dreamed of but not taken.  I guess that's what the next 39 years or so will be for. Bre has asked that I take more of them with people, so if you are a like-minded person that wants to show me around your neck of the woods and help me find things I might have missed, drop me an email as well.  The reverse offer stands as well - if you are swinging through King County, and want to get some birding in, I'd be happy to play tour guide if I'm free.

One more trip!

Benton, Franklin and Columbia Counties: 11/5

Bridge over the Columbia - from Pasco
In January, one of the few dates that I had already nailed down for a trip was this weekend;  The Washington State Cross Country Championships were happening in Pasco, so I knew I'd have a chance to see some of the kids from my school compete, while also getting out to do a little birding to get to 39 species in Franklin County.
As I did back in April, I stayed at my brother's home in Yakima, so I would have a nice reasonable drive after conferences were done on Friday afternoon.  I pulled in to Yakima around 8:00 and passed several sets of Friday Night Lights on the way, as football teams were working through early rounds of playoffs. 

Benton County
Columbia Drive early morning
Dark and early on Saturday morning, I made the drive down to the Richland area to visit W. E. Johnson Park.  I had read that this was a good spot for owls, and I thought it would be nice to get a few more Benton County birds in the morning, as I was at 47 for the county for the year.  This was a theme for the weekend, as Columbia and Adams county were also over 39, but not to 50 yet;  50 was more than I had set out to do at the start of the year, but if it was reasonable and reachable, I thought it would be worth spending  little more time planning things out to visit these counties nearby.
A frosty morning!

It was c-c-c-cold on this November morning and just starting to get towards civil twilight as I parked and walked.  I wasn't sure exactly which area to try for the owls, so I walked along the trees in the parking lot (no luck), and then to an archery range past the end of the parking lot.  I tried a Great Horned Owl call, which at first just stirred up some Killdeer, but I did eventually get a low response from what was probably a male. 
Yakima River Delta

Unsure of where to proceed from there for other owls, I hopped back in the car to try one more spot before crossing the Columbia.  The Yakima River Delta is a very birdy spot, and I'd seen a report for a Black-crowned Night-Heron, so I made this my destination as the sun got closer to rising.  I had several sparrows on the way in: Song and White-crowned, as well as Spotted Towhee and Dark-eyed Junco. 

Fog rising from the pink river - Yakima Delta
The river itself was not terribly birdy, but certainly beautiful, and I finished just over 50 species in Benton for the year, before I left.  Growing up in Yakima, I've been to many different stretches of the Yakima River, but never to this part where it finally gives up being called the Yakima, and joins in with the Columbia. 

Add caption
It was fun to think of the waters here continuing on and passing by other places that I have stopped this year, especially in Klickitat and Skamania.  How long does it take a drop of water to get there...?  No sign of night-herons, and appointments to keep later in the day, so after a couple more pictures, I left this county for the year.

Franklin County

Backlit ducks on a beautiful morning - Pasco
I had seen 26 species in Franklin this year, just from passing through during the Pasco Invitational in April, then briefly again during my Big Ol' Trip in June.  I knew I hadn't seen many ducks yet, so my first stop was the Tri-Cities Animal Shelter in Pasco, where a pond right next to the Columbia was supposed to have quite a few ducks.

Did they use the hill to design the bridge?
The advice I got here was very good.  As I walked around the pond, I was able to pick out about a dozen species of swimmers (including a few on the Columbia - it was a short scramble up from the pond to the running path along the Columbia.).  Lighting was the only problem, so I had to make my way around sometimes to get a good view of the ducks.  I knew there were American Wigeons in there, but it took a while before they weren't backlit.

Great Egret - Pasco
On the south end of the pond, as I was wrapping up, I found a Great Egret - beauuutiful bird.  I kept scanning along the edges of the pond here, and found a bird that I had hoped to find on this trip, a Black-crowned Night-Heron.  This was a juvenile - I'd love to see the adult plumage some time - and it stayed very still, letting me get some good views in the binoculars, and a few good pictures.
Black-crowned Night Heron!

Leaves at Sacagawea State Park
Over 39, but short of 50, I made my way next to Sacagawea State Park a mile or two away.  I had been here before, but thought November might give me different birds than April.  I hoped to find Bald Eagles, but didn't.  There were a few nice birds though, including some Killdeer on the Columbia, an American White Pelican, and some Wood Ducks in the marshy habitat in the park. 

At almost ten o'clock, I checked over the list in my hand and counted up 51 species... although I didn't realize until later at home that this was my life list for the county I was looking at!  My year list was actually still at 49 when I left for the cross country meet!

The meet was wonderful - kids ran hard, and some from our school made the podium, as well as the girls' team.  I had a chance to talk with some parents, and saw that there was a lot of excitement for track in the spring, with some of the new athletes joining the school this year. 

Without some of this time this year just to get out and think, I don't know if I would have been able to hear that without second-guessing my decision to stop coaching track.  As it was, I just came away excited to see these kids running track in the spring, and quite content with my role as Advanced Fan in the approaching spring.

Columbia County
Highway 124 - Walla Walla County
Lyons Ferry Road - Walla Walla County
The meet ran a little late, but after the boys were done, I hit the road.  I was happy that I had 'finished' Franklin County with over 50 species, so I made a beeline for Columbia County through Walla Walla County.  "Jill" (the name of the voice we picked for the GPS), did some good work here.  I would not have chosen Highway 124 through the north end of Walla Walla County, then onto Lyons Ferry Road.  It was a fairly desolate, and beautiful stretch of road, and I hope I get to drive it again some time!

Most of the drive was a long series of magpies, red-tails and kestrels, but as I approached Columbia County, I slowed for a bird on a wire.  Nothern Shrike!  I went to get my camera to get a shot of this beautiful bird, when it flew off to the southeast.  I watched it go, and said 'drat', but upon checking my map, realized that it was perched in Walla Walla County, and had flown into Columbia County - I laughed, knowing that this is one of the strange celebrations that are inevitable once a person gets interested in county bird lists! 

With my better understanding of county lines in Southeastern Washington, I continued a short ways up the road and actually got my whole car into Columbia County, ready to find some ducks before the sun went down.  The Northern Shrike (2:45) was my 40th bird in the county for the year, and it became a bit of a challenge to get the next ten, so in my field notebook, I jotted a time next to the new birds as I found them.

Lyons Ferry KOA - Columbia County
First order of business:  I saw a sign to a marina next to the KOA campground and restaurant.  I drove down to the end of the drive, hopped out and walked to the edge of the water.  Nothing!  A magpie called from the trees - not new... I peered across the Snake River and saw not a single bird.  My eyes got a little big, as I realized how difficult this might be! 

Double-crested Cormorant
I went back to Highway 261, and followed it along the Snake River for a little bit.  At one pulloff, I spied a Double Crested Cormorant (3:00) in the water below.  A Western Grebe was off on the far side in Whitman County, and it didn't seem interested in heading over, so I had to take number 41 and keep going. 

Tucannon River - Columbia County
The highway cuts off south from the Snake as it gets closer to Starbuck, and follows a smaller river (the Tucannon?), with a lot of small pulloffs.  These were some beautiful spots, although most of it looks just like this here - empty, glassy water without a bird in sight!  A flock of Canada Geese (3:14) flew overhead, however, and a single Pied-billed Grebe (3:15) was making dives in the river as well.  43!   Before I left, I also found a few Dark-eyed Juncos (3:22) in the bushes putting me at 44.

Finally ducks!
Approaching the turnoff for Little Goose Dam, a pair of Ring-necked Pheasants dove off of the side of the road for number 45 at 3:27.  I was feeling good at this point, figuring that there would be more ducks up by the dam.  The first stretch when I finally got to the river again had me pretty hopeful!  Buffleheads at 3:32.  How long could it take to find four more birds?

Snake River Canyon - Little Goose Dam Road
I made a stop at a small park, and found a handful of birds that I had seen before - Pied-billed Grebe, Song Sparrows, American Robins...  almost 20 minutes passed, and the sun was starting to dip behind the canyon walls.  A Great Blue Heron flew along the far side of the water in Whitman County, and I strolled back to the car.

The rest of the way up to the dam was beautiful, but the cliff walls were getting pretty dark - a few more birds showed up:
Mallards (47) at 3:51
California Gulls (48) at Little Goose Dam at 4:01
Western Grebes (49) above the dam - 4:10
End of the road?
At this point, I'd driven to the end of the road, basically.  I took it a little farther to a campground.  It had a little dock, and I walked to the end of it.  A Red-tailed Hawk shrieked from the hills, and I waited to hear or see anything else.  Nothing new, but another Pied-billed Grebe.  I kind of figured at this point that I had run out of luck on 50. 

A little light left...
End of the road with it getting dark, but I looked up and caught a little sunshine hitting the crest of one of the hills.  I figured it would be good to get back to the highway - I might catch something else while it was light, and I needed gas!

At this point, the closest gas was not in the direction I wanted to go!  I wanted to get to Palouse Falls before dark, and Dayton was the closest gas, according to Jill.  Heading through Starbuck (no, I didn't get a mug there... not yet, but anyone looking for birthday ideas...) I thought I saw Eurasian Collared Doves, but wasn't sure.  I pulled over, got out of the car, and had a White-crowned Sparrow staring at me from a fence post.  Number 50 at 4:45!  The Collared-doves emerged immediately thereafter and made it 51.

I'd had a lot of goals for the day, but it appeared that getting a nice shot of Palouse Falls was not to be.  I gassed up, and got dinner (chicken strips and jojos... with some Odwalla fruit/vegetable juice concoction... to make it healthy), then turned back around for the falls.  It got darker and darker as I drove, but I considered camping so that I could see the falls in the morning...  Got to the turn off, and made the familiar drive to the park.  I don't think I'll ever believe that I'm on my way to a waterfall during this drive.  It just feels like you're driving through a bunch of scrub on your way to nowhere.  As I drove, I stirred up a dozen Gray Partridges that had come out into the road at dusk to gather up gravel to grind up their meals.  Didn't realize at the time that these were the 50th bird for me in Franklin!

I got to the falls, and saw we were in astronomical twilight.  Sundown starts civil twilight, when there's still enough light to go about your business.  When civil twilight ends, and you start running into things, but there are still some lingering signs of light in the sky, it is astronomical twilight.  That's what allowed me to get the moon (top right), Jupiter (a little lower in the sky on the left), and Palouse Falls (bottom) all in one shot.

Palouse Falls, with Jupiter and the Moon.
 Jill the GPS told me that I was 4 hours from home.  I knew I couldn't stay long enough in the morning to see it in full light, so I decided to make my way to Othello for the evening.  A room can be had in Othello for about $40 bucks, and you will get what you pay for. :)  Bre and I texted back and forth as the Huskies tried to hold on against Oregon, but hope only lived through the first half.  I fell asleep in Adams County planning to try for some owls again the next morning.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Mount Rainier 10/25

Mount Rainier and Little Tahoma Peak
The Mountain has been the elephant in the room for a while now!  I've planned trips to so many different places in the state, but hadn't gone to visit that Big Giant Rock right over there.  I finished up my evaluations on Tuesday, and decided to make a trip down.  "Just a short trip - back in the afternoon." I told Bre on the phone. 

I was kind of curious about what I might find around Sunrise, on the east side of Mt. Rainier.  People have been finding Pine Grosbeak, and White-tailed Ptarmigan on hikes from there, and that's the only place I've found Gray-crowned Rosy-Finches.  Not too surprisingly (in light of this year), I got to the road to Sunrise, and found that it was closed!  I wasn't sure if it was a seasonal closure, or if it was because it was midweek, but I simply took the road over to the White River Campground instead.
This is not a bird
I haven't been to this campground before, so it was nice to get to another entrance to the park.  I've done several hikes around the park with Declan, and think it would be fun to cumulatively hit the entire Wonderland Trail with him eventually. 

I wanted some elevation gain, so I started hiking along the White River, which would eventually take me to the Burroughs Mountain Trail.  I wasn't sure exactly how far it was to Burroughs from here, and I hadn't really 'planned' out this hike (my equipment list? binoculars, camera, apple), so I decided to keep going up until the time got too late, or the trail got inconvenient, or the view stopped improving.

Varied Thrush
Unfortunately, I made really good time on my way up towards Burroughs, the trail was perfectly passable, and the view got better and better.  I found nearly nothing in the way of birds on the way, although I got some great close views of Mountain Chickadees, and a Varied Thrush flew two feet in front of me (and sang!). 

Burroughs Mountain
 I got about a half-mile short of Second Burroughs when I knew I'd be short on time if I continued.  So I stopped in the crisp sunny afternoon on top of the world, and looked and listened and ate an apple.  It was mostly quiet, and I only spied one hiker on the crest above me briefly.  A few Pine Siskins had passed me earlier, but I was really listening for rosy-finches or grosbeaks. 

I resisted  the temptation to run to that rocky thing - want to know what it's called!
And a little closer
All of a sudden, along the ridge, just a little too far away, a flock of 2-300 finches rose up above the ridge - barely visible with the sun hitting them as it was - they made some finch-y noises and dropped back out of sight.  I pulled out my phone and listened again to Gray-crowned Rosy Finch... nope.  Pine Grosbeak.. nope.  ??? 

I realized the mathematics of it and laughed a little.  90+ % of the birds that I had seen that day would have to go unidentified, since they were all in that single flock, and I had been listening so hard for a certain call, that I didn't pay enough attention to the call I was actuallly hearing.  A Varied Thrush called from somewhere on the rocks, and I made my way down.  The temperature was right, and sections of the trail were wide and soft, so some of the trip down was at a nice jog, letting the mountain carry me down.