Saturday, July 18, 2015

13 Jul - Cape Cod whales & birds

I spent this past Monday on Cape Cod and birded for a while with Tina Green. We took a mid-morning whale watch out of Provincetown, followed by scouring the tern flock at Hatches Harbor.

Humpback Whales:

Fin Whale:

And a few birds:

Black-legged Kittiwake

first summer Arctic Tern

Roseate Tern

molting adult Black Tern

 - NB

Monday, July 6, 2015

Misc birding, flight home (June 27-28)

My last two days in Washington revolved around Ryan and Evie's wedding festivities. On the morning of the 27th I leisurely made my way from Wenatchee to Poulsbo for the wedding that afternoon. My only stop to bird came in Tacoma to quickly check for that Slaty-backed Gull. Again, nothing.

mountain stream

We all had a blast at the wedding last night. Not much sleep was had, which is a sign of a great time.

Puget Sound sunrise

The next day I had some time to kill before my evening flight. I decided to check out a few places around Puget Sound I had not birded before. Some were worth the time, others were not. I did not add many new species for the trip, though I did finally run into a Red-breasted Sapsucker.

your typical moist lowland forest around Puget Sound

I decided to give one final effort for the Tacoma Slaty-backed Gull, this one much more extensive. I radiated out from the place it had last been seen, checking rooftops and parking lots for roosting and nesting gulls. The possibility of finding the first North American breeding attempt outside of Alaska was intriguing enough to motivate a search. My hunt in this area was fairly exhaustive. Sure, there were certainly nesting gulls that were not visible from public roads. But I think I did the best I could without trespassing onto industrial property.

Other than United leaving my luggage at my connection in Newark (I am starting to realize why United Airlines is so poorly rated), the return trip was fine. I only wish I had another week to explore further. I would have liked to spend 2-3 days scouring the Strait of Juan de Fuca from Cape Flattery to Sequim, take a pelagic or hop aboard a fishing boat for a day, and definitely take a few more days in the Cascades. So many options, so little time.

Already looking forward to a return visit this fall with CAS (join us on this trip; for more info click HERE).

 - Nick

Cascades and east (June 25-26)

June 25

Immediately following the Mariners game on the night of the 24th I had a decision to make. My original plan was to drive straight to Mount Rainier and try for Boreal Owl, which is a rare but likely under-detected breeder at high elevation in the Cascades. But Ryan had just gotten a lead on potentially reliable "Franklin's" Spruce Grouse near Mount Adams, south of Mount Rainier and definitely further afield than I had planned on going this week. If I wanted to be at the Spruce Grouse area for dawn, when they are likely to be most active, I did not have enough time to try for Boreal Owl at Rainier. Since I have seen Boreal Owl a couple times in the east, I could not help but go for the "Franklin's" Grouse, which is a subspecies restricted to the Cascades and Northern Rocky Mountains. According to research, this is likely a different species than the Spruce Grouse we know from the rest of the North American boreal forest. So I left Seattle with a 4+ hour overnight drive ahead of me.

The drive went well, and the several miles of dirt forest road were in pretty good shape. I arrived at the location in time for dawn after a bit of stopping to listen for owls on the climb (a single Barred only). Temperatures were chilly in the mid-40s, the coldest I would see this week. The first few hours went without a trace of any grouse, but there were birds to be seen. Red Crossbills (Type 3), Evening Grosbeaks and Pine Siskins were calling overhead. Lincoln's Sparrows were singing from the meadow. "Audubon's" Yellow-rumped Warblers and "Oregon" Juncos were feeding recently fledged young. A family of Gray Jays moved noisily through. I was smack in the middle of the Townsend's/Hermit Warbler hybrid zone, and their buzzy songs were ringing though the air. I got good looks at just a few - two Hermit-like hybrids and one rather pure-looking Hermit.

Gray Jay

Mount Adams

On my fourth or fifth check of the road I noticed something that was not there before...

fresh grouse tracks...

I headed in the direction the tracks were pointing, and after no more than five minutes I spotted a male Spruce Grouse about 15 feet off the ground feeding in a [presumed] fir.

male "Franklin's" Spruce Grouse

Spruce Grouse habitat

Pretty awesome.

Incredibly satisfied with the results, I began a long drive toward Leavenworth, where I would search for Black Swift in the evening. On the way back down those forest roads a Ruffed Grouse crossed in front of the car. I did sneak in a few quick roadside stops along Route 12, mainly east of White Pass. As you go up the east slope of the Cascades, over the pass, and back down the west slope, you drive through various vegetation zones that each have their own set of breeding birds.

Knupfenburg Lake, right along the highway, held a female Barrow's Goldeneye and a family of American Dippers in a rushing stream. On Leech Lake were a single Ring-necked Duck and another hen Barrow's, this one with small chicks in tow. A Vaux's Swift flew over, and Rufous and Calliope Hummingbirds were zipping all over the place. As I came down the east side, as the habitat transitioned to oaks and riparian along the Tieton River, Lewis's Woodpeckers could be seen rather easily from the car.

juvenile American Dipper

view of Mount Rainier

Ponderosa Pine - on the "dry side" of the Cascades. A far cry from the lush spruce-fir of the Olympics and west (AKA wet) side of the Cascades. As the habitat changes, so does the bird life.

Eventually I made it to the Leavenworth Fish Hatchery, where I would scan the skies for Black Swift, a species that had eluded me during previous visits out west. Over the course of an hour I had views of a handful of Black Swifts in the valley.

What a day - perhaps the best of the trip - starting with Spruce Grouse and ending with Black Swift, and a whole bunch of great stuff in between.

Though I had been up for over 40 straight hours at this point, my adrenaline motivated me to try for Flammulated Owl in the Camas Creek area. I arrived at Camas Creek Road before 8:30pm, with enough light to spare for some birding along road. The roadside was alive with birdsong the whole way up. Flycatchers were particularly well represented, by Olive-sided, Western Wood-Pewee, Willow, Gray, and Dusky. Thrushes (Swainson's, Hermit, Veery, Robin, and Townsend's Solitaire) were also incredibly vocal. Red-naped Sapsucker was new for the trip, as was Cassin's Finch, and Western Tanagers were particularly common. The birding was phenomenal, right up to the point where it was getting difficult to see. Then the Common Nighthawks took over, with constant 'peenting' and 'booming' overhead. They were everywhere. The last species to start calling was Common Poorwill, one of which was incessantly singing from the top of a boulder before it got dark, allowing for killer prolonged scope views.

handheld iPhone-scope of Common Poorwill at dusk

By this point the lack of sleep was catching up to me and I was fading fast. Owling wasn't really going to happen. I tried the purest few stands of Ponderosa Pine for Flams on my way back down the road, but came up empty. I decided that a dedicated effort would have to wait until the following night.

Night in Wenatchee.

June 26

I spent all of today on the east side of the Cascades, starting all the way east of the Columbia River, in the hot and dry shrub-steppe. This altogether different habitat couldn't have been much different from the cool, moist coniferous forest of yesterday morning. I focused the morning on a few lakes and potholes in search of waterbirds.

Winchester Lake was rather quiet, but seeing Western Grebes carrying young on their backs is always something worth seeing. A single American White Pelican here was the only one I would see this week.

By far the coolest place I birded east of the Columbia was the North Potholes Reserve. This far north end of the Potholes Reservoir was a network of shallow, muddy bays bordered by deciduous vegetation and surrounded by acres of sage. Ducks were highlighted by several Redhead and a Cinnamon Teal. Great Egrets and Black-crowned Night-Herons hunted the edges. Pied-billed Grebes were intermittently giving their comical, laughing calls. This looked like it could be very productive for shorebirds during peak migration, but the only apparent migrant today was a Greater Yellowlegs. Forster's and Caspian Terns were patrolling the waters back and forth, but a single breeding-plumaged Black Tern was probably my favorite bird of the stop.

North Potholes Reserve

North Potholes Reserve

The passerines here were also worth noting. Eastern and Western Kingbirds were flycatching side-by-side. Lark Sparrows were conspicuously singing. A colony of Yellow-headed Blackbirds was noisy and active. Black-headed Grosbeaks and Bullock's Orioles were also easily observed.

Bullock's Oriole

From there I checked a couple of small roadside pools that have a history of being productive for their size. I turned up a pair of Black-necked Stilts at the first pool, and a calling Sora at the second. A sharp light morph Swainson's Hawk flew over the car as I was driving back west.

By this point it was early afternoon and temperatures in this harsh environment had reached 104 degrees, which the locals were saying was unseasonably warm for late June. I drove back west over the Columbia River and headed to the Old Vantage Highway, a road well-known for its sage birds. I wasn't sure much of anything would be active in that heat, but one productive area had Sage Thrasher, Sagebrush Sparrow, Brewer's Sparrow and Vesper Sparrow. Not bad!

sage for miles

After a bit of hydration and deliberation I thought it best to head straight for Flammulated Owl territory near Liberty. This mountain community's origins date back to the late 19th century, when gold was discovered in the adjacent stream. My plan was to slowly bird my way up the mountainside, all while scouting Flam habitat (= Ponderosa Pine) for owling after dark. On the way, a couple of "Western" Red-tailed Hawks circled over the road.

"Western" Red-tailed Hawk (dark)

"Western" Red-tailed Hawk (light)

Just like the previous evening at Camas Creek, the birding was great. This time I arrived at 6:30pm so had a good 2-3 hours to work my way up the forest road before dark. Lots of activity and song. The most abundant birds were finches, with Pine Siskins closely followed by Evening Grosbeaks. Recent study of Evening Grosbeaks has shown that they, like Red Crossbills, are divided into several different "call types" that vary by region. Unlike the crossbills, however, the grosbeak call types do not overlap much geographically, and their distribution by call note seems to correspond well to previously described subspecies. As expected, all of the grosbeaks I heard this week sounded like Type 1 birds. I recorded a few, including some tonight, and confirmed that identification via spectrogram.

Evening Grosbeak

Type 1 Evening Grosbeak call

The species mix was pretty similar to what I had at Camas Creek, as expected given the similar habitats. However with more time I was able to turn up several more species here. New for the trip were Williamson's Sapsucker and Cassin's Vireo. Other highlights included Mountain Chickadees, Townsend's Solitaires, six species of warbler including Townsend's, and both Purple and Cassin's Finches.

Mountain Chickadee


I had noted the places that looked best for Flammulated Owl and headed towards the first stop once it was pretty dark. On the way there, a pair of duetting Great-horned Owls would be a good omen. At the first place that looked really good was, sure enough, a calling Flammulated Owl. I threw on a headlamp and hiked up the slope and was quickly rewarded with a calling Flam right in the open. Well worth the effort. This also happened to be my 700th ABA Area bird. Glad it wasn't Sky Lark!

Happy with the views of the Flam, I would just stop at a handful of pulloffs to briefly listen for owls on my way out. Apparently it was a really good night for Flams - four more were heard along the way.

Night in Wenatchee.

 - NB

Saturday, July 4, 2015

Olympic Peninsula & Vancouver Island (June 23-24)

June 23

My plan for today was to bird around Ocean Shores (on the opposite side of Grays Harbor from Westport) for the morning, then leisurely make my way along the outer coast to Port Angeles for a 9pm ferry to Victoria Island, BC.

I began the day with a productive 90-minute seawatch from the Point Brown jetty. Birds were moving all over the place, dominated by Rhino Auklets. I would see five species of alcid from this spot, including my first Marbled Murrelets of the trip and yet another out-of-season Ancient Murrelet. Pacific Loons were also numerous, along with three species of cormorant and more Black-legged Kittiwakes. Very few Sooty Shearwaters were evident, except for a large mass of them well to the south off Westport, right about where they were yesterday afternoon.

Mule Deer 'likes' include long walks on the beach

about as good as I could do for a record shot of this morning's Ancient Murrelet

Around the corner I stopped to check the sewage ponds, which is one of a few local rarity magnets. There were no migrants to be seen today, as the southbound shorebird migration hadn't really begun yet. A family of Northern Shovelers and a bathing Peregrine Falcon were highlights here.

I spent the rest of the morning exploring a few spots I had not seen before, with mixed results. One roadside stop was active with singing landbirds such as Pacific-slope Flycatcher, Chestnut-backed Chickadee, Black-throated Gray Warbler, and Wilson's Warbler.

Black-throated Gray Warbler

Heading north from Ocean Shores I gave myself a short tour around Quinault Lake, which is rather scenic and highly recommended. Many songbirds were active despite the midday timing. Warbling Vireo, Western Tanager, and Varied Thrush were new for the trip. I was never able to find a persistently calling Sooty Grouse.

Quinault Lake
A logging truck...a not uncommon sight around here...

I worked my way up the coast, stopping here and there for viewpoints and to scope offshore. I got all the way up to Port Angeles before birding again. Ediz Hook was quiet but had a few alcids, ducks and gulls to look through.

miles and miles of sandy beach

where the forest meets the ocean

Ferry to Victoria, BC for the night.

June 24

Today was a bit of a guilty detour to see the introduced Sky Larks of Vancouver Island before heading back into Seattle for that night's ballgame. The Sky Lark, a well-known Eurasian bird, was introduced to the area in the early 1900s. The species did well locally for a while but has since diminished in numbers as the Victoria region has become developed. Honestly, being an introduced species, this would not be much of a loss at all. But I was close enough to see this countable exotic and decided to bite the bullet.

I went straight for Victoria Airport and had immediate success as one bird was actively skylarking (go figure!) over the runways. Neighboring parks held some of the more common birds including what we're apparently still calling Northwestern Crow. At adjacent Padilla Bay Park I spotted two small diving ducks keeping each other company...a male Bufflehead and a female Common Goldeneye. An unlikely pair, and two birds that I wouldn't see anywhere else on this trip.

My return ferry from Sidney, BC to Anacortes, WA was uneventful thanks to some rain showers that kept me inside for most of the trip. I did finally catch up with some Black Oystercatchers though.

That afternoon was spent with Ryan & friends & family over some fine Mexican food followed by the Mariners vs. Royals game at Safeco Field. Our seats in the right field upper deck gave us a great view of both the game and the downtown Seattle skyline.

Safeco Field

 - NB

Seattle to Westport (June 22)

After a lengthy delay for my connection in Chicago, I finally landed at SeaTac in the early morning hours of the 22nd. A night near the airport, then off towards the town of Westport on the Pacific coast. On my way, I stopped by the port of Tacoma (definitely the least scenic part of the journey) to check for an adult Slaty-backed Gull that may still be residing in the area. Ryan had suggested that I take a look for this bird, a full adult that had wintered here for at least a few years, since I was passing by Tacoma. Last year it was first seen as early as August and lingered at least into May of this year, recorded in every month except June and July, raising the possibility that it might just be there year-round. However I was unsuccessful in finding the bird among the loafing/nesting Glaucous-winged and "Olympic" Gulls. Ryan and Charlie Wright later wondered aloud whether the bird, thought to be a female, could be sitting on a nest somewhere nearby. Now that's a cool, but scary, thought...

A quick check of the nearby Gog-Le-Hi-Te Mitigated Wetlands yielded no gulls but had a few interesting passerines such as Willow Flycatcher, Marsh Wren, Savannah Sparrow and Spotted Towhee.

Song Sparrow

On the approach to Westport I passed through Aberdeen (home of Kurt Cobain) and decided to take a spin through town in search of Western Scrub-Jays, which I eventually located. Along the way I also came across Anna's Hummingbird, my first Pacific-slope Flycatcher of the trip, and a calling Red Crossbill (Type 3).

Western Scrub-Jay

Pacific-slope Flycatcher

"Type 3" Red Crossbill spectrogram

I reached Westport during early afternoon and decided to check out Westhaven State Park before checking into my motel. A group of lingering ducks were in the sheltered bay near the parking lot, consisting of a Red-breasted Merganser, a Harlequin Duck, and several Surf Scoter.

left to right: Surf Scoter, Surf Scoter, Harlequin Duck, Red-breasted Merganser

A stunning breeding-plumaged Pacific Loon was just offshore. One or two rather pure-looking adult or near-adult Western Gulls were evident among a large flock of messy hybrids and California Gulls. Several White-crowned Sparrows of the pugetensis subspecies were singing from various posts along the shore. But the most impressive sight of all was the mass of Sooty Shearwater offshore, feeding and rafting by the thousands. I conservatively estimated 14,000 birds in one sweep. They weren't close, but it was a very welcome sight nonetheless.

pugetensis White-crowned Sparrow

Next up came a quick look from the nearby marina into Grays Harbor. Here were my first of many Heermann's Gulls and four species of alcid: Rhinocerous Auklet, Common Murre, Pigeon Guillemot, and a surprise group of three distant Ancient Murrelets, a species that is usually seen here during the colder months but not summer.

Westport Marina

I planned on spending the last few hours of daylight along the coast south of Westport, as far south as I would get on this trip, at Grayland and Midway Beaches. The weather was pretty amazing, which is something that held surprisingly steady this week.

My target bird at Grayland Beach was Snowy Plover, one of the northernmost breeding locations for this species on the Pacific coast. I pretty easily found five adult birds.

Snowy Plover

Snowy Plover

Snowy Plover

A mixed flock of about 100 gulls held some nice variety, including 4 first summer Black-legged Kittiwakes and a first-summer Herring Gull, which I am told is barely annual in the state during summer.

Heermann's Gull

first summer Herring Gull

first summer Herring Gull

first summer Black-legged Kittiwake

first summer Black-legged Kittiwake

small jellyfish

to scale

Dungeness Crab, one of a few freshly dead ones washed onto the beach

A freshwater marsh adjacent to the ocean was the main draw for me at neighboring Midway Beach, thanks to a tip from Ryan.  This place looks amazing, like anything could drop in during migration. Even on this June day it was birdy...overrun with Marsh Wrens, swallows of a few species, and at least one Virginia Rail was calling.

freshwater marsh at Midway Beach

Midway Beach satellite view

The Olympic Peninsula is at its best where the forest meets the ocean. Luckily, that describes most of the outer coast. This is evident even as far south as the Westport area. (Perhaps not technically still the peninsula this far south? I am unclear on the southern boundary). Here, you will be scoping Sooty Shearwaters on the ocean while "Russet-backed" Swainson's Thrushes, "Oregon" Dark-eyed Juncos, "Western" Purple Finches and Pacific Wrens sing behind you. It is one of the most beautiful settings in the country.

"Red-shafted" Northern Flickers

Night in Westport.

 - NB