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Friday, March 3, 2017

What's up with bluebirds on San Juan Island?

Last night the San Juan Preservation Trust held a fireside chat about their western bluebird reintroduction project, which is entering its 11th year. Some people may wonder why this project is still going on and what it's future may hold. We learned answers to a lot of questions last night, and in case you weren't able to make it, I thought I would post a summary.

Pair of western bluebirds on San Juan Island
There are historical records of western bluebird populations all throughout the greater Puget Sound region, including the San Juan Islands, from the 1800s into the early 1900s. Throughout the 20th century, however, primarily due to human development leading to habitat loss, many of this historic populations were extirpated. A strong population still exists near Olympia, but the large urban area of greater Seattle lies between that region and other areas that could still support bluebirds, like San Juan Island. When you have patchy habitat like this, it's unlikely the birds will expand and re-find the San Juans on their own; what's their incentive to cross Seattle? That's why the bluebird reintroduction project began, the first such effort for a migratory passerine species in the United States.

Relocation of birds from elsewhere in Washington happened over the first five years of the program, and a decent population took hold, having breeding success. Pairs and families who were "soft released" here after being held in aviaries were successfully breeding and rearing young, who were all banded so they could be tracked.

Banding a western bluebird nestling

After five years of reintroductions, the program entered a two year monitoring phase to see if the population was healthy enough to maintain itself. Sadly, this coincided with two El Nino years that led to very wet springs, leading to a population crash of our newly established but still fragile population. Not only did these rainy springs take a toll on our bluebirds, but western bluebird and swallow populations throughout the state experienced big fatality events. It was terrible timing for the island's bluebirds, and emergency reintroductions were started again to help support the population. It was decided that five more years of supplementing the local population would occur, to see with better luck if they could gain a foothold. 2017 and 2018 are the last two years of this second round of reintroductions.

Male western bluebird with worm
So far, things are looking pretty good. A sister program in Cowichan Valley on Vancouver Island is helping bluebirds take hold in the region, and birds are beginning to move back and forth between these two pioneer colonies. The local population was about 30 birds last year, with one pair attempting to nest on Lopez Island for the first time. This past winter, for the first time on records, a small group of bluebirds actually overwintered on San Juan Island, being seen regularly on the west side and south end of the island, even despite our numerous cold snaps. 

Community enthusiasm was initally high about this project, but it's hard to maintain that momentum when efforts take a decade or more of work. Volunteers are needed now more than ever, however, to keep the program going, not only during these last two years of reintroduction efforts but to keep monitoring going beyond that. First of all, you can help by reporting any bluebirds you see. They bird are just starting to return now and more should arrive in the coming weeks, and it's hard to keep eyes out there everywhere to determine where exactly they might settle down to nest. Be aware though that mountain bluebirds might also be out there; they'll stop here on their migration but won't nest locally. They're often seen at the sound end of the island in March and April and are a more brilliant blue with no brown on them:

Mountain bluebird at American Camp

There are plenty of other ways to get involved, too. As outlined at the meeting last night, the Preservation Trust is looking for three types of volunteers:

1. Searchers, to help regularly survey likely spots birds will return in early spring
2. Nest box monitors, to make regular checks on nesting birds and their fledglings once pairs of settled down
3. Aviary assemblers, available at the last minute to help erect temporary aviaries for birds being translocated to San Juan Island

If you see any bluebirds, or are interesting in helping out by volunteering in any of the above ways, please contact Kathleen Foley at Please consider getting involved to help support the return of this beautiful little bird to the San Juans!

Tuesday, February 28, 2017

February 20 and 21: Birding Across Washington

After our two day guided trip in the Walla Walla and Pendleton area, we took our time getting home and, of course, did some more birding. Our first stop wasn't too far away at the Walla Walla River Delta where thousands of ducks and hundreds of gulls congregate in the winter.

Walla Walla River Delta
We added herring gull and California gull to the year list, but only got very distant pictures, so here's a slightly closer one of a ring-billed gull instead:

Near Pasco, Washington we stopped at a riverside park that had an incredible abundance of ducks - nearly all the common species and several uncommon ones all in one pond. Again I added a couple species (canvasback and ruddy duck) but didn't get great photos of them, though I finally got a decent shot of a gadwall for the year.

The rest of the day wasn't very birdy, so that night while staying in Ellensburg I did some research on what else had been seen recently between us and our ferry home. I was surprised to read that that very morning someone had seen a flock of 150+ Bohemian waxwings, a species we had been looking for all weekend, right there in Ellensburg! Thankfully she had posted great details about the location on eBird, so first thing the next morning, after another surprising dusting of snow, we headed over to check it out. Right in the very same berry-filled tree we got lucky - in with the house sparrows, robins, and starlings, was a Bohemian waxwing!

Bohemian waxwing - photo year bird #125
But where was the rest of the flock? We didn't have to wait too long before we saw them circling ahead. It was easily more like 200 or 250 birds, and they flew down in an amazing circling display, all briefly landing on the tree and grabbing a berry before taking flight again. We saw them do this two or three times before they flew off a couple block to regroup and, presumably, do the whole thing again.

At first you don't even see the birds in the tree, until you see the tree is just covered in Bohemian waxwings!
It's always amazing to me how incredible wildlife can be right in the middle of day to day life. This was in the parking lot of a feed store, and I think we got more than one strange look for being so excited and taking photos of the tree in the parking lot. It's both awesome that something so cool can happen right in the middle of an urban area and sad that so many people walk right by it without knowing the difference between the flock of waxwings and the flocks of starlings that frequent the area.

We went on to the airport area where gray partridges had been seen (another species we had been looking for all weekend), but didn't have any luck on this one, though I finally got a photo op of a mourning dove and also saw this cool sight of a black-billed magpie and bald eagle perched together:

Before leaving Ellensburg we made one more stop along the river, and lucked out by finding an American dipper, another hoped-for year bird. At this point in time the snow/rain really started coming down so we made a break to cross the pass and head back into the Seattle area. I never would have though I would get great gray owl, gray-crowned rosy-finch, and Bohemian waxwing on my photo year list before American crow, but that's just what happened! We have the very similar northwestern crows on San Juan Island, and other than voice location is really the only way to tell them apart. I had seen and heard several American crows so far this year but had yet to get a photo opportunity of one in a reliable location until this day. So there was the crow finally, an unlikely photo year bird #128! But that is why we go out there in bird, because you never know what you will see, or where, or when!

American crow, photo year bird #128

Near Marysville a couple of great egrets have been hanging out, well north of their typical range, so we stopped to see them:

Great egret - photo year bird # 129

Then one more stop before the ferry was back in our usual stomping grounds in the Skagit Flats. While we didn't turn up the gyrfalcon that's been seen there, we did see a trio of short-eared owls prowling the fields to make for an incredible 8 owl species trip. We also got great looks at several bald eagles in the late afternoon lighting.

With March right around the corner, the earliest of the spring migrants are starting to show up, so that will help keep the birding going in the coming weeks. Meanwhile, I got my first glimpse of J-Pod a little over a week ago, and us islanders are hoping for a good spring start to the whale season, as well! We got another three or so inches of show yesterday, though, so winter hasn't quite loosened its grip just yet!

Sunday, February 26, 2017

February 19: Finches Steal the Show

On Day 2 of our birding weekend we headed across the border into Oregon near Pendleton in search of some other new species. On a snowy back road we made several stops among the beautiful scenery and turned up a couple of mountain species, including a small group of Cassin's finches which was another life bird:

Cassin's finch - life bird (but no new life list number as it was mistakenly already included on my life list - listing is hard somteimes :) ) and photo year bird #114
Still a decent amount of snow on the ground at higher elevations
Mountain chickadee - photo year bird #116

In many of these fairly remote areas, I think people are pretty used to seeing birders. To the uninitiated, though, some might wonder just what the heck these crazy people are up to!

Again as we hit mid-day the birding slowed down for a couple hours, but the scenery more than made up for it. The terrain is just so different east of the Cascades, and it's enjoyable to see!

Herd of elk in the rolling hills near Pendleton, OR

We did spot a fair number of birds of prey, though most were too far away to photograph. Along one back road we saw American kestrels, red-tailed hawks, rough-legged hawks, and prairie falcons! Heading up another road, we found this yellow-bellied marmot, which along with coyotes, raccoons, and a couple of squirrel species helped fill out our mammal list for the weekend:

It's so interesting to me how some areas can be just bird dead zones, and then you come across another area that has birds of various species all over the place. Such was the case along this back road near Pilot Rock, Oregon, where suddenly we added several more year birds.

Early migrants: mountain bluebirds, photo year bird #118. A western bluebird was in with them as well.

Say's phoebe, photo year bird #119
Then, as with the great gray owl the day before, a grand finale awaited us in the form of about 100 gray-crowned rosy-finches coming in to roost in the seasonally abandoned cliff swallow nests. Looking at their range, you'd expect a life long Pacific Northwest birder like myself might have seen gray-crowned rosy-finches before, but in fact they were a life bird not only for me but both my parents and my husband as well! They can tend to hang out at pretty remote high elevation places, but thankfully our birding guide from KTBirding knew just where to find them. 

Gray-crowned rosy-finches - North American life bird #371 and photo year bird #120

Their aerial acrobatics were amazing as they swooped into nesting holes, then bickered over who got which hole, then flew out and looped around to start the whole thing over again. We were treated to watching them for about half an hour at close range until they finally started settling down for the night.

Gray-crowned rosy-finches peeking out of their roosting holes, aka commandeered cliff swallow nests

While the photo opportunities were great, it took a video clip to capture the real essence of the experiences.


February 18: Owls, Owls, and More Owls

Last weekend my family and I went out on a birding trip in southeast Washington/ northeast Oregon with Khan Tran of KTBirding. It's a trip my dad and I have talked about taking for years, reading with longing his regular trip reports that listed many potential life birds for both of us right here in our home states. Our initial trip plans got postponed due to weather, but thankfully, we finally made it happen!

It didn't taken long fro Khan to impress with his birding skills, as practically the first bird of the day was a northern pygmy-owl he somehow spotted as we drove up to higher elevations near Walla Walla. First bird of the day, first life bird of the trip for me!

Northern pygmy-owl in the early morning fog: North American life bird #369, photo year bird #103
While we didn't spot any hoped-for great gray owls, we did see some other new species for the year.

Townsend's solitaire, photo year bird #104

Back down at lower elevations, we picked up our second owl species of the day when we checked out some long-eared owl roosts. It was incredible in that Khan knew they were likely there, but on our first pass by, no one saw any owls. On our second pass, Khan spotted a couple, and even when he pointed out right where they were it took a few minutes for the rest of us to see them. Talk about camouflage!

Spot the long-eared owls!
Then the more we looked, the more we started seeing! There were at least a dozen birds in the first roost we saw, and we ended up seeing an astounding 30 or so of them as we checked several other roosts. And that's just the ones we saw - we could have easily missed twice that many for how hard to see they were!

Long-eared owl, photo year bird #106

Next we went to look for northern saw-whet owls, and en route spotted a pair of great horned owls - third owl species of the day!

What are you looking at? You, you great horned owl!
And sure enough, we found two saw-whets, too - an amazingly tame wild bird!

Northern saw-whet owl - photo year bird #109
On a roll now, we made a slight detour to look for a roosting barn owl, and found one. Not exactly a great photo op, but the first barn owl I've seen in many years and owl species #5 on the day!

Roosting barn owl - photo year bird #111. Who made that owl-sized hole in the cliff, I wonder?
The drizzle started falling and the fog moved in again, which slowed down the birding during the mid-afternoon. While in the area, we made a brief stop at Lower Monumental Dam - one of the four Lower Snake River dams that have received so much attention lately among the whale and salmon community. I can see how people living in the area aren't aware of the connection between these dams and the endangered Southern Resident Killer Whales that live so far away, but the river that runs from one to the other is the direct link. To learn more about why these dams need to go, check out this blog post of mine on the topic

Lower Monumental Dam - of the four Lower Snake River dams that are largely obsolete and among the best candidates for removal to help recover endangered wild salmon and killer whale populations

We also made a stop at Palouse Falls, a state park that provided a stunning vista!

Palouse Falls
Next we weren't lucky in turning up any more saw-whet owls, but we did find a flock of wild turkeys.

Wild turkeys - photo year bird #112
While the focus of the trip was birds, we also saw a fair number of mammals throughout the weekend, including huge herds of elk and both white-tailed and mule deer.

We have our fair share of deer on San Juan Island, but we don't see them in congregations like this!

With the light fading, we made another trip up to higher elevations where we had been in the morning, to a peak where locals have seen several pairs of great gray owls this year. The great gray owl is also known as the phantom of the north; it's the largest North American owl but very elusive, and a species I have dreamed about seeing for many years. The snow started to fall and it got darker and darker, and with all of us scanning we made several trips up and down the road to no avail. Hope started to fade as it was nearly getting too dark to see when, on our last pass, Khan spotted it. Like a vision through the snow, this male great gray owl lived up to its nickname as a phantom. We all got a good view of it and then it spread its massive wings and disappeared right before our eyes.

Great gray owl - the phantom of the north. North American life bird #370 and photo year bird #113
We headed back to town for dinner, abuzz with the excitement of having lucked out to see this incredible owl species. After dinner, we decided to go for owl species #7, and sure enough, we found a pair of calling western screech-owls in a nearby neighborhood. Too dark for photos, but 7 owl species in one day is, I'm pretty sure, a personal record I'll never break!

At the end of day one I had added 2 life bird and 11 photo year birds, but we still had another full day of birding ahead of us!

Tuesday, February 7, 2017

Snowy San Juan Island

We don't get a lot of snow here at sea level in our temperate rainforest; some years we don't get any at all! This year has been quite different, although a lot of the snow has been at night and short-lived or when we've been off island. The last couple days have been different though! This morning the sun even came out and it was just too beautiful not to stop and take some photographs. So enjoy some photos of a somewhat uncommon sight of a few inches of snow on San Juan Island: