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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:

Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Birding the Fraser River Delta

With friends turning up some fantastic bird sightings just north of the border, it was time for another weekend trip to the mainland and into BC to see what could be seen. First up was a stop at Blackie Spit where ring-billed gulls were the first addition of the day.

Ring-billed gull (photo year list bird #82)
There were also a crazy number of Eurasian wigeon there in with the American wigeon!

Another highlight were the relatively tame black oystercatchers:

As well as the crows opening shells by dropping them on the rocks:

Crow diving to retrieve a shell it just dropped on the rocks

Next up was an afternoon at the Reifel Migratory Bird Sanctuary. I'm not entirely sure how I haven't visited this place before! It's a bit more park-like than many birding areas in that there are hours, admission fees, and many people feed the birds there, but there are also natural trails to walk and an astounding array of species. It got me a lot closer to some species than I've ever been before!

Northern pintail
Sandhill crane (86)
And while I have been close to wood ducks before, this was still one of my favorite shots of the day:

Wood duck (88)

 It was also clearly a very popular place, and it was cool to see so many people communing with birds, including people who otherwise might not.

Man befriends wood duck
Girl befriends red-winged blackbirds (I also overheard her declare this the best day of her life!)
I, too, had a special moment, with an immature bald eagle who didn't seem to mind at all that the path went right by his/her favorite perch!

It's not often you get the chance to take photos like this of a wild bald eagle...

We also got to see the great horned owl and two saw-whet owls that roost right near the trails at Reifel, and also within just a few yards of each other! Unfortunately none of them were very cooperative for photos - we counted this one for great horned owl:

Great horned owl (92)
But I couldn't quite convince myself that this northern saw-whet owl was identifiable from this photo:

And one more cool find:

One of four black-crowned night-herons (91)
There was still a little bit of daylight left, so we headed over to Boundary Bay, where I went to see snowy owls back during that great irruption year in 2012. After visiting many other likely habitats so far this year, I finally saw my first short-eared owl of 2017.

Short-eared owl (92)
While I added 12 species to the photo year list challenge on the day, just like when visiting Skagit county, it was the bald eagles who stole the show. We thought seeing over 100 eagles on the day in Skagit was impressive - try over 500 within a few miles of each other in Delta, BC! I've never seen anything like it. There could easily be 50 eagles in a single stand of trees, and in one location I counted over 250 eagles while standing in one spot. Apparently they've been congregating there in the winter months for the last 10 years or so, right around the landfill and the turf farm. At first they thought maybe it was indicating a problem at their normal winter food source, but I'm assuming by the fact there are more and more of them there each year including loads of immatures that they've just found something they like. I'm still not sure what exactly is supporting that many eagles in that narrow area, but it's an incredible sight!

I felt sorry for this fella trying to work on his nest in one of these trees...nothing like trying to defend your breeding territory from 500 rivals!

With that many predators/scavengers in one place, the skirmishes were frequent - not only among the eagles but between the eagles, gulls, hawks, owls, etc.

Harrier causes short-eared owl to drop large rodent - winner was an immature bald eagle who came in and grabbed the prey

The next day, before heading back to the ferry, we decided to try and twitch some of the many rare bird sightings in the area rather than go for other more common species we're likely to add at some point throughout the year. It was a mixed result, as it so often seems to be when looking for rare birds, but I did come up with a life bird! This very distant glaucous gull at the landfill site was not easy to find among the 10,000 gulls that kept reshuffling anytime one of the hundreds of eagles took flight. I was glad to find him; the black-headed gull that was also in there somewhere remained elusive.

Glaucous gull (93)

With the weather taking a turn we drove to Pitt Meadows, where again we went 1 for 2, finding the prairie falcon but not the gyrfalcon that have been there for the last several months. It's crazy to me that two such similar looking rare birds would hang out in the same block of each other! If it weren't for the photos proving otherwise I would suspect the same bird had just been ID'd as two different species!

Prairie falcon (94)
Back on the US side of the border, we had enough time to try for one more rare bird - the yellow-billed loon in Anacortes. I just don't know how some people have success in nearly all the rare birds they attempt - perhaps they just have much more time to wait! The loon was seen a few hours before we were there according to reports by others, but no such luck for us. The scenery was a good consolation prize, though.

No yellow-billed loon, but the view from Rosario Beach wasn't too shabby

Back home, I just added ruby-crowned kinglet as the 95th bird species photographed so far in 2017. I usually have a loft goal of 100 species on my traditional year list in January if I can - I had no idea I would get so close for photographed species in month number one as well! I'm closing out the month with 106 species on the year list and 95 species photographed, for a 90% photo rate that is far ahead of expectations!

Next up I'm hoping for a birding trip that will result in more owls and more life birds, but the tenuous weather forecast may postpone that - we shall see!