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Monday, February 7, 2011

A Great Day's Birding in Skagit County

First a note: yesterday while walking to town to watch the Superbowl at the local watering hole I saw my first fox sparrow (116) of the season!

Last week a couple of great birding reports came through on Tweeters, the Washington birding listserv, about sightings in Skagit County, which is just over on the mainland from here. I was inspired to get over there and see if I could find some of the great species they had been seeing, and the first day I had a change to do so was today. Last night I drew out a map of the target places I wanted to visit, and I was ready.

I get a bit made fun of for my not-to-scale hand-drawn birding maps, but they help familiarize me ahead of time with places I'm not used to birding and are a simple reference throughout the they work for me! :)

I woke up in the morning to the sound of a Pacific wren singing in the pre-dawn light, which I took to be a good omen for the day. On the ferry ride over I spotted all the expected species including mew and glaucous-winged gulls, common murres, pigeon guillemots, pelagic cormorants, two rhinoceros auklets, and a single common loon.

I was especially keen to look for the rock wren that had been reported near Burlington, so we (my boyfriend came with me) headed straight there. While looking for it, we saw a displaying male Anna's hummingbird, a flock of bushtits, and three bald eagles soaring above. Then, after about 5-10 minutes, there it was, perched right on top of a boulder!

The rock wren (117) is a rare species to get west of the Cascades as it tends to prefer more arid habitat. I've only seen this species once before, in 2002 at Malheur in southeast Oregon, so it was a real treat to see it again.

Just a block away from the rock wren was a cattail marsh, and I got a Virginia rail (118) to respond almost immediately to the call I played. This was based off another great tip from a birder who had seen the rock wren, and because of his report I recorded the Virginia rail call on my cell phone last night. I don't have a very fancy recorder/playback ability, but it was good enough to get the rail to call back! I couldn't believe it!

What was also neat about the rock wren/Virginia rail area was that it was a really industrial part of town. It's not the ideal place to go birding in terms of beauty, but it's pretty cool to see so many great species living there right among all the industry.

Next up we went north on Old Highway 99 to Pomona Grange County Park where I quickly found one of the American dippers (119) that had been reported. The old mixed forest was pretty quiet besides, but it was amazing to see the variety of deciduous and coniferous trees that grew all together there.

I drove down Bow Hill Road through Edison and had to pull over along Bayview/Edison Road when we spotted no fewer than 20 bald eagles hanging around the same small stand of trees. I've read about the eagle congregations near the Skagit River but this was the first time I've seen so many in one place. Here's ten of them, all sub-adults:

It was an active area, with several eagles, red-tailed hawks, and northern harriers flying about nearby. These three adult bald eagles perched right together were one of the most impressive sights. The eagle count for the day, by the way, ended at a whopping 73.

After I could finally turn my attention away from the eagles, I noticed a flock of golden-crowned sparrows and this ring-necked pheasant, one of two males that was hanging around in the area:

With a squall looming on the horizon, it was time to move on towards Samish Island, but we stopped along the way at the Samish Unit of the Skagit Wildlife Area where a couple of other birders had scopes set up. They were generous enough to let us take a look at the pair of short-eared owls (120) they had found acrobatically flying around in the distance. While looking through their scope we also found a rough-legged hawk (121), our only one of the day. There was a lot of raptor activity around with more bald eagles and harriers around as well.

Our time admiring the raptors was cut short by the downpour, so it was on to Samish Island. Looking up towards Samish Bay it was pretty quiet except for a few red-breasted mergansers, surf scoters, and bufflehead. Maybe everything else took refuge from the rain. Bay View State Park was similarly quiet.

There was more activity, however, at the Padilla Bay Shore Trail trailhead, where there was a flock of green-winged teal, a few northern pintail, and a singing western meadowlark. There was also a single house finch and several song sparrows in the brambles. 

As we headed south of Highway 20 we started seeing more and more trumpeter swans, with a few tundra swans mixed in. By the end of the day I wouldn't be surprised if we saw nearly a thousand swans. Here are a couple of the tundra swans, distinct here with the small yellow marking at the base of the bill, which isn't always there (and isn't always visible when it is there if they're too far away!):

We stopped in La Connor to pick up a snack, but weren't able to locate the wild turkeys that they regularly see there. (It's debatable how wild they are, anyway.) There wasn't much to see on Valentine Road, but down on Rawlins Road on Fir Island was a pair of northern shrikes and also a large flock of snow geese (122) in the distance. The snow geese were absent a couple of weeks ago, but seemed to have returned in force, perhaps because the hunting season is now over. There was another large flock in a field north of Fir Island Road. Also nearby was this American kestrel. Between rain showers, there were many raptors attempting to dry out, like this kestrel with his tail fanned:

I had stopped at the Fir Island unit of the Skagit Wildlife Area before, but just learned there is another public access to the reserve off of Wylie Road. The area down there was very muddy and flooded, but I heard and then we were able to locate the black phoebe (123) that has been seen there over the last couple of weeks. Another rare find for this area, and I was very glad to have found it!

Before heading back to run a couple errands and head for the ferry home, there was one other place I wanted to stop just east of Fir Island where snow geese had been reported. I found them a little further south than they were the other day - just south of Johnson Road this afternoon - but there were thousands of them. A few of them were close enough to the road for photographs, unlike the other two flocks we saw:

The sights and sounds of a large flock of snow geese are so impressive I decided to try and capture a short video clip of it. While I was filming, the flock all of a sudden became alert and then took flight as a bald eagle came right through them. They circled around as the eagle chased them. What an amazing wildlife spectacle. Check it out - the eagle is visible at a couple points during the clip.

It's a bit hard to see the geese when they get further away in flight due to the video compression to post on the web, but you get the idea.

The last sighting of note for the day was a tagged red-tailed hawk just south of Exit 226 on I5 while we were heading back north. It had a blue marker on at least its left wing, which appeared to be marked with an "I" or a "1". I'm going to try and figure out who I can report the sighting to, like I did with K5, the red-tailed hawk near the Portland airport earlier this year.

Overall, a fantastic day's birding. More than 50 species were seen (49 in Skagit County plus a few more from the morning ferry), and seven year birds were added to the list. I had a list of about 10 potential year birds for the day, and decided I would be very happy finding 3 of them - so 7 of them was real treat, especially because after the rock wren first thing in the morning I proclaimed the day a success and said everything else on top of it would just be a bonus!

P.S. Since it's Monday, I thought I would share a brief update about Flex the gray whale, who I posted about last week. After his tag didn't transmit for 5 days they thought it had fallen off, but then he resurfaced (pun intended) nearly 300 miles west of the north end of Vancouver Island. He has continued his trajectory south since then, passing the Washington coast and heading into Oregon, approximately 15 miles offshore. When weather permits they are going to attempt to relocate him by boat. Read this week's update and see his updated map here. Is he going to Baja??


Lancashire and Lakeland Outback Adventure Wildlife Safaris said...

luothiStreaking ahead with that lot Monika. Sounds like a great day's birding.

FYI our sea temperature pre-sunrise this morning was 4.9C with an air temp over the beach of 5.4C after a light o'night frost. The sea will have been well mixed after yesterday's hooley, gusts to >60mph, and we haven't had any sun for a few days so the temp should be 'good'



Michele Wassell said...

Great photos Monica.. Wow! 3 eagles in one shot.. Very nice! :):)

Phil said...

Great fun and a wonderful blog.

I looked at your map on ebird and it looked to me like you were up in the NorthCascades. I know th ebird has been off Wylie Rd for a while so thought there might be two. Am I reading your map wrong?

The K said...

Congrats on pulling ahead again! Great photo of the Rock Wren. And great timing on the Snow Goose video. What a great way to spend a day.

Warren Baker said...

Blimey Monika, what a day, poor old Dave is languishing back on 106species :-)

Take it easy on him.

73 Eagles!!!!!!!!!!!!