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Thursday, December 8, 2011

The Trials and Tribulations of a Bird Lister

While I was in Portland over the Thanksgiving holiday I knew there would be the possibility of picking up a few more birds for the year list, but I didn't anticipate a brambling showing up just a few miles away from my parents' new house! This was only the 12th confirmed record of the species in Oregon, and as you can see, the morning after the report quite a few birders flocked to the scene:

I can only imagine what some of the neighbors thought of the sudden onslaught of bird-watchers to their small neighborhood trail! Unfortunately for all the patient onlookers, the bird only made one brief appearance early in the morning and then wasn't seen again. We only spent about an hour there (others camped out for the whole day!), but it turned out to be a very active bird spot, and one that I probably wouldn't have discovered if it weren't for the rare bird report. Some of the species I saw and heard there included a Virginia rail, sandhill cranes, a band-tailed pigeon, a great egret, and a white-throated sparrow. 

After looking for the brambling we headed into the city to do some errands, and while there made another stop off at Westmoreland Park where I hoped to see the eared grebe that had been hanging out there. I was disappointed not to find it. No vermilion flycatcher (see previous post), no brambling, no eared grebe. What a streak of luck! But I was even more disappointed when I heard that later the same day the eared grebe was found dead, perhaps attacked by a dog in the park! What a sad ending for that wayward bird.

Again, though, even without the grebe there was lots of bird activity at Westmoreland. There was a big flock of cackling geese on the lake along with American wigeon, mallards, bufflehead, a couple of lesser scaup, and some ring-billed and glaucous-winged gulls. Within the flock of wigeon grazing on the grass I also found a female Eurasian wigeon, which is always a fun species to find. It was thanks to my close up looks of a Eurasian wigeon at this very park about two years ago that I finally got confident enough to pick female Eurasians out of a flock, even without the presence of a male.

The weather stayed pretty nice for the rest of the weekend and I got out to see some more of St. Helens. At the marina I found a group of half a dozen Steller's jays, a species that I still need to find on Orcas Island for my San Juan County list this year:

Back at my parents' house, I was hopeful to see of the feeder visitors that my dad had reported from earlier this fall season. I struck out on the gray jays, but I did get to witness one of the brief sporadic visits of an evening grosbeak (year bird 201) flock. About 20 birds descended to the feeders and were only there about five minutes before moving on. All that effort of traveling around to look for birds, and I ended up seeing a year bird right from my parents' kitchen!

On the trip back north to San Juan Island I made another stop off at Stanwood, hoping that in the nicer weather and with better daylight I could get a better look at the snowy owls and maybe even get some photos. Unfortunately the owls weren't in sight during my half hour stop there, though again I saw lots of other good bird species including a rough-legged hawk, a ring-necked pheasant, a Wilson's snipe, and a short-eared owl. 

My year list has now reached my goal of 200 species, but I still want to add some birds to my San Juan County list. With only a month left, I've got some of my naturalist friends on alert for a few of the species I'm still keen to see. It paid off when I got a message last Sunday from Phil on Yellow Island, along with a photo of a pair of Barrow's goldeneye he had seen that morning. Being a great birding pal, he picked me up and we made a quick jaunt out to Yellow where we were able to relocate the female Barrow's goldeneye (SJ county bird 151). Not only that, but I also found a western grebe (SJ county bird 152) out in the channel! After all that trying and failing for owls in November I thought the county year list goal would remain out of reach, but the two birds in one day rekindled by hope....

Another report rekindled my hope, too: that of a snowy owl seen at South Beach! I figured with all the snowy owls showing up all over western Washington there was a decent chance of one being seen on San Juan Island this season - we've got some nice prairie habitat down around the American Camp and Cattle Point area. I've made several trips to that part of the island in recent weeks hoping for an owl sighting - on one outing I pulled over along the way to look at a bald eagle who was feeding on a deer carcass. He took flight and circled around my car before landing again, providing this photo op:

Surely a good omen for the bird-watching day? But alas, the snowy owl report was two days old, and despite my searching high and low around South Beach no owls could be found. Perhaps it just stopped over here before moving on? Too bad.

South Beach, in fact, was incredibly quiet bird-wise. Not even the regular gulls and scoters were hanging out. And it was such a good day for birding, too:

It wasn't until I scanned well offshore and found a flock of about 20 long-tailed ducks that I saw anything worth mentioning.

So, in conclusion, there have been some disappointments over the last couple of weeks in my efforts to locate some new birds for the year. There were lots of "just misses", even on the same day when the species had been seen by others. Some listers will sympathize with my frustration, while some other naturalists may question the logic of "chasing" certain species. I'm certainly not one of the most extreme when it comes to listing - I'm only willing to chase after birds that are fairly close to where I live or happen to be traveling - but upon reflection finding the new species for my county list, year list, or life list, is only half of the reason I like to head out in search of more unusual species. The other reason is that it motivates me to get out, often to new places that I haven't seen before, where I'll end up finding other cool things to look at whether or not I find the target species. Without searching for the brambling, I wouldn't have found the cool little marsh with the calling Virginia rail so close to my parents' new house. If I hadn't made efforts to find the snowy owls, I wouldn't have found the rural road in Stanwood that's home to cool species like rough-legged hawks and short-eared owls, nor would I have had the close encounter with the bald eagle on my home island. Every time I go out looking for something in particular, I see something cool, whether or not it's what I was looking for.

So, as the year winds to an end, I'm going to continue to chase down the species I don't yet have on my lists. Because who knows what I'm going to find. Stay tuned....


eileeninmd said...

Great post and your photos are awesome. Sounds like a great place for birding. I hope you have a great weekend.

Lancashire and Lakeland Outback Adventure Wildlife Safaris said...

Do you think you've got a chance of 157 for SJC? Be a shame to find you were so close by accident and miss out so all our remaining fingers are crossed. But like you say success or not there'll be some great bonus sightings on the's not all about our lists.

Good luck


PS our 'word' confirmation ended in gyr - now would one of those add to your SJC/year list? An omen???

Monika said...

Dave - I think I've got a chance! It will take some luck, but my targeted species are definitely realistic possibilities. It will be interesting. Thanks for the crossed fingers!

Unknown said...

I don’t know why but it seems that I really like blue colored birds because of their bright color. You should try birding wa if you want to see other bird species.