When I woke up on New Year's Day, I expected to come downstairs and see a chickadee or junco at the feeder to start out the year list, but I got species #1 without even getting out of bed when I heard a Steller's jay (1). Over breakfast, watching the feeders provided another nine species, including the varied thrush (9) and fox sparrow (10), species it took me quite a bit longer to get last year.
We spent the next hour driving through Columbia County and Scappoose Bottoms, enjoying the kind of year list pace that only comes once a year. There's something liberating about slowing down to look at every single bird - is that a robin? Yes! - after the end of last year and the inability to find even one additional species to add to the list. We added many of the expected ducks, raptors, and passerines, but a rough-legged hawk and Wilson's snipe were especially nice finds. Once we got on the highway and started heading towards Portland the list stood at 37.
Vanport Wetlands turned up a few of the missing waterfowl species and nearby we found the great horned owl sitting on it usual nest, looking at us nonchalantly from its swaying tree branch. The wind picked up considerable as we headed over to Broughton Beach, but we saw several other birders there. We couldn't find the snow bunting, so walked up on the levy where we were pleased by a couple of American pipits. The huge flock of both greater and lesser scaup was close for a change, but we still couldn't locate the tufted duck that was seen mixed in a few weeks ago (but thanks Dave for the tip of looking at the black back - I totally forgot about that field mark last time). Among the choppy waves of the Columbia River we also found a common goldeneye, a horned grebe, and, somewhat unusual for this location, three surf scoters. Then, walking back to the car, another birder pulled over and told us she had just found the snow bunting. Yay! It was right where she described, and was #50 on the list.
Next up was Ridgefield National Wildlife Refuge. Surprisingly this was the first place we saw a northern flicker all day. I was also thrilled to find a single greater white-fronted goose among a big flock of cackling geese. Here's one flock of cacklers coming in for a landing:
Right across from the field of geese were hundreds of tundra swans on the main lake:
On the mammal front, there were nutria all over the place, but it was cool to see a coyote looking around before disappearing into the grasses (click to see a larger view):
(As an aside, I forgot to mention it, but a week or so ago I saw a skunk near my parent's house! Only the second time I've ever seen one.)
It was busy at Ridgefield, but there were still lots of great photo opportunities, like of this great blue heron in a tree:
All to quickly, the sun was starting to lower in the sky - but we still wanted to bird Lower River Road in Vancouver so off we went.
We got to the end of the road with just enough light to set up the scope and look at the very bird-active lake across the way. In a flurry we added canvasback, hooded merganser, and redhead to reach 60 species for the day. As we wrote down our final additions, I was still disappointed not to have found any sandhill cranes, a species it would be extremely unlikely to see on San Juan Island but that we could have found at any of our stops throughout the day. I looked up then and spotted a line of birds in flight above the distant tree line. Up came the binoculars, and sure enough, there were my sandhill cranes (61).
On the dark drive back along the road, we went slowly hoping to find a barn owl, a species that eluded me throughout all of 2010 despite my best efforts. Surely it would be poetic justice to see it on January 1 of the new year? It didn't happen, but we did find a great horned owl sitting on a post. It's cat-like silhouette against the purple western horizon was an awesome end to a great day of birding.