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Sunday, January 29, 2012

To 100 and Beyond: A Great Shorebird Day

After work on Friday, we went for a hike at the Friday Harbor Labs. Down along the shoreline a friend showed us a little spot we hadn't visited before, where under a creek flowing over the edge of a rocky cliff there are some maidenhair ferns, the first time I've ever seen this species of fern on the island. Nearby, there were numerous little orange snails in the seaweed, another sight I haven't ever come across on the island. Looking in my intertidal book it looks like there are several likely options for what it could be, so I won't speculate here as to the species:


On our walk back, we heard some strange noises that I thought sounded suspiciously owl-like. Sure enough, a moment later we got a brief glimpse of a barred owl (100), not a bad species to take the one hundredth spot on the year bird list. 

Yesterday I went down to Fourth of July Beach to do a COASST bird survey, and in the meantime hoped I would also see a shorebird species or two. Did I ever hit the jackpot! There were five shorebird species there: black-bellied plover (101), sanderling (102), dunlin (103), black turnstone (104), and surfbird (105). I saw a small flock of the first three species, then just before I left another larger flock flew in with more plovers, dunlin, and the turnstones and surfbirds. I was even able to get a photo with all five year birds in the same frame!

Blue = dunlin, orange = black turnstone, yellow = sanderling, green = surfbird, pink = black-bellied plover

This one shows four of them a little better - dunlin on the left with a black turnstone in front, then a surfbird by itself, then a black-bellied plover with another dunlin behind it:


I also noticed in my photos that one of the dunlin had a couple of bands on the legs (green and red on the left leg of the left dunlin). I wonder what this bird's story is?


Here's a black-bellied plover with a flock of dunlin:


On my way home the rain returned, but I couldn't resist pulling over to take a portrait of this guy:

Thursday, January 26, 2012

97, 98, 99.....

As we close in on the end of January (already?!), the year list is closing in on 100 species....here's an update.....

While walking home one day before the snow melted, in addition to seeing another pair of Anna's hummingbirds, I also saw my first golden-crowned kinglets (94) of the year. Upon getting home, I could also see that the dark-eyed juncos had been very active on my deck all day:


While making breakfast on Saturday morning, we spotted a small flock of bushtits (95) out the window - the first time I've ever seen this species from the marina. It was a super windy day, but a report of J-Pod on the west side of San Juan Island inspired me to head out to Lime Kiln Point State Park. I missed the whales, but was greeted by more than a hundred varied thrushes in the parking lot - an amazing sight! There have been a lot of varied thrushes and robins all over the island (more than in past winters, I think), and there has been discussion on the local birding listserv about all the varied thrush activity. Seeing so many in one place on Saturday allowed some photo ops of what can sometimes be a very unapproachable bird:


While admiring the thrushes I also spotted a female hairy woodpecker (96). Down along the water's edge there was a lot of wave action. The bird activity was minimal, but I did find some mew gulls and four white-winged scoters (97) riding the surf:


The wind continued, but there was more bird activity to be seen at a friend's house in the middle of the island on Sunday. In addition to the juncos, towhees, and purple finches at her feeders we saw a pair of trumpter swans, a pair of bald eagles, and a great blue heron - all from her yard! Then, right before it got dark, three California quail (98) came through, too.

There have been some more pretty sunrises lately, and while I had the camera out to photograph one, a flock of geese flew by, allowing for the following snapshot to be taken:


While waiting for an appointment in town, I was watching more robins and varied thrushes out the window when I also saw a downy woodpecker (99) in the trees. Nice!

Hoping to find bird #100, I made a short excursion out to Sportsman Lake yesterday, and on the way had to stop and see Mona, our resident camel on the island.


No #100 yet, but with a week left til the end of the month I'm assuming with a little effort it will happen - maybe this weekend? I wonder what the hundredth species will be? Last year it was the common raven, but that's already on the list this year!

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Winter Storm Watch

We've had several days of varying amounts of snow, hail, and wind, but the worst of the most recent winter storm watch undoubtedly hit today. First thing this morning I put some fresh seeds on top of the snow and it didn't take me long to have some birds on the porch even before it really got light out. I can only imagining spending a night like last night outside, let alone when you're that small! By the way, that's not fog in the background, but mostly blowing snow:


Here are a few other wintery scenes from around the marina, later in the afternoon after it got light out and some more snow had fallen:


Snow pattern on a roof

After failing to get all the way home from work in my low-rider, two wheel drive car (I walked the last quarter-mile), I was amazing at all the bird activity. Juncos, chickadees, song sparrows, nuthatches. I saw my first Anna's hummingbird (93) of the year - though somewhat surprisingly not at the feeder I hung out this morning and refilled a couple of times throughout the day as it turned to slush. I imagine it must be hard to find food out there as a hummingbird on a day like this, though our overwintering Anna's eat sap and insects in addition to flower nectar.

I was glad I stocked up on suet before the storm hit, and so was this nuthatch. Look at that tongue visible in his beak!


There was activity in the water, too. A river otter came by. This pied-billed grebe was here this morning and back in the afternoon - I only ever see them in our marina when their preferred freshwater habitat freezes over.


A group of four hooded mergansers (2 males and 2 females) were fishing in the same area as the grebe. When they took flight I had the camera ready, resulting in this photo that I like a lot:


The belted kingfisher was around, too, though instead of taking one of her usual more prominent perches she found a place to sit that was a little more out of the wind:


We walked to town to get a few groceries, and because of the snow I took my camera, too. I was happy I did when I saw this dog patiently waiting outside the store:


It will be interesting to see what the next few days are like! I don't mind a little bit of this winter weather, with the exception of having to worry about getting to work and back each day!

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Boundary Bay Snowy Owls

For a couple weeks I've been reading with envy the reports coming out of Boundary Bay, British Columbia where there have been between 20 and 30 snowy owls hanging out. After seeing photos from a couple of friends who went up there, I couldn't take it anymore, and knew I had to find a way to go. This Saturday presented the perfect opportunity, right before the snowy winter storm was projected to hit the west coast.

A ferry that filled up unexpectedly early first thing Saturday morning almost threw the plans into jeopardy, but some calculations involving available daylight hours and travel time indicated that the trip would still be possible so I had to go for it. Throughout the day, you could practically watch the snow level falling towards sea level, starting with the ferry ride and the partially snow-covered Turtleback Mountain on Orcas Island:


The drive north up I5 was beautiful. The ground and trees were dusted with snow, but the pavement was clear and dry. After a slight wait at the border, I arrived at Boundary Bay (near Delta, BC) around 3 in the afternoon. I was wondering if I would be able to find the place easily, but I needn't have worried - all the owl watchers were a spectacle themselves! I had to park about a quarter mile from the trailhead:


I didn't have to walk too far to see my first snowy owl (year bird 91) - then my second, third, and fourth. Many were perched right along the driftwood berm about 50 yards off the trail:


Many were in close, and others were scattered out across the marsh. The densest congregation was this group of eight on a single log:


It was amazing to me how unconcerned the owls were about all the human activity. As I said, some were only about 50 yards off the trail, and this was the activity on the trail - people, dogs, children, bikes, and even horses (on the left)!


It's pretty cool to see so many people so excited about birds, though it's not surprising, because these snowy owls are a pretty charismatic bunch. For the most part, people were very respectful, as well, although despite the signs asking everyone to respect the owls space, some people felt it necessary to tramp out into the sensitive wetlands in an attempt to get that perfect shot. Some patience is really all that was needed, however, because some of the owls were already right there!


For the most part, the owls were just sleeping or resting. They were mostly motionless, only occasionally turning a head, opening their eyes, or letting out a yawn:


I spent most of my time near one group of four. Two of them were preening and a little bit more active. This one, likely an immature due to the amount of dark barring, even took a short flight to go from the ground up to this perch:


One, probably an adult, stood up and was moving around, providing a nice look at the fully feathered legs and feet which help keep the owls warm in their Arctic home:


The weather was really perfect, though after an hour my fingers were freezing despite my gloves. Looking at the clouds to the west, I had to wait just a little bit longer for the late afternoon sun to peak out again before sunset. I'm glad I did, because that's when I got my favorite photos.



Lots of other photographers were waiting for this moment, too:


While the snowy owls were undoubtedly the highlight - I conservatively counted at least 21 - there were other impressive sights, too. I saw about a dozen bald eagles, five harriers, and a short-eared owl there along with some mixed species flocks of sparrows and a variety of duck species. The landscape in either direction was stunning, looking one direction over the bay and the other towards the city of Vancouver and the distant snow-capped mountains.

 
Walking back to my car, I had to pause to take this photo of two immature bald eagles against the clouds lit up by the sunset. Perched on the wires underneath them was my second year bird - a flock of Brewer's blackbirds (92).


It ended up being a very successful trip. I made it back across the border, down I5 before the weather hit, and in line for the last ferry home with plenty of time to spare. I'm sure glad I made the effort to go - the ferry rides and border crossings can be a bit of a deterrent when it comes to visiting places that really aren't that far away. What an awesome phenomenon, made all that more impressive because it occurs right in the outskirts of downtown Vancouver!

Monday, January 9, 2012

The Next 30

Traveling, a return to work, and internet problems at home have kept this post from being written in a timely fashion, but that doesn't mean I've stopped birding since New Year's Day! On January 2nd my dad and I headed over to walk the Crown-Zellerbach trail in Scappoose, and before we got there we saw a Eurasian collared-dove (62) at the post office and a belted kingfisher (63) perched alongside a creek.

There was a slight drizzle on our walk, which was very quiet bird-wise at first, but when we got the green barn where the brambling was seen a month earlier we found the regular active flock of sparrows and more. The first year bird added to the list in this spot was the house finch (64), followed shortly thereafter by a Lincoln's sparrow (65). Three goldfinches flew up, and it took a moment to confirm that they weren't American but rather lesser goldfinches (66), a nice find and a species that didn't make the year list last year! While looking at the goldfinches I also got a quick glimpse of a ruby-crowned kinglet (67).

Down at the marsh a played vocalization elicited a response from first one, then another Virginia rail (68). A little further along the trail we also added yellow-rumped warbler (69), house sparrow (70), and Pacific wren (71). As we retraced our steps back to the car, we found the cinnamon teal (72) we missed on our first pass, but had seen two days before. We saw the one, and then three more at the next marshy overlook! Back at home we also had a common raven (73) flyover, so the day ended with 12 more year birds on the list. Unfortunately no photos because of the rain!

On the 3rd we headed up north along I5 to catch the ferry home. Luckily it was still light on the ferry ride, allowing me to add some seabirds to the list. I saw a pigeon guillemot (74), pelagic cormorant (75), mew gull (76), and rhinoceros auklet (77) all pretty quickly, then hardly any birds for most of the next hour. Right as we were pulling into Friday Harbor, however, there was a flurry of activity that included three ancient murrelets (78), a common murre (79), and a red-necked grebe (80). While unloading the car I also heard a black oystercatcher (81) from the docks - the first time I've heard this species from home!

After work on the 4th I made a quick drive around the island to check out the local lakes and marshes. It was again surprisingly quiet, though I did see lots of trumpeter swans (82) and a group of northwestern crows (83).

Another quick afternoon on the 6th took me to Jackson Beach, where as I had hoped I found a few greater yellowlegs (84) as well as my first harlequin ducks (85) of the year.

On the 7th I went down to South Beach and Cattle Point, where right off the bat I saw a common loon (86) and long-tailed duck (87) offshore among the waves - it was a windy day out! In the cove at the far end of Cattle Pass I saw a pair of red-breasted mergansers (88) taking refuge from the weather along with surf scoters, bufflehead, and harlequin ducks. 

Finally, yesterday, the 8th, it was nice enough (and bright enough) for me to get my camera out!  Here's the view from American Camp looking over towards the Olympic Mountains:


I saw a northern harrier and a bald eagle, and then was thrilled to find two short-eared owls (89) perched on top a couple of evergreen trees in the middle of the prairie. They were two far away for decent photos (especially since I had the wrong lens on my camera), but it was still the best view I've had of them on San Juan Island. While looking at them I also spotted a single western meadowlark (90) perched on some brambles a little ways off.

So, it's been a pretty good first nine days of January! I'm only 10 species away from my goal of 100 for the month with lots of time to add to the list. The rest of this week will probably feature a couple of short local excursions, and then next weekend I hope to make a trip over to Skagit County where there have been some great sightings of late. I promise I'll take more pictures then, too!

Monday, January 2, 2012

The First 60

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.