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Sunday, January 27, 2013

The Magic Hour at American Camp

Yesterday was a very gray, drizzly day, but I felt like getting outside for a bit so close to sunset I headed down to American Camp. I wanted to look for the short-eared owls down there, who I figured might be active regardless of the weather. Amazingly, right as I pulled up to the Redoubt Road, I saw several owls flying over the prairie just as the sun was starting to break through the clouds for the first time of the day. What followed was a pretty amazing hour when it came to owls and lighting:

Short-eared owl at dusk

Double rainbow over the American Camp prairies

Before I left I drove down Pickett's Lane, and saw my closest short-eared owl of the day. It was almost getting too dark for photos, but not quite:

Short-eared owl and the end of the sunset

It ended up being a much better outing than I had hoped for: four short-eared owls, amazing light, beautiful sunset, and two rainbows! Can't ask for much more than that.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Scope Success and Swan Update

On Sunday I took the new scope out for a spin, and was successful in adding two species that had thus far been too far away for me to confirm IDs: marbled murrelet (109) and long-tailed duck (110). Overall, it was amazing how much more activity I could observe in Cattle Pass! I spend about 45 minutes just scanning with the scope, watching numerous alcids, loons, grebes, gulls, sea ducks, and seals foraging on the ebb tide.

Also, I heard back from the USGS about the banded swan I saw on Fir Island last weekend:

This bird, a male, was banded as an adult in August of 2006, meaning he's at least eight years old. The average life span for wild swans is about 12 years. He was tagged 55 miles northwest of Galena, Alaska, a distance of over 1700 miles from Fir Island. It's pretty amazing to think of far he's flown in his lifetime! It's always so neat to take small part in such research by reporting a sighting and learning part of the life history of a particular animal I saw.

Saturday, January 19, 2013

Skagit Flats

I actually added a year bird from work this week, seeing a pair of California quail (105) out the window of the lab.

With some great birding reports coming in from nearby Skagit County, I decided to get off island today to see what I could turn up on the Skagit Flats. It's known for being great this time of year for raptors, and today did not disappoint. As I drove up Bayview-Edison Road, I had to stop repeatedly to take in great looks of red-tailed hawks, bald eagles, and rough-legged hawks.

By the end of the day, I estimated I had seen close to 50 eagles. This was my best view:

With temperatures still hovering in the low 30s during the day, there's a lot of frozen standing water in the regional farmlands. These dunlin (106) were all standing on ice, many of them on one leg, mostly with their beaks tucked under a wing. It was pretty comical to see a few of them reshuffling by hopping on one foot, not even fully raising their heads. This is the biggest flock of shorebirds I've seen in a long time - a conservative estimate I made at the time was 2000 birds. If this photo shows about a quarter of the flock, I figure there may have been well more than that:

I went up to a WDFW property on Samish Island Road known as West 90, where some of the recent amazing bird reports have been coming from. About a week ago someone reported standing in one spot and scanning and seeing about 40 short-eared owls! A long-eared owl, a potential life bird for me, has also made numerous appearances. This was one of my main reasons for going off island, and when I excitedly got out of the car and scanned I saw....not a single owl! What! There were multiple northern harriers flying around as well as more red-tails, eagles, and rough-leggeds. Determined, I put on my rubber boots and tromped across the partially frozen mud, which yielded one short glimpse of a short-eared owl (107), but it really wasn't at all what I expected. Is it possible I just have absolutely no idea what a sitting short-eared owl looks like?

Not all was lost on my walk out in the marsh, as in addition to the owl I saw a lot of western meadowlarks (108). The Skagit Flats are an interesting area to bird this time of year, not just because of the wide variety of bird life, but because the best birding season coincides with hunting season. As I walked out at West 90, I was following behind a camouflaged hunter shouldering a rifle, his black lab bounding through the tall grasses and leaping back and forth over a water-filled ditch. Every so often throughout the day I would detect distant movement, raise my binoculars, and find instead of a bird a human crouched in the bushes. There are a lot of people out there looking to shoot birds - some with guns, others with cameras.

Still hankering for a better owl sighting, I took off for Fir Island. Rawlins Road didn't disappoint, where I found two more short-eared owls, one of them close enough to photograph:

While watching the owl a great blue heron flew up and landed near me:

I did another loop around Fir Island after that, in part to look for a gyrfalcon that had been found. No luck there, but there were lots of trumpeter swans and snow geese to be seen. These two trumpeter swans flew right overhead:

I noticed the one on the right was banded with both a neck band and, upon closer inspection of the photo, a silver leg band. I did a little research online when I got home, and I believe the number on the neck band indicates that this bird was banded in Alaska in the north-central or northwest Arctic region. That's at a minimum over 1500 miles away.

As I made my way back towards Anacortes, I drove the March Point loop. I did a double take when I saw all these herons in a field together. I've seen herons roosting or nesting in trees in groups, but never gathering on the ground like this. There were three or four more nearby that aren't in this shot:

Despite the frozen standing water, there were still lots of waterfowl out on the bay. I saw hundreds and hundreds of American wigeon and northern pintail, a good number of mallards, and smaller numbers of common goldeneye, green-winged teal, and bufflehead. The best sighting was not one but two Eurasian wigeon hanging out right together:

Then, on somewhat of a whim, I decided it was time for me to bird in style, and I splurged on a spotting scope from Anacortes Telescope. I tried it out on its mini tri-pod at the Anacortes ferry terminal while waiting for my ride home:

It's niiiiice. Tomorrow I may just have to try it out here on the island and see if I can pick myself up a long-tailed duck off the south end.

The ferry ride back to Friday Harbor was beautiful. In addition to seeing more bald eagles, all three merganser species, a nice group of common goldeneye, and some various alcids, the lighting was stunning as the evening neared sunset. The sun was behind an island, but the bright golden light made the clouds above it look like they were on fire, complete with a dark trail of smoky gray clouds above.  Much of the rest of the sky was a deep lavender, with a few misty low-hanging clouds looking like they were illuminated bright pink from within. I was just sitting and taking it all in rather than taking any photos, so you're going to have to picture this one for yourselves!

Saturday, January 12, 2013

Passing 100 and a Strange Stranding

Temperatures have been below freezing, but along with that has come clear skies and sunshine so I'll take it. I've gone out for a little bit of birding the last few days with year bird #100 in my sites, and turned up a lot of good species.

Friday afternoon we headed towards the south end of the island and the first bird I saw was the rough-legged hawk hanging out between American Camp and South Beach. Seems like he/she has decided to spend the winter here, as for the last month or so it's been within the same half mile or so. It's nice to see it so regularly here on the island.

I had added northwestern crow (88) during the week and the first year bird of the outing was a sharp-shinned hawk (89) flying over the road. At South Beach, there weren't very many birds out in the strait, but there were a nice variety of species represented, so I also added common loon (90), surf scoter (91), and Pacific loon (92) there. There were some very far away birds that might have been long-tailed ducks, but with the distance and lighting it was just too hard to tell for sure.

Things were fairly quiet bird-wise at Cattle Point, too. It was pretty breezy so maybe most were taking refuge from the icy temperatures somewhere else. It was just so nice to see some sunshine after days of dark and gray!!


Among the bufflehead in the pass were some harlequin ducks (93), and while we were watching them a pair of black oystercatchers (94) flew by. While scanning the gulls and cormorants over on Goose Island I also spotted a pair of black turnstones (95). There were some alcids out in the middle of the channel, too.....hmmm...pigeon guillemots still in winter plumage and....please come a little closer.....yes!! Ancient murrelets (96).

There have been some nice birds visiting at home, too. A flock of about thirty pine siskins has been regularly visiting the feeders, by far the largest group of birds we've hosted on the houseboat. Our regular house sparrows, chestnut-backed chickadees, red-breasted nuthatches, and dark-eyed juncos have also been around. The rock pigeons have become unwelcome regulars again, too. A belted kingfisher has made a few appearances, and one afternoon this female hooded merganser passed just feet off the houseboat:

Speaking of things passing just off the houseboat, Katie called us the other day with the amazing sighting that she was watching killer whales on the inside of Brown Island heading towards Shipyard Cove. That's right off the edge of our dock! Unfortunately I was at work so I missed them - just think of watching orcas right off my front porch! It's something I've actually dreamed about often and deep down believed I would see one day, so I hope this isn't the last time. It was a group of transients and they apparently made a kill just on the other side of Brown Island, so maybe they'll come back through the area. What's amazing is that they can pass so close to Friday Harbor and be more or less unnoticed! It's lucky that Katie saw them at all. I can easily imagine whales coming by a few hundred yards from where I'm sleeping and me having no idea it ever happened!

Despite missing that incredible sighting, we must carry on and see what else we can find. With that in mind I headed down to Fourth of July Beach to do a COASST survey and hopefully turn up some shorebirds for the year list. Not a single shorebird in sight on the beach, but out in the bay were a handful of white-winged scoters (97) and, a real surprise for me, a group of eight greater scaup (98). It's actually the first time I've seen that species in the county!

As per usual, there were no stranded sea birds on my stretch of the beach, but there was a very large something else stranded. From a couple hundred feet away I actually looked at it through bincoulars to see if it was an animal and I determined it was not, just a bundle of seaweed and other debri. I think I actually jumped when I got closer and noticed a rib cage sticking out of it! Turned out this mass belonged to a very decayed pinniped. Way to big to be a harbor seal, my first thought was maybe a small elephant seal, but perhaps Steller sea lion is more likely. I'm not sure, and I must admit I didn't want to investigate too closely:

There were all kinds of mew and glaucous-winged gulls around who didn't seem the least bit interested in investigating it, which I thought was odd. All I could make out were a pelvic bone, the rib cage, and part of the skull. Looks like the thing had some bites taken out of it, too.

Back to the living animals, however. While filling out my survey sheet in the parking flock a nice flock of about fifteen red crossbills (99) flew over. Hmm, 100 species was definitely in reach for the day now! I planned to drive by some of the inland lakes to pick of trumpeter swans on my way home, but I didn't really want such an "easy" species to be #100. I must be spoiled if I'm getting that picky with my bird list! I had no reason to worry, however, as while I was sitting at the steering wheel of my parked car deciding where to go next a hermit thrush (100) emerged from the bushes and perched on a branch right in front of me. What a treat!

After watching the thrush for a moment, I decided to cross to the other side of the road and go back to South Beach and try again for the long-tailed ducks. No luck on that front, but while I was scanning a small flock of four shorebirds flew in and landed up beach of me. I crouched down and they scurried their way towards me, amazingly passing within about 10 feet of me with apparently no concern for my presence whatsoever. They were a few very bold little sanderlings (101)!


Offshore in the (again) poor lighting I also managed to see a couple of red-necked grebes (102) in with the loons and scoters.

Next up I wanted to check out False Bay, and was surprised when a Cooper's hawk (103) flew in front of my car and perched on a roadside branch long enough for me to get a nice identification but not a photo. This was a "big miss" on last year's year list - I'm pretty sure I saw one, but too often just got enough of a glimpse to note "Accipter species" on my list and not whether it was a Cooper's or sharp-shinned. There seem to be lots of Accipters around right now, as I've gotten good looks at both species in the last two days as well as some quick glimpses of others.

It was junco central along False Bay Road, with easily more than 50 birds in and along the road in one short stretch. At the bay itself, things were pretty quiet except for the expected flock of northern pintail and mew gulls. From there, I went past the Wold Road pond where I added trumpeter swan (104). Being one of the few lakes that is bigger and hence not frozen over, there was other waterfowl activity here too including ring-necked ducks, gadwall, pied-billed grebes, mallards, and hooded mergansers.

All in all, despite feeling like there weren't that many birds out and about in the icy weather, it turned out to be a very productive few days' birding. I added 16 species to the year list, cruising past 100 and already closing in on last January's total of 105 species. Additionally, today's outing put the county list past 50 species on the year. Let's hope this weather holds so it's enticing to get out a lot more throughout the rest of the month!

Monday, January 7, 2013

Skagit River Eagles

Before heading home to San Juan Island, we made one last side trip up the Skagit River valley where the annual bald eagle festival goes on for the month of January. Every year from December-February bald eagles congregate along the Skagit and other nearby rivers to feed on spawned out salmon, creating the densest congregation of bald eagles in the Lower 48. I've been wanting to check it out for years, and decided I was finally going to make it happen. Since the eagles tend to hang out along the river, the best way to see them is from the water, so we signed up to do a drift boat tour down the nine miles of the Skagit River from Marblemount to Rockport. It was a crisp 36 degrees as we gathered by the boats. A steady drizzle fell, but the patches of fog were lifting off the river to reveal the snow dusted hills on either side of the river valley.

Drift boat watching a bald eagle on the Skagit River
During the first half of our trip we actually didn't see all that many eagles - maybe ten or so over the first couple miles. Eagle numbers apparently peaked this year in late December and have been rapidly falling since then. Even at their peak, they only had about half as many birds as last year. Getting spoiled by our booming bald eagle population in the San Juan Islands, I wasn't that impressed. Most of our views were of single birds high up in the trees, silhouetted against the sky.

We got out on a sand bar by a newly constructed beaver dam where salmon carcasses littered the beach, the bony remnants picked clean by the eagles and other creatures. Below the beaver dam several salmon redds were visible, where males had cleared out an area for the females to lay their eggs. They're visible here as the gray patches in the middle of the water:

For the second half of the trip, the eagle numbers started to really pick up. Some of the eagles were lower down, providing some better photographing opporunities. It was especially cool when a bird was perched on a branch overhanging the river and we were able to drift right under it, giving us a unique angle as we looked straight up at the eagle:


There were some much denser congregations of eagles. This stand of trees had nine eagles in it, seven of which are visible here:

In this same stretch of river I got my prize shot of the day:

This one isn't so bad either:

It's a pretty stunning landscape for photography, even on a gray dreary day. I wasn't the only photographer out to enjoy the eagles:

While I was a little underwhelmed from what I've seen and heard of other's trips to see the Skagit eagles, by the end of the trip we had seen about 70 eagles, which is still pretty amazing. I certainly haven't ever seen that many eagles in one day before.

The timing was perfect for us to catch the mid-afternoon ferry back to the island, which meant I got to bird a little bit from the ferry before it got dark. I was able to add the four expected species to the year list this way: pelagic cormorant (84), common murre (85), pigeon guillemot (86), and rhinoceros auklet (87). While it's not a given, I think this puts me in pretty good shape to reach 100 species before the month's end. We shall see!

Saturday, January 5, 2013

The Year List Ticks On

By late morning on the third I was ready to get out and do some more birding. Our first stop was an unusual one: one of my dad's bars in North Portland where an Anna's hummingbird (69) has been reliably spending her winter:

Being so close, we cruised by Vanport Wetlands, where the lighting was poor, but we were still able to turn up some ruddy ducks (70). At nearby Force Lake we weren't able to locate the recently reported palm warbler, but I did see a downy woodpecker (71). The great horned owl nest we've seen the last few years there appeared to be unused this year. The other notable sighting was four red tailed hawks soaring overhead.

From there it was onto Broughton Beach, where very cold and windy conditions kept us in the car. There were some California gulls (72) in the parking lot along with the glaucous-winged and ring-billed gulls, and we also found one common merganser (73) in the lee side of a houseboat taking shelter from the wind.

Our main destination for the day was Ridgefield National Wildlife Refuge, where we drove the S-River Unit. For the first half of the loop bird life was actually pretty sparse. Much of the refuge's water was still frozen over, meaning a lot of the waterfowl had moved elsewhere. One exception was the coot, who were mostly foraging in the marshy grasses, and would occasionally cross the ice to get from one foraging area to the next:

There were a lot of raptors around, too - we probably saw about 20 red-tailed hawks and half a dozen eagles, plus another half dozen or so northern harriers, like this one:

There were lots of nutria around, too. They would be more interesting to watch if they weren't so invasive:

On the far side of Rest Lake the bird life started picking up. We found a huge flock of song sparrows - probably 25 of them altogether. I don't think I've ever seen song sparrows flocking like that before. In among them was one savannah sparrow:

Behind the sparrows, hopping around on the grasses sticking up above the frozen waters, were about fifteen yellow-rumped warblers (74), the first year bird for the refuge coming about three-quarters of the way through the loop. While watching them a single tree swallow (75) also flew over. We started seeing more waterfowl over here, too, including huge flocks of cackling and Canada geese:

I was even able to snap this photo showing the two recently split species right beside each other:

I have actually never seen so many swans on the refuge. Some of them were congregating on the thawed middle part of the lake, and hundreds more were huddled together on the ice. We estimated they were probably about 1500 (!!) of them.

One of the red-tailed hawks we saw was a very pale Kreider's morph, and this one was unique too in that he seemed content to be sitting on the ground. He flew a couple of times and always landed on the ground again instead of one of the nearby trees or snags:

As we were trying to leave the refuge we got stuck behind a stopped train blocking the tracks we had to cross. The bright side of being stuck for a while meant we got to look closely at the river as we crossed the one-way bridge, having no where to go on the other side and no cross traffic to compete with. We added some double-crested cormorants and a belted kingfisher to our sightings list, as well as a pair of hooded mergansers (76).

Back at my parents' house on January 4th I finally saw a pine siskin (77) come to the feeder, and driving home from a dinner out with friends I got a huge surprise when I saw a tiny owl sitting in the road a few miles from my parents' house. Luckily it hadn't gone far when I turned around - it was sitting on the bank by the side of the road and let me shine my headlights on it. It looked right at me before taking flight a moment later, allowing me to identify it as a northern saw-whet owl (78)! This is a species I definitely did not expect to get on the year list. It's also the first time I've ever seen this bird; last year it was a life bird when I heard a couple of them calling while camping near Astoria.

Today, after an amazingly quick two weeks, it was time to start heading north back towards the San Juan Islands. On the way, I had to stop again at the Nisqually Reach Nature Center near Olympia where I had some good sightings on my way south. It was well worth the slight side trip as while standing in a single spot on the shoreline I quickly added five more year birds: a western gull (79), the same very distant snowy owl (80) across the river delta, one horned grebe (81), a flock of common goldeneye (82), and a couple of red-breasted mergansers (83).

Perhaps spoiled by last year's amazing snowy owl sightings at Boundary Bay, I wasn't quite content with the speck of a view of one through a scope at Nisqually. Being in no rush, we made another side trip near Ballard to look for the snowy owls that have somewhat oddly been hanging out right in an urban neighborhood not far from downtown Seattle. Luckily the neighbors and local dog walkers are very friendly to the "owl people" and they pointed us in the right direction. We spotted one of the two that have been hanging out in the same few block area since before Thanksgiving. I wonder what they're eating?

Tomorrow, it's time to head home and get ready to get back to work and the regular routine on the island. First, we've got one more overnight away and hopefully a little more birding to do tomorrow before catching our ferry....

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Kicking Off the 2013 Year List

Snow fell on New Year's Eve, and as the sky dimmed for the last time in 2012 we gathered our usual friends and family for our last day of the year festivities. Game playing was interrupted shortly before midnight when someone spotted movement on the deck outside. It was a raccoon - the first one my parents have ever seen in their yard. Closer inspection showed it to be a raccoon with a story to tell - he had a gash on his nose and was missing his tail. We could only imagine what might have happened to him.

Just like last year, when I awoke on New Year's Day I added the same first species to my year list without opening my eyes as I heard a Steller's jay (1) in my parents' yard. I went downstairs and ate a bowl of cereal in front of the sliding glass door overlooking the beautiful, snow-dusted landscape, every bough and branch looking like it had been dipped in ice. I added seven more species to the list, most of them the same ones that made up my first ten species from last year: black-capped chickadee (2), mourning dove (3 - was 30 last year), chestnut-backed chickadee (4), red-breasted nuthatch (5), dark-eyed junco (6), spotted towhee (7), and song sparrow (8).

We took off towards Saint Helens, passing ten species with the American crow (10) and adding a few others on our way to the Honeyman Road loop that goes through Scappoose Bottoms. Along the way we had to stop to take a few pictures not only of birds but of the snowy landscape, too:

The reservoir on Honeyman Road had at least 50 tundra swans (16) on it, a species it was nice to add so early and one that wasn't present when we had visited shortly before. Just down the road from the swan overlook was my first red-tailed hawk (17) of the year. My camera settings weren't quite right when it took flight, but I like the result in this photograph anyway:

The rough-legged hawk wasn't in his usual corner, so we thought that might be a big miss. There were other raptors around, however, including a bald eagle (20), several American kestrels (21), and a northern harrier (23). Kestrels are often quite skittish, but this one didn't move when we slowed the car down below it. It wasn't until I looked at the photo that I realized he was clutching a mouse, with blood on his beak and feathers and dripping down the pole. Such is the life of a bird of prey:

We found the rough-legged hawk (24) further down the road form his usual hang out - yay! The rest of Honeyman Road turned up our first bunch of waterfowl and three gull species, with some highlights being half a dozen Wilson's snipe (28) and a small flock of sandhill cranes (29).

The weather was crisp but it was time to get out and walk part of the Crown-Zellerbach trail. The Ross' goose from a few days before was no where to be seen, but in its place were six snow geese (35) with a huge flock of cackling geese. More of the regular wetland species were added here, most notably a Virginia rail (42) that responded to a played vocalization, one or two marsh wrens (43), and a lone cinnamon teal (46). There weren't as many sparrows and small birds in the blackberry bushes, perhaps due to all the people out walking their dogs and enjoying the sunny first day of the year. One dog walker even stopped and asked to take a picture of us crazy birders for the county webpage. Several others stopped to share their own bird sightings with us, even if it was just "a flock of 50 starlings". It's always nice to get others to think about the birds they've seen!

We drove along Dike Road next where the highlight was a male Eurasian wigeon (51), a species that eluded both me and my dad last year. From there it was a short drive to Sauvie Island, where the first stop was to enjoy a pair of peregrine falcons (54) perched in perfect lighting:

Last year, I didn't add peregrine falcon until #218 in October. These two were on adjacent poles, and then one flew to join the other, setting up this great photo op of a pair of falcons, each facing different directions:

It was hard not to stop and take another picture of the same photogenic cows, especially because of the flock of Brewer's blackbirds (55) in their field.

The next pasture over were some very strange looking llamas. They're carrying quite the load of wool, which looks so unkempt as to be growing its own layer of moss of algae:

From there it was on to the Reeder Road observation blind. The duck composition had changed quite a lot from a few days before, perhaps in part because of all the hunting that was going on nearby. We actually saw one guy across the marsh shoot and then wade out to net a duck or goose, the poor thing still struggling as he made his way back to shore. It was interesting to have lots of bird watchers with scopes and binos on one side of the lake and hunters with guns poking through blinds right across the way on the other side. Most of the birds were American coot, and gone from what we could tell were the ruddy ducks, but we did re-find the redhead (58) and canvasback (59), as well as a single female bufflehead (60) and some lesser scaup (61).

With getting a later start than planned and taking our time everywhere we went, we realized we weren't going to cover nearly as much ground as we had originally planned for January 1. Still, without traveling nearly as far as we did last year, we equaled last year's first day of the year total by about 2:30 in the afternoon. Next up was Rentenaar Road, where we had seen the Harris' sparrow on the 29th. It looked like lots of other birders had the same idea, as the road was busy from end to end. As we pondered what it was about this particular dirt road edged with blackberries that so attracted sparrows, we saw dozens of golden-crowned and white-crowned sparrows (63). All in all, we only turned up four of the seven sparrow species from a few days before. We managed to turn up two Lincoln's sparrows (64), but no Harris' sparrow for us that day.

By this time the annoying cold that has greeted me this new year was beginning to take its toll on me, so we started to head home. On our way off the island we picked up double-crested cormorants (65) as expected, but didn't see any of the hoped-for mergansers along the Multnomah Channel.

As we reviewed the first day of birding, we agreed the peregrine falcons were the highlight, but were surprised that fox sparrow hadn't made it onto the list - last year it was #10 for me. On our way home we went by a patch of bushes where we had seen a pair of fox sparrows a few days ago. They hadn't been there in the morning, but amazingly to me, there they were in the afternoon (66). Just like the rough-legged hawk and so many other birds, they astound me with their site fidelity. Since we were so close we returned to the rough-legged hawk area, a spot known to some birders as Owl Corner. While the rough-legged hawk had returned to his usual perching tree, there were no short-eared owls or any other kind of owls to be seen patrolling the fields.

That proved to be it for day one, but with an improvement of five species over last year, I was pleased enough. I perhaps paid for being out and about so much with a cold coming on, as I proved to be totally down for the count today and further birding plans had to be postponed. The only species I added on day two were evening grosbeaks (67) and varied thrushes (68) that came to my parents' feeders, seen comfortably from under a blanket on the couch. I hope to still get in a trip to Ridgefield National Wildlife Refuge before I leave, and hopefully seek out a couple of the rarer birds reported in Portland recently on the way there.