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!