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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!

5 comments:

The K said...

Too bad on the owl miss, but good birding otherwise. Congrats on the scope. I know you'll get ton of use out of it. About time!

Phil said...

That same field where you saw the GBHs hanging out has had up to 50 in it. For some reason there are several farm fields they like to congregate in.

Vera said...

What a day, huh? I was going to comment on the beautiful bald eagle picture, but then all the others were just as amazing. Great shots...and amazing to see so many dunlin. Congrats on the scope!

Lancashire and Lakeland Outback Adventure Wildlife Safaris said...

Nice scope - don't wear it out!
And you're always welcome to bob over and have a butchers at our LEOs

Cheers

DaveyMan

Lancashire and Lakeland Outback Adventure Wildlife Safaris said...

Hi Monika

Re - shovelers...a look in our handbook (vol 1) and it says that shovelers spinning in groups could create a whirlpool effect which concentrates the plankton and/or brings it up from deeper water which would be out of reach to single birds. This info was printed in 1977 tho so it could be out of date by now,still sounds very plausible.

Cheers

D