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Friday, January 24, 2014

Ticking Along

I've had a few nice wildlife sightings this week, and taken a few nice pictures to share. My first year bird of the week was the hairy woodpecker (83) that visited the suet feeder:

On one lunch break I took a quick walk at Three Meadows Marsh, in search of another year bird I had heard reports of. Just before I left I found it: three American coot (84) in the corner of the wetlands.

Today, I went down to Fourth of July Beach to do a COASST survey. No beached birds, and hardly any living birds either! Griffin Bay was surprisingly quiet, with just a few dozen bufflehead and two common loons out there. After finishing up there, I went to the redoubt, wondering if I would see the shrike. I didn't, but I did relocate this photogenic fox, who this time posed nicely in front of Mt. Baker:

On my way back to town, I stopped at a particular snag that usually has one raptor of some species sitting in it. More often than not it's a red-tailed hawk, but that didn't look quite right today. Sure enough, it was a peregrine falcon (85):

Tomorrow I'm helping out with a trumpeter swan count on the island, part of WDFW's winter swan survey. Maybe I'll find something else of interest at the same time....a ruddy duck? Wishful thinking, but you never know!

Saturday, January 18, 2014

81 vs. 82

After a pleasant start to the New Year here on San Juan Island, we were treated to a couple weeks of windy, stormy weather which greatly decreased the birding opportunities. We're finally seeing some calmer skies and even a little bit of sunshine, but for many days the most beautiful part of the day was first thing in the morning when we had some dramatic skies before another gray day of rain:

January sunrise over Egg Lake

This past week I got out to do a little birding on one of my lunch breaks and turned up my first house sparrow (81) of the year. Interestingly, it seems like this invasive species is becoming harder and harder to find in recent years, after I remember it being abundant during my childhood.

Yesterday afternoon I took a hike at Cattle Point, where I found a flock of about 20 house finches (82). As it turns out, the rise and fall of these two species, who happen to be next to each other on my 2014 year list, may in fact be related. Citizen science data from projects like the Christmas Bird Count and Project Feeder Watch have shown that house finches may be out-competing house sparrows. Here on the west coast, house finches are native, but on the east coast where they have been introduced, they're actually considered an invasive species as well. The interaction between populations of these two species is actually one of the first documented cases of an invasive bird species impacting other bird species on a population level. We suspect this happens in other cases - like that of the European starling - but the data just hasn't been there to prove it. Read more the house sparrow vs. house finch interaction from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology here.

Looking towards Goose Island from Cattle Point
Today I did one of my monthly bird surveys at False Bay Creek, where the flooded fields this time of year lead to the presence of waterfowl species like northern pintail, green-winged teal, northern shovelers, and American wigeon.

Flooded False Bay Creek
Luckily due to the extra water, the cows are kept in the adjacent field this time of year. Honestly I'm always a little scared of them when I do my survey while they're in the same field as me!

You stay on your side of the fence, I'll stay on mine
The coolest find of the day was a northern shrike. I've never seen one on the island in a place other than the south end, until today!

There are a few more opportunities for the year list here on the island this month, but it's unlikely I'll reach 100 this month without going off island, which it looks like may not happen. Next month, however, I have a pretty incredible trip planned that will not only seriously boost the year list but will result in A LOT to blog about, so stay tuned!

Sunday, January 5, 2014

Week One Rolls On

I've been out birding for at least a couple hours every day so far in 2014, and as a result the year list has progressed slowly but steadily. January 2nd it rained all day, which made for very few birds during my walk at English Camp. I had more luck driving along White Point Road where I found a Cooper's hawk (62), my only year bird of the day. I did, however, also find a Eurasian form of the green-winged teal - a common teal. Not a separate species according to the ABA, but still the first time I've seen this race in the county and a cool find.

Eurasian green-winged teal with a horizontal white stripe on its back instead of a vertical white stripe at the shoulder

The weather was nicer on January 3rd, so I walked around Three Meadows Marsh and turned up a red-breasted sapsucker (63), downy woodpecker (64), brown creeper (65), a couple of Bewick's wrens (66), and a small flock of golden-crowned kinglets (67). At Jackson Beach I found one of the greater yellowlegs (68) that eluded us on New Year's Day:

I also returned to American Camp, where it was warm enough that I decided to thoroughly enjoy the first sunshine of 2014 by sitting on this hillside for a while:

On my way down to the water, a trio of deer where determined to cross the path in front of me - they did so pretty close and at a run!

I also had a western meadowlark (69) fly along in front of me, and on my way back up the hill, I located the northern shrike (70) that was also a miss on the first of the year:

I also had to stop and photograph this guy in his beautiful winter coat before heading home:

Yesterday, the 4th, I picked up a short leg of our local Christmas Bird Count circle that still needed covering. In the process, I found a hermit thrush (71), a small group of bushtits (72), and a Hutton's vireo (73) in with a mixed flock of woodland species. I also found seven killdeer (74) in a field with several hundred European starlings and over 50 American robins.

Today my original hope was to go over and bird Skagit County, where a bunch of "gimmes" await. When that wasn't going to work out, I settled for a morning hike over on Orcas Island. Surprisingly, I didn't add any species on the ferry ride over or during our hike on Turtleback Mountain. There was a chilly breeze blowing and the ground was icy in places, but the scenery was sure stunning!

It was the Orcas ferry landing while waiting for the return boat that turned up the bird I was most hoping for - a Steller's jay (75). One of the few species I can get on Orcas but not San Juan Island! As an added bonus, I also found a pair of fox sparrows (76) and a ruby-crowned kinglet (77). While looking at the kinglet and associated chickadees, creepers, and nuthatches, I heard a strange call I couldn't place. The closest thing I could come to was a western tanager - I even played the call and it seemed like a match - but surely there wouldn't be one of those here now?! They did find one in Skagit county recently, but I couldn't ever get a view of the bird hidden in the canopy so there's no way I'll let myself count it. The mystery will have to remain!

There was a group of crows hanging out near the parking area, and there were a couple of crows that were different enough that I'm going to call them American crows (78). Usually the only crows we see in the county are northwestern crows. Supposedly their range doesn't overlap with American crows, but of course that's a fuzzy line, with many regional birders thinking the northwestern is just a race of the American crow. They do remain separate species for now, however, so I usually count crows on the island as northwesterns and crows seen further south as Americans. The major difference between them is size and voice, and today I had two sitting right next to each other, both calling. The voices and sizes clearly matched accordingly, so I decided to count my American crow now. I wish I had my camera on me at the time, because I would have loved to get a video clip and see what others think! But by the time I got my camera and returned, I was left with just one crow. Which kind are you?

While I saw more birds on the way over, the ferry ride back actually proved more productive for the year list turning up some Brandt's cormorants (79) and a single rhinoceros auklet (80). (For those keeping score, Dave sits at 72 and my dad at 84, but there will be a lot of moving and shaking in this early going!) The most photogenic birds, however, were the pelagic cormorants on the dock pilings at Orcas - look at those colors!

I also had to get the camera out to capture the scene looking towards Mt. Baker as we rounded Shaw Island heading for Lopez on the way home:

It's back to work tomorrow, so I'm sure the birding will slow down, but I'll still of course be looking!

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Kickin' Off the 2014 Year List

It's a new year, which means its time to start the 2014 bird year list! Amazingly, Dave in England and I TIED last year, each seeing 192 species. We were both short of our goal of 200, but have our sights set on the same number for this year. It was funny to hear that Dave already had 3 pre-dawn species on his 2014 list before we had even turned the calendars over from 2013!

My list has a very different look to start the year this time, since I spent New Years Day on San Juan Island instead of in Oregon. I still got off to a great start, but it's going to be very hard to reach 100 before the end of January without going off-island (several times?) to get some of the species that are gimmes in the Portland area but next to impossible to get there: black-capped chickadees, great egrets, western scrub-jays, etc.

The last couple of years, I've been able to pass 10 species before even leaving my parents' house. I had hoped to do the same this year, but our feeders have gone completely quiet in the last few days. My first 20 minutes spent outside, in the yard, only turned up five species: red-breasted nuthatch (1), common raven (2), pileated woodpecker (a stellar #3 - was #129 in March last year!), Pacific wren (4), and American robin (5).

Shortly thereafter I met up with my dad, who is also starting his 2014 year list, and a couple of other birders who were game for a day out and about around the island. Our first stop was at Sportsman Lake where we turned up a lot of waterfowl species including trumpeter swans (6), ring-necked ducks (9), and the first of the ubiquitous bufflehead (10) for the day. I also saw my first bald eagle of the year (15) here, and we moved on with 16 species on my list. Three Meadows Marsh added more of the expected species, and also turned up two I was very hopeful for - the marsh wren (23) and Virginia rail (24).

Driving some of the central island roads quickly boosted the list to 34 as many more expected species were added, the most exciting of which was probably a small flock of purple finches (31). We then went for a walk from Deadman Bay to Lime Kiln, adding our first marine birds including harlequin ducks (35), black oystercatchers (36), mew gulls (37), and others. While walking back to the car, another unexpected find was a sharp-shinned hawk (41).

We picked up a few more species as we meandered our way back to town for a lunch break, including a Eurasian wigeon (43) that I spotted very, very, very far away through the scope at False Bay and also a merlin (45) along Douglas Road. The only reason we saw the merlin is because I stopped to take a picture of this pair of bald eagles!

We ate lunch at Jackson Beach, a location I had scouted a couple times in the preceding days. As hoped, we turned up some common goldeneye (48) and a pair of long-tailed ducks (53), but gone were the greater yellowlegs and peregrine falcon that will have to wait for another day. Gotta save something for later this month!

We then continued the circuit we birded yesterday (when I was hoping to find a red-throated loon or some other surprise to regain my one-species lead over Dave), which turned up nearly 40 species for us in a couple hours on the last day of 2013. By this point the weather was turning, however, and gone was our pleasant, overcast morning, replaced with a chillier, rainier mid-afternoon. At Fourth of July Beach we found surf (55) and white-winged (56) scoters as well as a single Pacific loon (57). A pair of northern harriers (58) were flying near the redoubt at American Camp, but we couldn't relocate the shrike we saw there yesterday (and several times previously). By this time the light was beginning to fade already, so our last stop of the day was at Cattle Point where I knew I would have a shot to reach my Day One goal of 60 species. We saw a couple red-breasted mergansers (59) which I thought for sure we would have seen by then, and then the icing on the cake was a couple of surfbirds on Goose Island (60) as well as a few black-bellied plovers (61). Thank goodness for my dad's scope or we never would have seen them!

Thanks to a few early morning sightings, my dad remains one ahead of me at 62 as the first day of 2014 came to a close. I've established a nice early lead on Dave, however, who in what sounds like stormy weather turned up 30 species on January 1 across the pond. We'll see how long it lasts me, though - I don't think it will last we very long at all!