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Monday, January 19, 2015

Birding Griffin Bay

The only bird I added to the year list last week was a pileated woodpecker (83). When I found out our boat was done getting some work done on it, I decided Saturday would be a great day to go for a spin before taking it out of the water again. Since it was in the water on the other side of the island, it was a chance to explore new territory in Griffin Bay, where I got to be on the water side of some of my favorite birding spots like Fourth of July and Jackson Beaches! Even though I've done pretty well on all the expected local sea birds between January 1st and my last ferry trip off island, I was hopeful to add another species or two. During the hour and a half we puttered around the bay, we turned up over 20 species, which I thought was pretty good! They included....

Bald eagle
Ancient murrelets - we saw about 30 of them!

Brandt's cormorants

Common loon

Long-tailed ducks

Other non-photographed highlights included marbled murrelets, common murres, rhinocerous auklets, surf and white-winged (84) scoters, and Pacific loons. 

If only we had been a couple days later - today there were both resident and transient orcas right where we started birding! Soon enough.... :)

Sunday, January 11, 2015

Birding on the Mainland

Yesterday we took a day trip to the mainland and got to spend some time visiting some birding sites I've been wanting to visit for a few weeks. I had been slow in adding any species to my year list on the island this week, with the lowly rock pigeon (67) being my only addition. I knew some off-island bird-watching would help me reach my goal of reaching 100 species before the end of the month, and I started off on the ferry ride adding rhinoceros auklet (68) and common murre (69). Then driving along Highway 20 I added a rough-legged hawk (70).

Our first birding destination was along the Nooksack River near Deming, Washington. Several friends have taken phenomenal photos at the Mosquito Lake Road Bridge, so that's where I wanted to go. I heard eagles right when I stepped out of the car, but my first focus was on all the other bird around: black-capped chickadees (71), a pair of American dippers (72), Steller's jays (73), and American crows (74). Okay, now on to the eagles!

There were about a dozen perched in the tree right alongside the bridge, with more eagles visible basically anywhere you scanned. They congregate along these rivers in large numbers from December-February to feed on the dead and dying salmon that have just spawned. The eagles are most active feeding in the morning, then spend the rest of the day roosting in nearby trees. With the ferries, it was hard for me to get there too early, so they were mostly all roosting. But there were a lot of them - I counted more than 70 - and even if some of them were this far away, it was still an impressive sight:

Every so often an eagle would decide to change positions, at times giving us a nice flyby on the bridge, and then causing some commotion as the ranks got reshuffled at the new perching site.

I was very thankful that one eagle did come down and land on the river bank close to where we were watching:

He/she proceeded to walk along the shoreline (I don't think I've ever seen an eagle walk before - it's more of a swagger!), then wade out into the shallows, presumably looking for a fish carcass.

We spent about an hour watching the eagles until heading to our next stop down in Stanwood, WA. Of course I was birding from the car along the way and added Eurasian collared-dove (75), American kestrel (76), and Brewer's blackbird (77). Also many more eagles, easily putting our tally for the day at over 100 birds!

There have been lots of fantastic reports coming from Eide Road in the last few weeks, and despite the weather being misty and foggy I was hopeful when we parked and I could see several people with cameras set up on tripods nearby. Sure enough, my most hoped-for bird of the day was not only there but perched right out in the open - a long-eared owl! Not only year bird #78, but North American life bird #362!

Long-eared owls are widespread across most of the country but are considered rare west of the Cascades. Even where they are found, they're in small numbers and sightings are sporadic. They're nocturnal hunters that roost during the day in dense thickets, often buried so far in the bush they're highly camouflaged. There was actually a second owl just a few yards away, and if someone hadn't pointed it out to us, I'm pretty sure I would have missed it, even if I had been looking hard for it - even after he pointed right to it, it took me a minute to see it!

Find the owl! No wonder they're so uncommonly seen...I wonder how many I've walked right by in my time?
I'm amazed at how approachable some birds are. The first long-eared owl was perched right beside the trail, no more than 10 yards away from where the people were, yet he could barely be bothered to open his eyes to glance at us as we ogled him (I'm assuming this was the male - someone else there said it was a pair and the one in the bush was the slightly larger female).

While enjoying the owl I heard an Anna's hummingbird (79), then when we walked further down the road we saw two short-eared owls (80) - another bird I love to see, but these guys weren't nearly as cooperative for photographs. By this time we had to go run some errands, but I made a detour through Fir Island where a flock of snow geese (81) flew overhead, just as I hoped they would. The birding day ended when we stopped to eat a late lunch at Bay View State Park on our way back to the ferry, where greater scaup (82) were in view along with some loons, common goldeneye, and great blue herons. There were rafts of thousands of other ducks on the in the bay, but they were too far away in the dimming light to identify.

I thought adding 15 species was pretty good on the day, but it's only helped me keep pace with Dave (84) and Dad (79). It's been a pretty dreary start to 2015 here in the San Juans, but with some sunshine forecast in the coming week maybe I'll get out to do a little more birding on the home front.

Sunday, January 4, 2015

Kickin' Off the 2015 Year List

January 1st brought the beginning to another year list, and the New Year's Day tradition for birding for most of the daylight hours. Stepping out into the yard before breakfast, my first bird of the year was a common raven (1) followed shortly (and somewhat surprisingly) by a Pacific wren (2) and golden-crowned kinglet (3). The usual feeder species helped round out the list at 8 species before heading out to meet the rest of our family birding group.

Our first stop was Sportman's Lake, which turned up almost all of the expected waterfowl in a single stop! Some additional bonuses included a pair of bald eagles (19), a belted kingfisher (21), and a pied-billed grebe (24).

Next was a walk at Three Meadows Marsh - the moment documented by the one non-birder in our group, my mom :)

As you can see, it was frosty out, but we would definitely take the sunshine! The first year bird at the marsh was a surprising Lincoln's sparrow (25), one of the best species of the day. My pishing also turned up the hoped-for marsh wren (29), but we didn't have any success in getting a Virginia rail talk back, though Keith amazingly saw one!! But it's still a "miss" on my year list.

Next up, Jackson Beach turned out to be a fantastic stop for our first shorebirds and sea birds of the day including greater yellowlegs (33), common goldeneye (36), and another great find - a pair of long-tailed ducks (39). Along with a couple of the common grebes and loons, and a northern harrier (44) flyby, I was well on my way to my goal of 60 species on the day.

Cattle Point was next, where we spent almost an hour and a half. The first species when we got out of the car was another great one - peregrine falcon (45). We filled in the other expected seabirds by scanning with my dad's scope, including the hoped for but by no means expected marbled murrelet (50) and ancient murrelet (52), with decent flocks of both species!

I also had to pull my camera out for the first time of the year to photograph this pair of bald eagles, two of six we saw from Cattle Point!

Leaving Cattle Point I had 58 species on my list, and we went over to the Redoubt Road at American Camp. I was hoping for meadowlarks or a shrike, but there was hardly a bird in sight. There was yet another pair of bald eagles in the distance, and a small flock of golden-crowned sparrows (59), and that was it. 

On our way to False Bay I thought some birds we flushed off the side of the road didn't quite look like robins, and I'm glad we stopped, because they were varied thrushes (60)! That helped me reach my goal of 60, which I've managed to reach on January 1st each of the last four years.

These are likely my best-ever photos of a varied thrush, too, as they're usually skittish and/or hiding in the tree branches.

The light wasn't great at False Bay - there's no way we could have picked out a Eurasian wigeon among all the wigeon there, if there was one around. But we did still add northern pintail (61), dunlin (62), and western sandpiper (63). 

Dad scanning False Bay

The day still wasn't done, as a stop at the grocery store turned up the expected house sparrow (64), and then at home there was a downy woodpecker at the feeder just before dark (65). Not a bad total for the day!

Since the first, the weather has been gray, wet, and windy, and despite putting in a few more hours birding the only addition has been a ruby-crowned kinglet (66) in the yard. There's been several other great species reported on the island in the last few days, though, so as soon as it gets nicer you know I'll be out there looking! As of today, that puts Dave ahead of me at 73, but there's a loooong way to go yet!