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Saturday, January 20, 2018

Kicking off the 2018 Year List

It's hard to believe we're already nearly three weeks into 2018! I've been busy birding - at least when the weather allows - and so far am up to 84 species on the "traditional" year list and 70 species on my photo year list. First bird of the year was an Anna's hummingbird at our feeder. They've been overwintering for about a decade now but this is the first time I've had them in the winter.

Anna's hummingbird - I don't know how they do it this time of year
Second bird of the year, a red-breasted nuthatch, is also still in the lead for cutest photo of 2018:

A little puff ball of a red-breasted nuthatch

It's been a treat having three woodpecker species regularly come to the feeders (downy, hairy, and northern flicker). I'm still waiting for a red-breasted sapsucker to show up, but no complaints about getting to watch these guys up close on a daily basis.

Female hairy woodpecker
Thankfully on January 1st, for my traditional day of birding, we even got some sunshine! One of the best birds of the day was this snow goose in with the Canada geese near Roche Harbor.

On January 3rd the birding was briefly interrupted for my first orcas of 2018. I've only seen killer whales once in the month of January before, so this was a pretty special treat! While J-Pod is still occasionally coming through the area, this was actually transients: the T100s, T124As, and T124C.

T124C off the west side of San Juan Island on January 3
As great as the birding is in the San Juans this time of year, especially with sea birds, there are a lot of species on the nearby mainland that just don't frequently visit. During the first weekend of the year, we headed for a day trip off island. First up was a quick pass through Skagit Flats. Sadly we heard but did not see the rare blue jay that is still hanging out near Bow, but we did quickly locate the also-unusual prairie falcon nearby.

Prairie falcon in Skagit Flats
The main goal of the day was to visit Semiahmoo, a spit near Blaine, Washington that I've never visited before. We had recently seen some amazing photos from there, including one a day or two before we visited where literally thousands of dunlin covered the whole spit. It was a pretty gray day and there were no dunlin in sight, but we still added lots of new species including sanderling.

I also got an unexpected photo op of a Pacific wren. I heard something in a bush and "pished" at it, and he or she immediately jumped out into the open to investigate me as the source of the sound. This is probably the best photo I've ever taken of a Pacific wren, as they are usually fast-moving and buried behind branches.

While we didn't see a huge abundance of birds at Semiahmoo (although there were a lot of white-winged scoters, more than I've ever seen in once place before), we did get a good variety. A couple of the best looks were at this female long-tailed duck, and while watching her, a common loon popped up very close.

Female long-tailed duck
Common loon
Last weekend remained gray, but that didn't stop us from trying to add a few more. The best add for me was this Hutton's vireo, an uncommon year-round resident, but one I didn't manage to photograph in all of 2017.

Hutton's vireo! A 2017 nemesis bird checked off early in 2018
Then we were treated to a much-needed couple days of beautiful winter sunshine. Even though our couple of hikes didn't turn up much in the way of birds, it felt great to soak up some light.

Beautiful afternoon at Granny's Cove
Thanks to a tip from a friend, we were able to locate one short-eared owl at American Camp, on the opposite side of the prairie where I used to see them in years past. For whatever reason it doesn't seem like there are as many of them down there as there used to be. This one was being harassed by a northern harrier. That's the harrier up top and the short-eared owl beneath. The owl had been perched, and after doing this barrel roll fell about halfway down the tree before catching another branch to perch on.

Harrier harasses short-eared owl at American Camp
There's been a lot of aerial acrobatics lately - today I caught this pair of bald eagles in what I presume was courtship behavior.

Bald eagle barrel rolls
There was supposed to be a break in the weather today; maybe it was, since it didn't rain and the wind wasn't blowing gale force. It was still pretty dark but with a major storm system coming we took the opportunity to make a quick jaunt over to Orcas Island. While waiting for the ferry we spotted this very cooperative juvenile Cooper's hawk at the Port of Friday Harbor.

This is not a bird that would come to mind when I think of beautiful birds, but seeing it up close, the detailing on the feathers was just remarkable, particularly those little teardrop streaks on the breast.

While birding from the ferry I was shocked to spot a turkey vulture flying over Shaw Island. This species is common here in the summer, and while I've heard about a couple of birds that regularly overwinter on Lopez, I've never seen one here off-season. This was a hastily shot proof of presence photo through the window of the ferry, but enough to document this surprising find.

Turkey vulture in the San Juans in January!
There's been a lot of reports of early arrivals such as barn swallows all throughout the region so I wonder if it will prove to be an early spring or if climate shifts are to blame for more individuals turning up at unexpected times of year. We shall see!

The most hoped-for species on Orcas was an American dipper, a bird I've searched for many times over there. We don't have the right habitat for them on San Juan, but a new Land Bank property called Coho Preserve recently opened up a public access along a creek where they've been reported. I had a good feeling about today and it paid off, as we found not one but two of them at the preserve! It was so dark in the forest it was impossible to get sharp photos, but I was pleased just to see them as it was a new county life bird for me and this photo is plenty good enough for the photo year list.

American dipper! A San Juan County life bird for me

Since this is a 365 day challenge, I decided to do less "post a photo of everything" and more "wait until I get a good shot of common species". This has me at a current mark of having photographed 83% of the species on my total year list to date, but I know that number will rise. I had seen and heard some distant oystercatchers before today but finally got a decent shot of one at Buck Bay on Orcas Island today.

Nearly-silhouetted black oystercatcher
It will definitely be a hunker-down day tomorrow with gale-force winds and more than an inch of rain in the forecast, but we'll see what the rest of the month brings. Then in the beginning of February it's time for a two-week road trip south where the bird reports from our destinations have me eagerly anticipating some life birds and many others I haven't seen in years. Oh, and hopefully some warmth and sunshine, too!