Godwit Days Part II: Birding with Sibley

Just when you think birding life can’t get any better, you go on a trip with David Sibley.

Pay no attention to that shirt.

Pay no attention to that shirt.

He is just as awesome as you think. Son of Yale University ornithologist Fred Sibley, David began watching and drawing birds at age seven. He’s an author (of my favorite bird guide), illustrator, ornithologist, and a down-to-earth nice guy. His favorite birds to draw are warblers. I tried to keep my inner fan-girl in check. (squeee!)

Birding with Sibley

We birded the Arcata Marsh and Wildlife Sanctuary a.k.a. Arcata’s Wastewater Treatment Plant. It’s actually a pretty ingenious system. Part recreation, research, refuge, and part wastewater. Keeping it classy.

Arcata Marsh

The variety of sanctuary habitat is key for birds in this area: freshwater marshes, salt marsh, tidal sloughs, grassy uplands, mudflats, brackish marsh, ponds, etc. Shorebirds especially love it, but the first bird on this trip that caught our attention was the highly vocal Marsh Wren.

Marsh Wren

Sibley explained, though currently considered one species, Marsh Wren populations in the western U.S. are probably a separate species from the eastern populations because of the differences in songs (the eastern birds have about 50 “musical” songs, the western up to 200 “harsh” songs), and their slight variation of appearances.

We continued scanning the marsh and saw a White-tailed Kite, Yellow-rumped Warblers, and a spring of Green-winged Teal. One teal stood out to Sibley as an “intergrade” with both a vertical white bar of the American subspecies, and the horizontal white bar of the Eurasian subspecies.

Intergrade Teal

Half a lifer

In another pond were American Coot, Gadwall, Eared Grebe, and Lesser Scaup. One unusually light-colored scaup was identified as a leucistic female Lesser Scaup. “Leucistic” is partial loss of pigmentation (not to be confused with albinism, a total absence of melanin).

Leucistic Scaup (far left)

Leucistic scaup (far left), normal scaup (far right), Bufflehead in the middle

Apparently, odd-ball birds show up when Sibley is around.

He has a profound scientific understanding the natural world around him. We watched the Least Sandpipers at the edge of the pond, while he described how hormones determine the melanin differences between the birds’ feathers.

The bird on the far left has more greyish-whitish edges on its feathers (like winter plumage), and the others have more rufous color and black in the centers of the feathers (closer to breeding plumage), therefore with more breeding hormones. Swoon.

Least Sandpiper

And these birds are Long-billed Dowitchers (not Short-billed) because they are sitting in a freshwater, non-tidal, muddy-bottom lagoon.

DPP_779

Sibley-vision

Sibley-vision is no joke

After lunch near the end of the trip, we spent some time watching a pair of Red Crossbills before finally moving on to book signing and gushing.

So much cheese. Photo thanks to Lee Brown.

So much cheese. Thanks to Lee Brown for the photo.

Sibley Signing

Good birding!

Audrey

Kennewick, WA

Not long after birding Vancouver Lake, Tomas and I packed up the car for a return trip to southeastern Washington. I felt like there was more to be seen along the Snake River than the weekend before. I was right.

On the drive there (and back) we saw Bighorn Sheep! A first for both of us. My best photo taken from the car going 60 mph along I-84 on the Oregon side.

Bighorn Sheep

The weather was cold, rainy, and windy, so unfortunately camping was out.  Instead, we stayed at Clover Island Inn, which is situated on an island on the Columbia River. I thought it might get me closer to birds on the river, but I’m not sure I would recommend staying there, it’s kind of dumpy. And rather creepy.

Hotel twilight zone captured by Tomas.

Hotel twilight zone captured by Tomas.

The only birds I saw from the hotel were Horned Grebes, American Coots, Canada Geese, Song Sparrow, Yellow-rumped Warbler, and gulls. The hotel’s most redeeming quality is that it’s within walking distance to Ice Harbor Brewery.

Geese

Geese on way to the pub

The party really picked up along the Snake River. We stopped at every park, from Hood Park to Fishhook Park, and back to McNary National Wildlife Refuge.

We saw Red-tailed Hawks, Bald Eagles, and Killdeer.

Red-tailed Hawk

Bald Eagle

Killdeer

And I met the angriest owl ever.

Murder

Murder

I’m pretty sure this one’s responsible for several deaths. Including that of at least one Barn Owl. So pretty, so sad. R.I.P. Mr Owl.

Barn Owl feather

Barn Owl leg

We also met an owl that I’m sure wouldn’t hurt a fly. Maybe a small mouse, but not a fly.

Northern Saw-whet Owl

My first Northern Saw-whet Owl!!! So cute!

Murder

Murder

Once the owl high wore off, I came to and noticed a few other birds. Including a new finch!

Cassin's Finch

Cassin's Finch

Cassin's Finch

Cassin's Finch

These are tough. They are either Purple or Cassin’s Finch (I am open to suggestions). Even Whatbird couldn’t agree. Female/juvenile Purple Finch have a distinctive face pattern, strong/blurry streaking on sides and chest, and a shorter bill. Cassin’s streaks are crisper, their beaks are longer with straighter sides, and they have a thin white eye ring. Male CAFI are raspberry red on top, PUFI can be rosy below the crown.

To make matters more interesting, in some parts of Washington both species will flock together. And House Finch will join in the fun too.

HOFI on left, CAFI/PUFI on right

HOFI on left, CAFI/PUFI on right

The more I see them the more I know what to look for. One unmistakable species we came across was a flock of California Quail.

California Quail

California Quail

Too bad I couldn’t get better pictures, they’re so pretty! There were at least 20 of them scurrying in the underbrush calling, clucking, and “pit-pit“-ing alarm calls. These birds have some fantastic sounds.

At McNary NWR, we stopped for a reported Black-crowned Night-Heron and American White Pelican. No luck on the night-heron, but while Tomas sat in the warm, comfy car he spotted the pelican sitting below a Great Blue Heron rookery! Great find!

American White Pelican

Meanwhile, I fought the wind and shrubs and came up with a Marsh Wren. Not bad either.

Marsh Wren

What an awesome trip. On the drive home we even made time for a quick hike at Coyote Wall, the land of sunshine, waterfalls, and rainbows.

Coyote Wall

Doggy

Yep, afterwards we were that content.

Tweets and chirps,

Audrey

Eastward to Walla Walla

Last year, every bird was a life bird. By mid-February 2015 I had seen 77 new-to-me bird species. 77 lifers! I didn’t even know what a “lifer” was then. Over my first year birding, I saw 253 life birds. Not that I’m counting. But, yeah, I’m counting. So far this year I’ve seen 98 species (year birds), but only two lifers (more about one of those below). I now understand the significance. Perhaps I should have paced myself?

SeeAllTheBirds!

Nah. I’m okay with the bar set high. It’s made me a busy birder. In fact, I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t chasing red dots on Birdseye like a cat chasing laser lights since the first of the year. Last weekend, I drove four hours to southeastern Washington to catch some red dots along the Snake River.

Snake River

I caught a few at Hollebeke Habitat Management Unit. Like what I would call my first “obvious” Sharp-shinned Hawk (small head, skinny legs, square tail).

Sharp-shinned Hawk

Sharp-shinned Hawk

And (less obvious) Cooper’s Hawk below. I think.

Cooper's Hawk

Maybe that’s the same bird? There were at least a couple of each. I swear.

I also saw Dark-eyed Junco, Cedar Waxwing, Bald Eagles, American Coot, Northern Harrier, White-Crowned Sparrows, American Robin, Varied Thrush, and many Northern Flicker.

Northern Flicker

An American Kestrel with a snack.

American Kestrel

And Black-billed Magpie, both living and loud and tattered in pieces.

Black-billed Magpie

Wonder who the culprit was? At one point along the trail, I practically tripped over piles of pellets.

Pellets

Pellet

Yum

And whitewash? There was a little.

Whitewash

Then I looked up. Great Horned Owl!

Great Horned Owl

Hello handsome.

Great Horned Owl

I slunk away quietly to disturb as little as possible.

Continuing on I found a Northern Shrike!

Northern Shrike

And I saw one notable bird I recognized from my Florida trip, a Northern Mockingbird!
Apparently, a pretty good sighting for this location. Birder score.

Northern Mockingbird Northern Mockingbird

It was great birding all the birds on Hollebeke, but I still had found no life birds. I was kind of surprised. So, armed with knowledge from Scott Carpenter’s Nature Night series on owling, and hoping for new owls, I moved on to stare at willow thickets.

Willow thicket

I drove back and forth super slowly about 8-10 times for over an hour. I saw nothing. Eventually, nature called, and there are no restrooms in the middle of nowhere. I got out, went behind the thickets, and spooked four owls. Dang it! While falling over, I tried to take pictures of the blurry owl rockets.

Long-eared Owl Long-eared Owl

Judging by the barred tail in the first awful photo, these are indeed Long-eared Owls. Technically, a life bird! My first of 2016. But so bummed to spook them, I almost don’t want to count it. Almost. Hopefully I’ll get more opportunities to stare at willow thickets. Or next time I’ll wait until after sunset.

I wanted to check out Bennington Lake the next day, so I proceeded to nearby Walla Walla to stay for the night. If you have not heard comedian, Mike Birbiglia’s story of sleep walking while staying at La Quinta Inn (La Keen-TA Inn in Wahya Wahya Washginton), do yourself a favor and spend the next 7 minutes laughing at his story. I stayed in the room!!

Sleepwalk with me

Living the birder rock-n-roll lifestyle.

Tweets and chirps,

Audrey