Chasing Bar-tailed

There’s an undeniable intrigue when chasing rarities from across the globe. This time I was hoping for a shorebird off course from its typical New Zealand to Alaska migration called a Bar-tailed Godwit. Thanks to unusual weather patterns, a handful had shown up on the Oregon coast this spring.

I timed my trip to arrive in the coastal hills at sunrise to listen for Mountain Quail.

Since I was at the right place and the right time, I heard this life bird’s call pretty easily. A pair was calling back and forth across the valley. But no visuals this time, and I didn’t have much time to spend looking. Next time, quail.

I kept focus and made it to Lost Creek State Park while it was still early. I felt both relief and excitement when I saw shorebirds in the distance. This could be it.

But it wasn’t. The Bar-tailed had been seen in mixed shorebird flocks of Whimbrels and Marbled Godwit and those were both here.

Down-turned bill = Whimbrel

Upturned bill = Marbled Godwit

This godwit gave me pause. I realized then that I’d never seen Marbled Godwits in breeding plumage. More buffy-brown cinnamon colored, with barring on the chest, and an orange-ish coloring at the base of the bill (signalling increased hormonal levels). I had only seen them in non-breeding plumage with a pink base to the bill.

There were also some birds with intermediate colors.

This was getting more complicated. I had done my homework before arriving of course, Bar-tailed Godwits differ from Marbled in that they are slightly smaller, with a slightly shorter bill, and they lack the cinnamon underwing colors. They are slightly more reddish in breeding plumage and grayer in non-breeding. I began to doubt I’d recognize these slight differences.

So I looked at peeps instead. Hey, look! Western Sandpipers!

Bath time!

Dunlin in breeding plumage, look at that black belly!

Sanderlings! That one on the right is in breeding plumage (mottled, rufous head and neck).

And the best distraction. Semi-palmated Plover.

You’re cute, even when you’re digging in the sand.

That helped. I walked back to the car ready to try another location. As I was returning, a group of birders passed by and we exchanged information. They too were looking for godwits and hadn’t seen any Bar-tailed yet. At least I hadn’t missed anything.

I pulled over at another beach spot, and found only plovers and Whimbrels. The next stop was Newport’s South Jetty where I found no Whimbrels or godwits, but I did catch a distant glimpse of a black ghost. A Pacific Loon in breeding plumage!

Note to self: spend more time with shorebirds in breeding plumage. They’re beautiful.

It was late afternoon by now and I had time for just one more stop. Since it was close, and I’d never been there, I decided on Yaquina Bay State Recreation Area just across from South Jetty.

I approached the beach and saw shorebirds in the distance. This could be it.

OMG, this was it! I spotted one of the banded birds in my binoculars. Some reports had been of birds with multiple blue and white bands on their legs, part of a bird-banding program in New Zealand, and positively identifying them as Bar-tailed Godwits. It was the best-case scenerio BTGO to find.

But before I could snap a photo, a woman approached me, asking about the birds. She asked what the birds with the long bills were, “are they Long-billed Dowitchers?” Normally, I appreciate people’s interest in birds when I’m out, but this was terrible timing. But I explained what they were anyways. She thanked me, then proceeded to walk right towards the flock, spooking them all.

Seriously? I had told her about the rarity too. I couldn’t believe it, but I didn’t have time to sulk, because I had to jog down the beach to keep up with the moving flock. Eventually, success!

Look at all the jewelry on that New Zealand bird! What a huge relief. And the stranger thing was, besides that rude woman, I was the only one on the beach. No other birders. I posted the sighting on OBOL and enjoyed my time. I’d actually hit the jackpot of shorebirds at this spot.

There were Black-bellied Plovers in breeding plumage.

I almost dropped my binoculars.

A Ruddy Turnstone.

And a pair of Brant casually on the shore.

Whimbrels, plovers, godwits, sanderlings, it was hard to keep up!

The tide came in further, many birds moved up to the jetty rocks to sleep in the warm afternoon sun. I regained and lost site of the Bar-tailed again, grateful for the time I had.

X marks the spot, I’d found the treasure!

Tweets and chirps,

Audrey

Godwit Days Part IV: The Finale

What better way to end Godwit Days than with a Shorebird Spectacle at the marsh?

Shorebirds

Not a bad idea. Led by David Fix, author of Birds of Northern California, the spectacle trip started at the mudflats at Humboldt Bay. Unfortunately, the tide didn’t cooperate and most of the birds were pretty far in the distance.

Poor attempt at digiscoping

Poor attempt at digiscoping

The view was challenging especially for someone with limited shorebird experience, but I managed to at least identify a few Black-bellied Plovers in the faraway mix.

Black-bellied Plover

We moved to the nearby marsh for closer shorebird views.

Two godwits and a willet

Two godwits and a willet

Whimbrel

Whimbrel

And Semipalmated Plovers were a nice surprise! I wish I had gotten closer views, they’re so freakin cute.

Semipalmated Plover

I’m learning shorebirds, slowly but surely. Okay, way more slowly than anything. Their subtleties are overwhelming. I thought if I left this trip learning one new thing, I’d be happy.

So, the thing I picked up was that as with many birds, a trick to distinguishing Long-billed vs Short-billed Dowitchers, is with their distinctive calls. Long-billed has a short flight call (high-pitched keek), Short-billed has a long flight call (mellow tu tu tu). Here’s a video from the trip of those calls in action:

Whew, that’s tough. Taking it one peep at a time.

After my last official Godwit Days trip, Tomas and I had an entire afternoon free and we made the most of it. We first went to the North Jetty to look for Black Turnstones. We picked them out easily. Pretty bird.

Black Turnstone

We crossed Humboldt Bay to King Salmon and watched Pelagic Cormorant, Brant, Surf Scoter, and Red-breasted Merganser feed in the bay.

Red-breasted Merganser

Red-breasted Merganser

We also watched crabs battle on the rocks. Just as fun as you think.

Krabby Patty

Krabby Patty

It was around this time that I realized I hadn’t seen a Wrentit yet. It was one target speices I’d hoped to see while in California. So, we left to try our luck at Humboldt Bay National Wildlife Refuge.

On the drive there I read up on the bird, “common but difficult to see in dense brushy habitats,” the song an accelerating “bouncing ball.” I was excited to meet this bird. We turned onto the visitor center access road, drove slowly with the windows rolled down, and almost immediately, as if we’d somehow summoned the bird, we heard the bouncing ball!

Named appropriately, this bird looks like a mashup of a wren and a bushtit. And it’s just as energetic as both. I was stoked when I finally got a look at this sneaky little bird.

Wrentit

Wrentit

Mission accomplished.

The rest of our mid-day walk consisted of Song Sparrows, Barn Swallows, Black Phoebe, and I even got a quick look at a Merlin!

Merlin

A little later, I mentioned to Tomas that I hadn’t seen a hummingbird yet on this trip. To which he replied, you mean like that one there? And pointed to an Anna’s Hummingbird right next to us.

Anna's Hummingbird

Well, hello there

Poof, just like that. Hummingbird, check!

We walked and birded until the blazing heat forced us to retreat back to the local brewery where we toasted to all the fun times we had exploring Arcata. Cheers to a fantastic trip! Spotted owlSibley, Wrentit!…and of course godwits!

godwit family2

How cute is that?

Tweets and chirps!

Audrey

Seattle Part I: Reliable Redpolls

A couple of weeks ago, Jen invited me on a birding day trip to Seattle with her and her pups. How could I resist those faces?!

Jake and Ralph

To sweeten the deal, there were life-birds up for grabs. A flock of Common Redpolls was reportedly (reliably) camped out in the birch trees near Green Lake.  Redpolls typically winter in the northeastern portion of United States, so this rarity would be a treat.

Along the way, we checked in on an unusually large group of Redheads at Weyerhauser Pond, just north of Tacoma. My first new bird of the day!

Mostly Redhead

Redhead

We got closer looks of a couple of “brunettes” too.

Pied-billed Grebe

Pied-billed Grebe

Lesser Scaup

Lesser Scaup

The morning temperatures started out chilly, but the forecast promised blue skies, warmth, and sunshine to come. Seattle graciously delivered.

Statues

The Olympics

Why can’t every day be like this?

A quick stop at Green Lake turned up empty for redpolls, so we drove farther north to Edmonds, Washington, with the intent on returning to the lake later in the day.

Edmonds has stellar views of the Olympic Mountains. And some pretty good looks of birds from the shore and from the pier too. Like another life bird for me, the Red-necked Grebe.

Red-necked Grebe

Red-necked Grebe

Some day I’d like to see grebes in their breeding plumage so they can really wow me. Speaking of wows, while walking along the pier we got the best looks ever of this Belted Kingfisher.

Belted Kingfisher

We inched closer.

Belted Kingfisher

I was in shock. I’m pretty sure my jaw was hanging open. Kingfishers usually spook easily, but this one paid us no mind. We watched as she darted in the water, grabbed a fish, and flew to a perch, where she then proceeded to furiously whack the fish repeatedly on a pole.

Belted fish-basher

Belted “Fish-basher”

Here’s a video of nature’s awesome brutality.

The clang of the fish on the pole was oddly disturbing…and funny at the same time. One of the most hilarious birding encounters I’ve had, and I’m happy it was a shared experience.

Jen and the mutts

From the pier, we saw Surf Scoters scooting along in the waters below. What a great look at that bizarre bill.

Surf Scoter

Surf Scoter

There were other tame birds in the pier waters, like this Horned Grebe.

Horned Grebe

And at one point, we watched a Common Goldeneye fight a crustacean that was no match for this diving diva, and she devoured it no problem.

Common Goldeneye

Common Goldeneye

What a great spot! Offshore, we caught sight of a bird in the same family as Puffins (Alcidae), the Pigeon Guillemot.

Pigeon Guillemot

Also present were Pelagic Cormorants, Red-breasted Merganser, Great Blue Heron, Western Gulls, and the cuddliest harbor seal.

Jen spotted a group of Brant flying by that I barely saw, but luckily got better looks of later at a viewpoint along Sunset Ave. This dignified goose earned the title of third life bird of the day for me.

Brant

Brant

Quality time was spent at Edmonds, but target birds remained on the list. On route back to Green Lake, we made a quick detour to Discovery Park, to find a Hutton’s Vireo, another lifer for me! No pictures of the vireo (that looks like a Ruby-crowned Kinglet), but I did get a recording of its distinctive song, “zu-wee, zu-wee, zu-wee“, before it dive-bombed us and hid back in the shrubbery. Pretty cool.

By this time we were losing daylight and quickly made our way back to Green Lake for another try at redpolls.

Reliable coots

Reliable coots

Share the path for wigeon

Share the path for wigeon crossing

We found plenty of ducks, geese, people, dogs, and even people who had *seen* the redpolls, “they were right there on those birch, yesterday!” Unfortunately though, after two visits and trekking the entire 2.8 miles around the lake, we lost the bet and “dipped” on the redpolls. Redpolls 1; Us 0.

Birding is humbling, challenging, and rewarding all wrapped up in one fun-feathered package. Despite the redpolls, I had a blast and would do it all over again.

“What is life if not a gamble? – F. E. Higgins

Tweets and chirps,
Audrey