All the Grebes starting with a Gnatcatcher

I didn’t intend to chase the rarity, but I brought my camera and binoculars to work just in case, and when a second report of the Blue-Gray Gnatcatcher (originally found by Nick Mrvelj) came in at Kelley Point Park, I decided to go for it.

I arrived and immediately felt overwhelmed. Tiny bird, big park. Walking along the trails I tried to find clues but found only people and dogs. I’d all but given up until when I got back to the parking lot and bumped into more birders. Fresh eyes and more people looking couldn’t hurt so I joined the search party.

We managed to find even more birders, including Adrian Hinkle, who’d seen the gnatcatcher just 30 min prior. They kindly walked us to the area it was last seen, and in one minute, Adrian said “stop” and pointed up high in a cottonwood. He’d heard the bird a mile away, basically. And lucky for us because we were able to catch a quick glimpse before it moved on. I got one unflattering photo.

I was surprised to get it the frame, it moved around quickly high up in the tree as the light faded fast. There’s talk that this may be the eastern variety based on this bird’s characteristics (lighter undersides, position high up in the trees, and higher-pitched call notes), but it’s still under discussion. That reminds me, check out this website, Xeno-canto where you can listen to and share bird songs and easily compare songs from different regions. Cool stuff.

Feeling extremely lucky to have seen this bird, I pressed my luck further and stopped at Columbia Point near Hayden Island Marina to see if any Surf Scoters were still around. They weren’t but a Red-necked Grebe was.

As was a Ruddy Duck (on the left). Also, I wasn’t positive, but I thought I saw the Clark’s Grebe that had been reported by Andy Frank earlier in the week.

Maybe? The light was so terrible. I needed to investigate further, so I returned the following day. This time I brought along my new scope.

Am I doing this right?

It worked! I found four Surf Scoters (and one Lesser Scaup in the middle).

And grebes. So many grebes.

With a handful of perky-tailed Ruddy Ducks in the mix.

Back to the grebes. There was Western Grebe.

Horned Grebe.

Western and Horned Grebes.

Eared Grebe.

Horned (top) and eared (bottom) grebes together for a nice comparison. Note the peaked head and darker cheek on the eared.

Western, Eared, and Horned.

And my best combo: Western, Eared, Horned, and Clark’s. In that order.

There was safely one Clark’s Grebe with more white around the eye and an orangeish bill.

I was surprised to see the variation of black around the eye among the grebes.

That or it was one giant Loch Ness Western-Clark’s Grebe.

Anyways, I passed a couple of cool cats along the marina. One bengal-looking kitty wearing a bell and another the stylish Birdsbesafe collar. I hope those things work.

I found the sixth and final grebe species safe from cats in the water, Pied-billed Grebes.

That’s it. At one location in two days I found all six species of grebes that can be seen in Oregon: Red-necked, Western, Clark’s, Horned, Eared, and Pied-billed.

I might as well throw in a Least Grebe from Texas.

That’s all the grebes of North America! What’s next? Great Grebe? Great-crested Grebe? Hoary-headed Grebe? All real. I had no idea there were so many grebes in the world, 19 species remain, and some like the gorgeous Hooded Grebe, one of the rarest birds in South America, are critically endangered. There’s even a documentary about them: Tango in the Wind.

How lucky we are to have all the grebes.

If there is no bird, there is no tango.

Tango and chirps,

Audrey

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

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