Backseat Birding

Oof. Ankle surgery has happened.

It’s been rough, but it’s getting better. The things that make it less rough are reading about birds, looking at birds outside the window, and thinking about birds. The yard birds have been okay, the best being a Barred Owl calling outside the week before surgery.

Other than that, besides a whole lot of juncos, we’ve seen our reliable and spunky Anna’s Hummingbirds, the occasional pair of Fox Sparrows, and a less than regular Townsend’s Warbler. Luckily there’s the (mostly-annoying) ever-amusing squirrels keeping us entertained.

Better than Netflix. Apparently I’ve picked a good time of year to have surgery because birding is slow. It’s the lull before spring. To liven things up, my friends Sarah and Max offered to take me on an outing to Ridgefield National Wildlife Refuge, a perfect destination for those with walking challenges because: auto tour! Never have I been so excited for a car ride.

They picked me up and off we went on a chilly, but gorgeous weekend morning.

Bright robin morning

There were American Coots, Green-winged Teal, Northern Pintail, and Tundra Swans flying in and out and foraging in the winter waters.

We saw Red-tailed Hawks, Bald Eagles, and a gorgeous adult Red-shouldered Hawk.

We got a look at Jen’s favorite albino nutria, that was happy and cozy – and fertile? Yuck. I mean, congratulations!

We listened to Marsh Wrens and hoped for Swamp Sparrows. We cheered when we looked overhead and saw FOY Tree Sparrows zooming around in the sky like maniacs.

FOY terrible swallow photo

At the end of the trail we scanned the grasses when we heard a Virginia Rail! (and got a quick glimpse of rail tail). Then Sarah spotted an American Bittern that I eventually saw.

So cool. And to think, I’d almost left my camera at home.

After completing the loop we stopped by the information kiosk and decided to go around again after the kind refuge volunteer gave us excellent directions to a well-camouflaged Great Horned Owl.

Just a coupe of tufts

And another bunch of birds we’d missed, Wilson’s Snipes!

What? Don’t see them? Neither did we until we looked a little closer.

So many sneaky snipes! Love those birds.

On the way out the second time around we also got a bonus banded Cackling Goose.

This little lady (K9*) was banded five years ago, 2,000 miles away in Bethel, Alaska. Good job, goose!

And good job us! We left the refuge 51 species richer and feeling very satisfied spending the morning with such great birds and great company.

Tweets and chirps,

Audrey

Kennewick to Astoria

The next day was not like the previous. The winds howled and overcast skies moved in. Jen, Jacob, and I checked on the Snowy Owl in the early morning, but this time it was far off in a distant farm field.

We watched for a bit until she flew to another field.

And was subsequently harassed by a Northern Harrier.

She didn’t seem too concerned. After a while we felt it was time to move on and we left the owl to defend her post. Good luck Miss Snowy Owl.

We then drove down 9-mile Canyon Rd dodging tumbleweeds and not coming up with much besides American Goldfinch and sneaky deer.

With the long drive home ahead we decided it was best to start heading back and we went our separate ways. I didn’t make many stops along the way but I had an idea of where I might go next. Not home that’s for sure. Tomas was off mountain biking, I’d be home too early, and there was the entire next day of possibilities.

One thing that stuck in my mind was a Northern Waterthrush reported in Brownsmead, a place in Oregon I’ve never been to near Astoria. I debated. The waterthrush wasn’t a life bird, I’d seen one once in Alaska, but it had been so long ago. Many birders hadn’t gotten visuals on the Brownsmead bird, they’d only heard it in the dense shrubs. Would I be satisfied driving so far to hear a chip note? Maybe.

What sealed the deal was the possibility of a Swamp Sparrow and that would be a life bird, so I figured why not take the chance. My plan was set. The five hours of driving flew by and before I knew it, I arrived in Brownsmead.

What a great place! Lots of lowland wetlands, farms, and places for rare birds to hide.

I pulled up to the waterthrush site and immediately heard chip notes. Unfortunately, they were coming from Yellow-rumped Warblers in the trees above. And then I heard it, a tantalizing loud spwik from lower in the blackberry. Scanning I saw movement and eventually a bird. It was the Northern Waterthush!

It sat preening and I enjoyed every moment so happy I’d taken the chance to see it.

It was then a homeowner across the street came out to greet me. Claire had met birders from Seattle looking for the waterthrush that morning and she was excited to share what she’d learned. She kindly gave me a tour of her neighborhood and showed me a Black Phoebe, Red-shouldered Hawk, and about 30 Great Egrets foraging in a field. The light was fading so I didn’t get many photos, but it was inspiring to see Claire’s new connection to the nature of her neighborhood.

I thanked her for her generosity and continued on, still hoping for a Swamp Sparrow, but getting distracted by ducks instead. I found one male Eurasian Wigeon.

That turned into three EUWI after reviewing my photos later, including the female to the left of the male in the above photo. She has a blue bill touching reddish feathers, AMWI has a narrow black base to the bill.

I saw Green-winged Teal, Northern Shoveler, Northern Pintail, and Bald Eagles stalking all of them from above. As it got darker I thought of lodging options, and Astoria was only another 20 minutes down the road where Fort George Brewery was featuring dark beers. This plus fish and chips and I was sold. It was an excellent ending to an exhausting but fulfilling day.

In the morning it was dark and pouring rain, not good beach weather so I skipped it and drove back to Brownsmead for a quick scan. The area is sometimes favorable for Gyrfalcons and I thought it worth a look. Come to Brownsmead for the waterthrush, stay for the Gyrfalcon. I spent a long time trying to turn this bird into one.

There was a Peregrine Falcon nearby for size comparison. This one was larger but the light was terrible, I was far away, and it wouldn’t turn around. Finally it was light enough for me to ID it as a Rough-legged Hawk. Not a gyr but still a good bird!

And a reminder I should probably stop birding in the dark. I drove around a bit more, but the weather was terrible and with so much ground to cover Swamp Sparrows could be anywhere. I conceded defeat, but on the way out a large light bird caught my eye and I quickly pulled over.

Woah, a leucistic Red-tailed Hawk! I wasn’t sure until it flew and I saw that red tail.

Such a beautiful and unusual hawk. This made my morning and I felt good about heading back. But not to home just yet.

One more stop at Ridgefield NWR. My friend Sarah says I’m birding like I’m going to die soon. If it seems like I’m birding hard #birdlikeyouredying, I am because next week I’m having surgery on my ankle to glue my bones back together. Basically. And this means I’ll be on crutches and in a cast for a month, and a boot for at least another month. And it’s my right ankle, so no driving. No, it’s not death, but I want to take advantage of my freedom before I’m greatly humbled by my body.

So back to Ridgefield, and my last chance at a Swamp Sparrow for a while. At least here I had a better idea of where they might be along the auto tour. And just past marker #10, where I stubbornly sat in my car staring at grass while other cars passed around me. Finally, I saw the secretive owl of sparrows, the Swamp Sparrow!

Such a richly colored bird! I admired it as long as it would let me.

Which was about two seconds before it dropped down into the grass hidden once again. Until next time, Mr Sparrow. I left Ridgefield feeling pretty accomplished and officially ready to call it a day.

It’s hard to stop when there’s always a good bird just around the next corner.

Tweets and chirps,

Audrey

Bike Touring San Juan Islands- Lopez Island

This summer I finally conquered a trip that had been on my bucket list for a decade: Bike Touring San Juan Islands. Sounds exotic, right?

Ferry Time

It was actually way easier and more familiar than I thought it would be. Though traveling by ferry was different, the ferry schedule was easy to follow. Like a bus on water, the trips between islands are short (about an hour), on schedule, and free after the first ticket purchase (a very reasonable $13.25/person + $2/bike). The most difficult part was awkwardly tying the loaded bikes in the slanted and sometimes crowded cargo area.

Go by Ferry

Tomas and I planned two nights on each island Lopez, San Juan, Orcas, and Shaw.

Lopez starts steep, but then levels out into one of the most bike-friendly of islands. Spencer Spit State Park with excellent bike-camping sites is only 4.5 miles from the ferry dock. And Lopez Village, full of supplies, beer, and ice-cream is 3 miles west of the park.

Spencer Spit State Park

Spencer Spit also has one of the best public beaches on the islands. And beaches bring birds. Gulls of course.

California Gull

California Gull – dark eye, long strait narrow bill with red/black gonys spot

Mew Gull - dark eye, small round "pigeon" head with petit bill

Mew Gull – small round “pigeon” head, yellow legs, petite bill

But there were a couple of small surprises. Like Least Sandpipers. They have greenish-yellow legs (poor light in this photo), and small slightly drooping bills.

Least Sandpiper

And they are usually seen in smaller numbers as compared to other peeps, like Western Sandpipers. Which were also present in larger flock style.

Western Sandpiper

They settled briefly and I could see the differences from the least. Westerns have black legs and a somewhat stouter slightly longer drooping bill.

Western Sandpiper

Practicing peeps. I need to remember to look at the legs. About this point it started raining. But before it started pouring I saw a pretty little Savannah Sparrow in the driftwood.

Savannah Sparrow

And its giant adopted relative, Brown-headed Cowbird.

Cowbird and savannah

Then it poured and I saw two Caspian Terns, but I didn’t stay long to watch them before running for cover from the rain. And that is when I met the wettest chickadee ever.

Chestnut-backed Chickadee

It cracked me up.

Chestnut-backed Chickadee

So much so that I laughed out loud on the trail and a little girl came up to ask what I was looking at. I pointed out the chickadee and asked, “Do you see him?” She laughed and said, “Yes, or her.” Good point.

Chestnut-backed Chickadee

Also in the flock were Golden-crowned and Ruby-crowned Kinglets, an Orange-crowned and Yellow Warbler, Bewick’s Wren, and Brown Creeper. None of which I got great photos of. So here’s a picture of bunnies by the bike lane.

Bunnies

So many rabbits on Lopez Island.

Rabbit sea

They’re cute, but the introduced European Rabbits wreck havoc on native grassland habitat for meadowlarks, voles, and butterflies. Especially on small island ecosystems. They’ve been a major problem on San Juan Island too, but controlling them is controversial because they are “charismatic cuddly fauna.” From this 2012 article:

“For years, nearly 500 toothy, grass-guzzling, invasive rabbits transformed San Juan Island’s American Camp prairie into what the National Park Service dubbed ‘a moonscape. But the agency two years ago backed off plans to shoot and trap the animals after a public outcry. The Park Service is conducting a more detailed environmental analysis.”

I wonder if we’ll ever learn. Here’s Rabbit Tales, an interesting read on the history of rabbits on San Juan Island.

Tomas and I made it to Shark Reef Sanctuary, a short hike along the coast, hoping for a whale or good pelagic bird sighting, but there were only harbor seals, an angry bee, and a nice view of our next island destination.

Shark Reef Sanctuary

Leaving Lopez the next day, I stopped at several ponds and waterways on the way and found Green-winged Teal, Belted Kingfisher, Northern Pintail, Yellow-rumped Warbler, American Goldfinch, Lincoln’s, Song, and Golden-crowned Sparrow, Common Yellowthroat, and a Black-headed Grosbeak which was the most unexpected sighting.

Black-headed Grosbeak

Lopez was a great start to our island adventure! I couldn’t wait to explore San Juan Island next.

Birding Lopez

Tweets and chirps,

Audrey