Bluetail Crazy Train

In December 2016, a rare vagrant called a Red-flanked Bluetail showed up in Lewiston, Idaho. The Red-flanked Buetail breeds mainly in Siberia and winters in southeast Asia. This is the first sighting in Idaho and there have only been a handful of other U.S. sightings, mostly in western Alaska. Lewiston is a mere 5 hour 40 minute drive from Portland and the bird was still being seen into January. I was intrigued.

“That’s too far to drive for one bird” someone told me. I don’t know if it was the vacation hangover from Hawaii, the long winter, or because it’s a new year, but I was craving adventure and when another friend showed even more enthusiasm to chase the bird and a second friend opted to drive? – I’m in, let’s go!

Wait! Ice Storm Warning. The Pacific Northwest was under attack of a winter storm scheduled for late Saturday. But it was bright and sunny on Friday and we calculated we could get there late Friday, stay overnight, find the bird early Saturday morning, then make a quick getaway and return to Portland before impending doom.

Thus began the Bluetail Crazy Train adventure.

Bluetail or bust! Choo-choo!

5 hours after traveling it was dark and 5 degrees outside but we checked for Long-eared Owls anyways because you never know. But yes you do know, because it’s never that easy. No LEOWs this time.

Over dinner at the local poultry/ocean-themed restaurant in Clarkston, WA, we toasted to crazy adventures then settled in to our hotel room anxious for the next day.
Would the bird still be there? Would the risks payoff? Would it be worth it?

In the morning we suited up for the single-digit temperatures (21 layers between the three of us!) crossed the border into Idaho and anxiously drove the remaining five miles to Hells Gate State Park. Appropriately, Ice Cube rapped to us over the radio, “You can do it” and we tried to believe him.

We arrived just before sunrise and remained focused. Don’t pay attention to the parking lot Merlin we told ourselves.

Don’t look at me. (Photo courtesy of Kayla McCurry)

We crossed the park hoping the Merlin hadn’t eaten the rarity.

We found a group of birders already staked out at the site. The bird was here! Someone had seen it earlier. Giddy with joy we waited.

It’s up! Everyone cheered.

The Red-flanked Bluetail stayed mostly within the Russian olive branches flitting around flicking her tail, and feeding much like a flycatcher. Occasionally, she dipped down to the water for a drink before hiding again in the deep branches close to the stream.

So pretty! While we waited for her to resurface, we relaxed a bit and were entertained by a sassy Ruby-crowned Kinglet.

And a Song Sparrow.

Then the Red-flanked Bluetail resurfaced!

She quickly dipped down again and we waited for another look – just one more! Before finally pulling ourselves away.

We did it! Mission accomplished.

All smiles

We said goodbye to the bluetail and left to look for the icing, a nearby reported Barn Owl. While checking the conifers, a friendly birder pulled up and told us which tree they’d seen the owl in the day before. Kayla looked up, is that snow? Nope that’s a Barn Owl! Found!

This was when we we met Kas Dumroese, a birder on scene who offered to lead us to a nearby park with “fairly reliable” Saw-whet Owls. Um, yes please. Apparently we will follow strangers to random parks if they offer up owls. Seemed legit. Two other birder parties also joined the caravan and off we went.

Our first stop to look for a recent Lesser Black-backed Gull turned up empty, but the stream was full of Barrow’s Goldeneye, a nice yearbird.

We continued, and realized we were driving farther into Idaho, the opposite direction of our return route adding more time to get home, and increasing our chances of meeting the storm. Optimistic, we kept going anyways. Not too much farther we arrived at the park and tromped through the snow to check under conifers.

We found solid clues.

Then we looked under another nearby tree and found a Northern Saw-whet Owl!

With a dead vole gripped underneath! Awesome. And so perfect. She murderously eyed us before returning to sleepy cuteness.

Then someone said, “look, there’s another one!”

Indeed. Peeking out from behind a branch in the same tree was a second saw-whet! So angry. So cute. So perfect.

We couldn’t believe our luck. But also knew we were pushing it on time, so we said our goodbyes and thanks to Kas, his friend Carl and the others, and then hit the road for the long snowy drive home.

We were neck and neck with the storm and it was harrowing at times, but Colleen, having grown up in the mid-west, took it like a champ and got us home safe and sound.

The Bluetail Crazy Train had no regrets.

Tweets and chirps,

Audrey