Woke up in the morning with about an inch of snow on the ground and snow still falling. We really don't get snow that often around here (thank goodness) and this was the first of the winter. Snow means the birds need a little extra help in finding food. So after getting a leisurely start to the day I went out and filled the feeders and then came in to sit back and watch the show and add to the count. robin #27 - song sparrow #28 - black-capped chickadee #29 - dark-eyed junco #30 - chestnut-backed chickadee #31 - spotted towhee #32 - northern flicker #33 - varied thrush #34
There's one bird that I think any bird watcher gets excited about and that's the snowy owl. Reports have been around for a month or so about sightings in our area. Luckily there was a banner year for lemmings in the Arctic and as such a banner year for these birds, so much, that some of them had to make their roosts further south to claim territory that would sustain them and Washington was one of these sites.
I'd been following posts and had finally pinned down a location within an easy day drive.We got up, out and on the road by 6:45am, still very dark and very wet out. It did not bode for a spectacular day weather wise but the destination was laid in. Damon Point is a mile long sand bar toward the end of the Ocean Shores Peninsula. It's listed as a State Park but there are no signs, no "picnic area" and not even an official parking lot. The day was getting lighter as we drove but the rain wasn't quitting. We drove straight there, except for that Starbucks stop, and arrived at about 9:30am. We found the "parking area" if that's what you can call the sides of the road. There used to be a road out to the tip of the sand bar but years of tidal action have washed it away and now all that's left is about 20' of paved road with a chain across the entrance which makes for the access to the beach area. One of the posts I had read said look for the Subaru's parked along the edge of the road and sure enough there were only about 4 or 5 cars there and most of them were Subaru's. I guess birders have a fondest for feathers and Subaru's. Anyway, we found a spot for our Forester and set out to ready ourselves for whatever was coming our way. It had been pouring but it seemed to be abating a bit but the clouds were very gray and the wind was horrific. A lady had just come back to her car as we were leaving and she told us to go down about a mile on the beach and then cut over to the grass/stump area. Evidently, ocean, sand, grass and stumps are on the wish list for snowy owl house hunters. So armed with our best REI gear, camera, video, bird book and such we set out.
Walking in sand is always harder than anything, but add rain, wind and cold and it was quite challenging and invigorating. We trooped on for maybe half a mile and then saw remnants of the old road dissecting the center of the spit so we opted to walk down that instead of the beach area. On the north side of the point is Grays Harbor and home to many kinds of shore birds and we did see a brant #20 and some gulls, but we had one species in mind, and with the weather so bad we just pushed on for our prime target. The rain was actually being kind and letting up, the wind and cold continued. The road ended on the northern part of the spit so we had to off road and plow through the beach grass and go south toward the inland, scanning the horizon for white spots. Finally, we spotted our prey! We adjusted our gait with visions of white in our mind. We came back out to the beach and followed a bit until we came within camera distance of our first real snowy owl #21 and with baited breath watched through binocs and lens. I hate to use such a trite word but amazing--simply amazing. They are the most beautiful bird, large, alert and oh those eyes! There is nothing that gets past owl eyes. He was watching us of course but we kept a comfortable distance so he nonchalantly kept to his post perched on a large piece of driftwood in the tall golden grass. His feathers constantly being buffeted by the winds, him teetering to and fro but holding steady. His head constantly moving to check out all angles around him.
We saw another owl a bit further down the beach so we thought we'd head there. He was another beauty and closer than the first owl . This guy was really white, very much like Hedwig from Harry Potter. Thrilling is the best word, and the rain was holding back and there were no other people out there. The stars had aligned and smiled on us. He was also perched on driftwood in the grass but while we were watching and filming he flew...he flew and landed even closer to us!
Isn't he a beauty! We had so much time to watch him and film. It was a true highpoint of our day and I'm sure of this year of birding. He stayed there giving us our chance to capture the moment. We walked around to the other side and got more shots and then finally we had to bid him adieu.
Continuing on we got some nice shots of yet another owl, this one with a bit darker coloring and just as stunning. He was lower in the grass but he flew and Rudy got a few shots in air.
I've read there are maybe 15 or 20 owls in just a few acres of this land and we ended up seeing 6 or 7. Had the weather been less threatening we would have stayed longer but there were dark ominous clouds coming with steaks of rain and we knew we couldn't stay. We walked back on the beach which was arduous given the fact that we were heading right into the blasting wind and the mushiness of the sand and my bum knee was really giving me grief but it was all worth it, plus on the way back we saw a surf scoter #23 in the water and a sanderling #22 on the beach.
We had lunch at a taqueria in Ocean Shores--never been to one run and owned by a white lady but the food was really good. After that we tried to find Bill's Spit but we couldn't find any access. Driving around we saw a female merganser #24 on Duck Lake. We decided to head back and try a few stops on the way home. We went to Grays Harbor Wildlife Refuge but didn't see much except a killdeer #25 in the sewage pond area. Then we got back to Hwy 12 and took the Brady Loop after Montesano, which winds around farm land and saw a female American kestrel #26 on a telephone wire and then some American coots on a pond and some trumpeter swans in a field.
We got back on Hwy 12 to head home. It was just getting dark but we thought we were going to have an uneventful drive home...wrong. We had run into some sleet while at Ocean Shores but that didn't last long and we thought it was pretty localized. Getting back on Hwy 12 we ran into what looked like sleet but then it was snow and then a blizzard. It changed so fast and was coming down so hard it was kind of scary. Anyone who knows me well does not want to be in a car with me in the snow. It was coming down fast and sticking to the road very quickly . The worst part was thinking it might be like that all the way home. I was not a good passenger, close to getting sick, but Rudy put up with me. Luckily a bit before Olympia it did get better and the closer we got home it was clearer, so all ended great. For a full day out we only added a few more birds to the list but even if we'd only added the snowy owl, it would have been worth it.
First, let me make a disclaimer about this post (and possibly others to follow). I actually had started a journal for myself to keep track of our bird count over the year. I was doing it also so I could remember where and when we saw each new bird. This is a very important point because my memory has always been faulty and continues to be quite disheveled. Unlike my children who can remember everything, I could easily get muddled on exactly where we had see what bird. So my intent was to capture all of the information while fresh in my memory for future reference. Consequently this kind of information can be a bit dry and uninteresting to the casual reader. But it was mentioned by a few of those closest to me that they would like to follow along with our count and have visual references to our sightings--thus this blog. So to warn you, if you don't care for what might seem like meaningless details, you can skip the next paragraphs and go right to my fabulous video mix of the birds we saw on January 7.
Rudy and I decided to head north for a full day of birding. I'd done a bit of research and decided to head up to Samish Island, Padilla Bay, and Fir Island. We didn’t get off until a little past 8:00am, later than what we had wanted but not too bad considering it was a Saturday and sleeping past 5:00am is a indulgent luxury on the weekends. Before we headed up north we thought we’d try to see our elusive belted kingfisher so we stopped there first. No kingfisher but the diversion paid off as we did see a small flock of American wigeons #6 in the cow field and then a red tailed hawk #7 on a pole. After that detour we headed up to I-5 where we went all the way north to exit #230 / Hwy 20 and headed west. We turned right at Bayview-Edison Road and headed north. The road follows Padilla Bay for a while, an area we had never traveled before. There is a very nice dike trail there where we saw walkers, birders and bikers. We’ve made a note to come back when it's warmer and bring our bikes for a nice birder ride. Our first stop was at the Padilla Bay Interpretive Center. This was quite a place, fairly new and quite large. The display area wasn't too big but it was well done and they had a great "hands on" area for kids. Great place to bring our grandson when he gets older and can start appreciate our feathered friends. There was also a trail there up into the woods that would be better later in the season-another good reason to return. We talked to the gentleman working there and he gave us a bit more details on where to go for birding. He told us the very large white birds we had seen on the way there were trumpeter swans #8. They were huge and gleaning a farm field. We'd be able to see them fly too and what a magnificent sight, very majestic and really quite inspiring. It's those moments when you watch something so perfectly created that you have to give a nod to God and his crazy imagination.
When we left the Interpretive Center we proceeded north to an area birders call the West 90. We saw tons of great blue herons #9 and bald eagles #10 along the way. We thought we’d hike the West 90 as I had read that it is supposed to be great for raptors. I had actually thought parking might be a problem, but when we arrived, there were only a few pickups. It was immediately obvious that we were smack dab in the middle of hunting season with hunters in full camouflage-with rifles. We opted not to hike where people were walking around with live ammunition and anxious to use it. We decided to drive up to the tip of Samish Island to see what we could see. Along the way a northern harrier was buzzing the fields and there were more eagles in trees, on posts and even standing in the fields. There was a huge flock of birds swirling around and then landing in this small group of trees.They kept landing in the trees and then flying down out of them looking very much like perpetual leaves falling. We didn't see much bird life on the tip of the island, mainly private homes, but we did see some American coots #11 in the water below the cliffs. We circled around the peninsula and ended up retracing the road we had arrived on. Going back through that area again we watched a red tailed hawk fight off a northern harrier from her tree top. I took some video and like Rudy said, "it's National Geographic". We went past the West 90 and went east and passed an area called the East 90 and then crossed the Samish River. There were tons of bald eagles in the trees! We went as far as the quirky little town of Edison and turned around and came back.We'd never been to Edison before, it was small but very artsy and had a few places to eat. It would be good in the summer too. On the way back we saw a double crested cormorant #12 where the Samish River flowed out. He was siting on a piling and then decided to show off and fly a huge circle around us. He definitely was not one of the flightless cormorants we had seen in the Galapagos. They would have been very envious.
We decided to go back down the road that followed Padilla Bay as there was a better chance to see birds there then going straight back to Hwy 20. We had passed Bayview State Park on the way in so we decided to check it out. We entered and circled around and and parked down by the water. There were some mallards in the water and one other bird that was different. I got our the video camera, with it's very nice zoom and identified a lone male northern pintail #13. He was very dapper looking although he did seem lonely. Perhaps he wanted it that way. We also saw a gull sitting on a pole that had red legs and feet almost as bright as a red footed booby. He was a perfect specimen of the glaucous-winged gull #14. He even had the red mark on his beak. There was another gull there with a dark beak and legs but we’re not sure what kind he was. I'm going to have to invest in a waterfowl bird book. There are just so many varieties of just seagulls that it's really hard for newbies like us to identify them all. It 's kind of comforting that there is still so much too learn. How could one ever be tired of this world? We left the park and went back out to Hwy 20. Just before we rejoined the highway we saw a tree full of starlings #15. They may be quite common but they add to the bird count.
We went west on Hwy 20 and after crossing over the Swinomish Channel we took a right and went around the peninsula where all of the oil refineries are located. We had been told there were lots of heron nests out there along with the refineries. On the surface you wouldn't think the two would go together but out here on the mist shrouded pastures they seem to have formed a working allegiance. We did see lots of great blue herons with the backdrop of cloud producing smokestacks and lighted chrome pipes of the refineries. Looking out over the bluff to the water we also saw some more American coots and buffleheads #16 diving in the bay. The waves were undulating and the birds diving so it was a bit hit and miss trying to see them but we captured enough video to get good identification.We followed around the peninsula to where the tankers pull in to fill up with oil from the refineries. In the midst of the piers we saw somecommon goldeneyes #17 swimming around seemingly indifferent to the crude that was being pumped along the pier.
After going around the peninsula we went back to Hwy 20 but this time turned back east. Just before the bridge we headed south down to La Conner. It was a nice drive through the woods of the reservation but no birds. It had been a while since we'd been in La Conner but we were ready to eat and so we had dinner at a nice little Mexican Restaurant called El Gitano. After dinner we drove around through the "picture postcard" town until we found a local coffee shop for Rudy to fuel himself with the black brew. Now fully renewed we continued east and then south to Fir Island. This is supposed to be the spot for snow geese and since we hadn't seen any yet I was hoping we wouldn't be shut out. We went down Rawlins Road to the dike access to see what we could find. This is a dead end road that ends at the dike where stairs lead you up to walk along the top. According to the bird books a good place to see birds of prey, waterfowl and geese.There was one car there with the driver just getting back from the dike trail and carrying a humongous lens. He’d been photographing birds but his wife had stayed in the car. He must have been gone awhile because she had drained the battery and that Explorer was not going anywhere. Luckily the photographer had jumper cables (I'm thinking this isn't the first time this has happened) and Rudy maneuvered our car around and gave them the jump they needed. While Rudy was doing this I was noticing an interesting bird of prey flying around. I wasn't sure what it was, but I had my suspicions and when we were able to get up on the dike I was not only confirmed I was delighted. There we saw a wonderful short eared owl #18 flying around.We got some nice video of him, and oh it was truly the highpoint of the day. He just swooped and swirled, dived and then landed close to us. He'd keep watch on us, a harrier flying around and scoping out his dinner all at the same time. I was hoping to see one but didn’t really know if we would. Since it was getting dark he came out to hunt and we caught him at just the right moment. After watching him for awhile we went a bit further on the dike and could hear geese in the distance. We could see hundreds swirling a bit southeast so we popped back in the car to try to see them before it got too dark. We turned down Maupin Road and saw hundreds of snow geese #19 feeding in a field. We didn't get skunked! We watched them for awhile. Something would disturb them and then they would all swirl around and then land again. They are distinctive with their very white bodies and long white wings with black on the tips. The hunters appreciated them too and I actually heard the shot and saw one plummet from the sky. Kind of sad but there were a lot of geese and even though I don't understand their motivation, I'm sure they don't understand ours either. Vive la difference! It was great to get to see the snow geese, and in such numbers, it made a nice finish to our birding day. We popped back on Fir Island Road and got on I-5 south and made it home a bit after 6:00 pm. We added 14 birds to our list for the year. A great day!
Rudy and I had seen a belted kingfisher while we were biking on Dec. 31. Hoping to add him to our list for 2012 we went back to the same place, but no kingfisher. Disappointing. To try to see him you go west off of the Interurban trail in Auburn, WA at Emerald Downs and go out to Hwy 167. We did see some Mallards (#2) swimming around in a cow pasture pond and some Crows (#3) flying around hit and miss. Crows really don't seem to have much order but I love to watch them walk and you can easily have a conversation with them when their looking down on you from a lamp pole. Since the kingfisher was not going to show we drove down to GRNRA and walked to the northern most birding tower. There was nothing around except bunches of Canadian Geese (#4) flying in constantly changing formations in the sky. The sky was dark but there was sun shining on them flying up so high—the perfect lighting highlighted their beauty. When we were walking back from the tower we saw what I thought at first was a hawk. He was flying so low over the area, hunting. We were able to watch him awhile and then he landed on a wetlands sign where we got a nice view through the binocs. He was a Northern Harrier (#5) with that reddish brown color and distinctive white bar at the top of his tail. He was something to see and we got a nice show from him. That was worth the drive and made a nice end to the birding day.
It's the start of a new year and the time to start your Big Year if you're going to do it. I'm calling this our Big Year but I'm not trying to be competitive, I just want to keep a record of the birds we see this year. The idea of a Big Year is a competition among birders to see who can see or hear the largest number of different birds within a single calendar year and within a certain geographical area. My boundaries will be the 48 states and I'm only going to count birds I can actually see and recognize. If I can't give it a name that I think is correct, I'm not counting it. I'm doing this with my husband--for the sake of anonymity will call him Rudy. Rudy and I are not professional birders, far from it, but we love it. I'm taking this year to get our status up a notch so we can really call ourselves "birders".
Today a nice start, a Downy Woodpecker (#1) at our suet feeder in the front yard. Perfect view and no question what he was. Rudy and I both saw him. I didn’t see any other birds I could positively identify but I did hear some crows in the distance and a robin in a tree in the lower area. Weather very decent—dry and probably around 50 degrees. Tomorrow is another day.