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Since heading west to Washington in 2015, what I miss most in Winston-Salem is birding with good friends in places like Bethabara, Salem Lake and Archie Elledge. So, I was pleased when Shelley Rutkin expressed interest in visiting Mary and me and seeing some of our western species. We settled on late August as a time likely to produce good weather and some of Shelley’s target birds. Little did we realize just how exciting our bird search would become.

Shelley’s late-night arrival called for a relaxed approach to bird finding on her first day. We headed to the Big Four Ice Caves about 45 minutes away in the national forest. It instantly became one of my favorite spots out here, and it was likely to produce a life bird for Shelley. Unseasonable heat kept the species count down. However, we were rewarded with good looks at several Black Swifts – Life Bird #1 for Shelley.

Shelley Rutkin finds Black Swifts at the Big Four Ice Caves.

The next day, we headed to Mt. Rainier National Park about three hours away. Mary and I have looked forward to going there ever since we arrived in the Seattle area, and it has some bird species that we do not see west of the Cascades. We stopped for a picnic lunch at the beautiful woods of Federation Forest State Park, where we saw our first Gray Jay of the trip.

A Gray Jay was looking for a snack at Federation Forest.

We arrived at our Crystal Mountain Resort lodgings by early afternoon, then drove to the park’s Sunrise Visitor’s Center. A Clark’s Nutcracker greeted us as we exited the car. A late afternoon walk along the Silver Forest Trail provided magnificent views of Mt. Rainier’s summit, Mt. Adams and the White River valley, along with sightings of Mountain Chickadees, Audubon’s Warblers and Common Ravens. Ominously, although it was clear above, we could see smoke plumes from nearby forest fires.

The White River flows with glacial melt from Mt. Rainier.

The next morning dawned bright and beautiful at the park. For our bird hike, we chose the Sourdough Ridge and connecting Mt. Fremont Trails. This route offered us the best opportunity for a Prairie Falcon and perhaps even some White-tailed Ptarmigans. At Frozen Lake, Mary headed back, but Shelley and I proceeded on our quest. Just as we turned the corner and headed up toward Mt. Fremont, we spied a pair of Mountain Bluebirds on a fence line.

A pair of Mountain Bluebirds were hawking insects at Frozen Lake.

“Moderate” soon became “strenuous,” at least in our minds, but there was no stopping us. We plunged ahead over treacherous scree toward the Mt. Fremont lookout tower.

We hiked past this stone figurehead on the Mt. Fremont Trail.

Shortly before the summit, we spied two raptors soaring over a far ridgeline. Our Prairie Falcons? Perhaps, based on their pale coloring, but more likely Red-tailed Hawks. Alas, we saw no ptarmigans either, but we did see Mountain Goats and a cute Pika. And we did conquer Mt. Fremont!

Pikas are cute little mammals most closely related to rabbits.

We persevered to reach the Mt. Fremont Lookout.

The next morning was serendipity, as we drove park roads before breakfast looking for another Rutkin life bird, Sooty Grouse, or at least a Ruffed Grouse. Nothing along the roads, so we headed toward a trail at Sunrise Point as our last best chance. Not 50 yards in, I spied a bird walking down the trail. “Shelley, there’s your grouse!” We snapped dozens of photos as the male Sooty foraged in the trailside vegetation.

Shelley’s Sooty Grouse lifer poses for our cameras.

Our morning wasn’t done. A mile down the mountain, I jammed on the brakes as two woodpeckers moved through the trees – American Three-toed Woodpeckers. We both had seen only one previously in our birding lives, but these were the first in Washington.

Shelley was able to get this photo of an American Three-toed Woodpecker.

Mt. Rainier was all it has been touted to be. Many wildflowers had passed their peak, but the meadow at Sunrise still was full of Pasque Flower, Newberry’s Knotweed, Cascade Asters and Magenta Paintbrush. Shadow and Sunrise Lakes reflected light from the valleys below. And always, Emmons and Winthrop Glaciers on the mountain glistened in the background. We also lucked out with the clear skies. A few days later, the smoke had moved in and Crystal Mountain was being evacuated.

Magenta Paintbrush was still in bloom on Sunrise Meadow.

Butterlies were surprisingly scarce, but this Hydaspe Fritillary was a beauty.

The first morning at Sunrise, we had encountered a birding acquaintance. She alerted us that Ryan Merrill, our area eBird reviewer, had found a Swallow-tailed Gull at a North Seattle park on Puget Sound. I had seen this species in its native Galapagos Islands off of South America, but “Wow!” The only two previous sightings in North America were in California. People on the east coast already were booking flights. Nathan Gatto texted that in our position he would check out early and head to the coast. We had demurred with fingers crossed that it would stick around.

This Swallow-tailed Gull is only the third one reported in North America.

But would it? The next day, when we were grousing, the gull had disappeared. We headed home as other birders searched the Seattle area waterfront. Joy! Mid-afternoon, it was located a bit to the north – on a refinery pier at the southern tip of my home Snohomish County. However, viewing access was limited, treacherous and likely illegal, across railroad tracks. We also were caught in brutal Friday holiday traffic. We would have to wait.

On Saturday morning, no Swallow-tailed Gull at the Seattle park, the refinery, or even along Edmonds beaches a mile to the north. The search was on again. We decided to go to Edmonds, anyway, while we awaited any news. The Swallow-tailed Gull may be the most beautiful gull in the world, but the gray-feathered, red-billed Heerman’s Gull belongs in the pageant and Shelley had seen few of this western species. There were dozens roosting along the Edmonds jetty.

Dozens of Heerman’s Gulls roost on the Jetty at the Edmonds Pier.

Still no word in the afternoon, so it was off to the Everett Sewage lagoons to look at Western Sandpipers and an assortment of ducks, including Cinnamon Teal. The water now was too high to add an uncommon Willet to my county list at Tulalip Bay, so we headed over to Everett’s Marine Park. At least there, Shelley could add California Gull and Ring-billed Gull to her Washington list.

The Swallow-tailed Gull seems to enjoy the company of California Gulls.

Sitting in the water with Californias just a few yards from the parking lot was a smaller gull with a chocolate-brown head, a bright red eye ring, black wing tips and a two-toned bill of black and silver with a prominent white spot at its base. And, when it fluttered, we saw red legs and a u-shaped tail. We had relocated the Swallow-tailed Gull about 15 miles north of where it was last seen. Gorgeous!

The Swallow-tailed Gull takes a brief flight in Everett.

Soon after we posted word on our local Tweeters listserv and on Facebook, other birders began to arrive. Suddenly, the gull hopped out of the water onto the edge of the parking lot not 20 feet away. Cameras clicked away from close range capturing this remarkably photogenic bird until it eventually returned to the water. The young man next to me turned out to be Amar Ayyash from Chicago and one of our foremost gull experts. Instantly, we had street creds in the birding community in Snohomish County and nationally. What an amazing end to the day!

Dozens of birders responded to our gull alert.

Needless to say, the next three days were anticlimactic. We canceled a planned return east of the mountains because of the smoke and continuing heat. Instead, we stayed around home and added birds to Shelley’s state list.

Shelley really wanted to see a Chestnut-backed Chickadee, and she captured one with this photo.

Chestnut-backed Chickadees and Red-breasted Nuthatches visited feeders at a local park. Both yellowlegs and Short-billed Dowitchers foraged on Skagit County mudflats. Black-bellied Plovers and Caspian Terns rested on a sandy spit. Ospreys and Great Blue Herons fed their chicks at Marine Park. And, our adventure together ended with a Marbled Murrelet and Mew Gull at a nearby beach.

The Great Blue Heron rookery was still busy at Marine Park.

The mountain scenery was beautiful, the Swallow-tailed Gull was amazing, and Shelley’s state bird list now stands at 81. However, just as nice was taking it all in with a long-time friend.

Mary, Shelley and I walked the Silver Forest Trail at Mt. Rainier.

Addendum: More than a week later, the Swallow-tailed Gull is still here. So long as the squid are easy to find each night and Seattle’s infamous rain holds off, it just may be here awhile.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Counting the Birds

Christmas Bird Counts often start in the wee hours of the morning.  Nathan Gatto began searching for owls at Hobby Park at 4:00 AM.  Despite three hours of effort, he did not find any owls, but he did see an American Woodcock, the only one for the count.

Searching for owls at Reynolda. Photo by David Collins.

Searching for owls at Reynolda. Photo by David Collins.

Over at Reynolda, David Collins, a first-time Christmas Bird Count (CBC) participant, may have brought Jim Martin’s team a bit of “beginner’s luck.”  They started at 6:00 AM in the dark woods behind Reynolda House and soon heard the call of a Great Horned Owl.  Playing a recording of a Barred Owl call brought two owls into the trees above them calling loudly.  David was amazed.  And, hooked on birding, we hope.  Seasoned birders like to encourage new birders to participate in their first Christmas Bird Count.  It’s a bit like an initiation into the world of birding.

No screech owls answered repeated calls at Reynolda, but Brent Gearhart heard one at C.G. Hill Park.  This hit and miss birding is typical of CBCs and a big part of what makes them fun.  Birders love surprises.  It’s also the reason that we split up into teams, each covering a different area of our 15-mile diameter count circle.  This year we had fifty-four participants on twelve teams.

Emrys watching Peregrine Falcons on his first CBC. Photo by Kim Brand.

Emrys watching Peregrine Falcons on his first CBC. Photo by Kim Brand.

Another first-time CBC participant was Kim Brand’s young friend, six-year-old Emrys.  He and his mom, Mollye Maxner, joined Kim’s team mid-morning.  Earlier, Emrys had collected change to donate to the National Audubon Society and mailed it in.  By happy coincidence, his Audubon blanket (a thank-you gift) arrived while he was out birding on his first CBC!  The first birds that Emrys and Mollye saw on the CBC were a pair of Peregrine Falcons in downtown Winston-Salem.  They got great looks, and then went to Reynolds Park where they got good looks at a Barred Owl that was pointed out by people playing Pokémon Go.  Kim says that Emrys did not want to stop birding!  He was still hoping to see a Golden or Bald Eagle.

Northern Parula photographed by David Disher in early September.

Northern Parula photographed by David Disher in early September.

Kim’s team, led by Jeremy Reiskind, also had the most surprising bird of the count – a Northern Parula.  Doug Demarest and Kim spied a tiny bird in a Magnolia tree at the stone arch entrance to Washington Park.  It was hard for them to believe their eyes, but they got excellent looks at the little bird with a yellow upper chest, blue gray head and wings, white arcs above and below the eye, wing bars, green back, white belly and undertail coverts.  Northern Parulas are common here in spring, but, by December, most are in Florida, the Caribbean, or Central America.

Orange-crowned Wabler photographed by Nathan Gatto in 2015.

Orange-crowned Wabler photographed by Nathan Gatto in 2015.

Another very uncommon species in winter is Orange-crowned Warbler.  Heather Moir reports for the Miller Park team, “We moved on to Hathaway Park where the temperature seemed to drop, I swear I felt some snowflakes, but the bird activity picked up considerably.  There was so much activity in one area it was hard to know where to look.  “Phoebe” I heard Jane call out.  “There’s another Pine Warbler” I heard John say.  “Ruby-crowned Kinglet” from Laura.  Then – “I’ve got something different” from Craig McCleary, leader of the team.  The bird in question was just above eye level and we all got good looks at the Orange-crowned Warbler, calling out and confirming field marks (or, lack of field marks – this is a non-descript little bird!).  I was trying to get out my camera very quickly and quietly, but I wasn’t fast enough – our bird flew off to the top of a tree across the field.”

Heather continues, “Then it was on to the Children’s Home, where it was hard not to be distracted by the adorable miniature horses, goats, pigs, and one very curious llama.  Our birding highlight there was a flock of 125 Mourning Doves that we startled as we walked past a field.”

Miniature horse at The Children's Home. Photo by Heather Moir.

Miniature horse at The Children’s Home. Photo by Heather Moir.

This year’s Winston-Salem CBC set a record for species at 93 (with 13,016 individual birds), or four better than the record of 89 last year.  Yet several of us found it strangely quiet.  Heather reported that they had to work to find the Red-bellied Woodpeckers that typically seem to follow them through Miller Park.  I called Carol Gearhart at C.G. Hill Park mid-morning and she greeted me with, “Is it as dead there as it is here?”  Our team was thrilled when we finally had a flock of American Robins fly over at 3:00 PM, our first of the day.  But, Robins make it to the Top 10 list!  Again, evidence that the team approach to Christmas Bird Counts produces the best results.

Winston-Salem CBC compiler, Ron Morris, reports that the most numerous birds were:

  1. Ring-billed Gull – 5173
  2. Canada Goose – 728
  3. European Starling – 611
  4. American Robin – 579
  5. American Crow – 537
  6. Cedar Waxwing – 442
  7. White-throated Sparrow – 377
  8. Mallard – 328
  9. Mourning Dove – 314
  10. Rock Pigeon – 288
A Hermit Thrush at Reynolda, always a CBC favorite. Photo by David Collins.

A Hermit Thrush at Reynolda, always a CBC favorite. Photo by David Collins.

For a brief history of the Christmas Bird Count, see the Wikipedia article which begins as follows.

“Up through the 19th century, many North Americans participated in the tradition of Christmas “side hunts”, in which they competed at how many birds they could kill, regardless of whether they had any use for the carcasses and of whether the birds were beneficial, beautiful, or rare.  In December 1900, the U.S. ornithologist Frank Chapman, founder of Bird-Lore (which became Audubon magazine), proposed counting birds on Christmas instead of killing them.”

For more in-depth information about the CBC, see the official Audubon Christmas Bird Count website.

Plan to join in the fun next year!  Whether it’s your first CBC or your 100th, you never know what you might find.

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By Cynthia Donaldson

This may have been the rainiest Forsyth Audubon trip I have ever attended. The rain started as we traveled south on I-95 on Friday, January 15, heading toward Santee National Wildlife Refuge. By the time we all arrived, it was raining in earnest. The inside of the beautiful visitor center was a great place to enjoy our picnic lunches. Many were enjoying the covered deck and scoping the Bonaparte’s Gulls, Forster’s Terns, and Double-crested Cormorants that were flying around Lake Marion. Loons and grebes were floating about, not seeming to be bothered by the steady rain. By 1 o’clock, the rain had stopped and, according to the radar, the front had passed. We hiked the Wright’s Bluff Nature Trail though a quiet pine forest to the edge of the impoundments where the birds find refuge in the winter.

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From the observation tower, we enjoyed Wild Turkeys, Sandhill Cranes, Eastern Meadowlarks, Harrier and Cooper fly-bys, as well as Orange-crowned, Yellow-rumped, and Pine Warblers chattering behind us in the forest. Another quick rain shower divided the group: most headed back to their cars. The rest stayed for another hour watching the parade of ducks and passerines – just glad to be outside and not at the “office.” The rain continued off and on until evening.

Tony’s Famous Pizza chef served up some yummy pizza to our group; then we headed to the Hampton Inn at the Georgetown Marina to try to get a good night’s sleep before our greatly anticipated day at Tom Yawkey Wildlife Center.

This group is prompt. We pulled out of the hotel parking lot at 8:25 am on the dot on Saturday morning, drove the 10 miles to the end of the road at the Estherville Minim Creek and met Jamie Dozier, Wildlife Biologist and Project Leader for the Tom Yawkey Wildlife Center.  Jamie was our wonderful tour guide for the day. He ferried us across the creek in a pontoon boat, depositing us on the other side at a nature lover’s paradise!  Jamie’s assistant was unable to come, so Howard volunteered to drive the other van. Those of us in his van survived to tell…

We were privileged to see, although in a somewhat dormant stage, a newly discovered species of Hedge-nettle named Stachys caroliniana. Here is a link about the plant: New Species of Hedge-Nettle Discovered in South Carolina.

Our lovely stroll through a Live Oak grove was memorable. These massive trees housing moss and ferns have withstood many storms over their one hundred years.

From here we came out into open at the impoundments where we enjoyed seeing 99 American Avocets!

Avocets

We always kept an eye looking up, because the clear, blue sky was full of surprises: Wood Stork, Black and Turkey Vultures, Bald Eagles, and a flock of White Pelicans delighted us by appearing over our heads.

Wood Stork in flight

The highlight of the morning was an adult Roseate Spoonbill flying overhead. It landed out of sight behind the wooded edge. The photo below is a juvenile that was in the same area. Several members of the group did the dance of joy for this long sought-after life bird. I heard someone say, “We can go home now.” In reality, none of us wanted this gorgeous day to end.

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After several hours exploring these impoundments, Jamie shuttled us back to the vans. We picnicked in the warm sun under some Live Oaks. With sandwich in one hand and binos in the other, we watched Harriers skim the marsh and we listened to American coots “cooting.”

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After lunch, we visited an impoundment where a huge alligator was napping with one eye on us.

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Our next destination took us through a long leaf pine forest. All the eastern woodpeckers can be found at Tom Yawkey. We almost scored a home run for Mr. Yawkey: we saw them all but the Hairy! The Tom Yawkey Wildlife Center hosts many colonies of the protected Red-cockaded Woodpecker. The Red-cockaded Woodpecker was a life bird for many.

The rest of the day was spent on yet another impoundment. Here, several saw Mottled Ducks to add to their life lists. A bobcat ran across an open field. He stopped at the edge and looked back at us before disappearing into the edge. A Marsh Wren trilled at us from his cover in the reeds. A small torpedo whizzed over our heads, changed elevation to a few inches above the trail ahead – traveling straight down the center, then veered sharply to the right into the marsh. Like a flash. Merlin.

The afternoon sighting-of-the-day was a little ventriloquist; we could hear him but could not find him…at first. He was so much closer that he sounded. In this photo you can see our group mesmerized by the sight of this little bird. Another life bird for most of us: Sedge Wren.

The only thing that could tear us away was the fact that our dinner reservations were at 6 PM. We tried to end the day with another Red-cockaded Woodpecker, but happily settled for a Red-headed.

Since the tide was in, Jamie drove the swing bridge into place and we walked across the creek back to our cars.

 

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Everything about this day had been perfect. Jamie was a very knowledgeable guide who patiently answered all our questions about this amazing refuge. The weather was warm and sunny. The people in our group were helpful and eager to teach. It was unanimous: we will return to the Tom Yawkey Nature Center! The sooner the better.

The dinner at Eddy Chacon’s was good. This restaurant was right beside the hotel so we walked over. Some of us stopped at the marsh behind the hotel on the way to see the Clapper Rails.

Sunday morning was cold, breezy, and rainy.  Here are a few words that I used to describe the group that went birding that morning: nutty, crazy, diehards, optimists. The rain let up around 1 pm when a few more joined the ranks at Huntington Beach State Park.  By then, it had improved to only cold and breezy. We hiked out the north beach trail to the jetty where we saw Least Sandpipers, Black Scoters, several hundred Dunlin, one Purple Sandpiper, and some very friendly Ruddy Turnstones.

Another interesting sight was a small flock of Bonaparte’s Gulls “pattering.” Their feet were barely touching the water as they hovered right above water along the jetty, plucking at unseen food from the tops of the waves. Ron told us that Storm Petrels feed in this same way. The name “petrel” is a diminutive form of “Peter,” a reference to Saint Peter; it was given to these birds because they sometimes appear to walk on the water.

The sun was lowering in the sky as we headed back to our cars. Most went back to the hotel to get ready for dinner. Four of us remained to continue searching for at least one of the sparrows that live near the sea. No luck.

Our count dinner at Pasteria 811 was delicious. When we did the count down, we came up with 131 species for the trip!

A few more hours of birding on Monday morning helped us to add a few more birds to the list. Several birders stopped at a hammock shop at Pawley’s Island to see what they could find and spotted a female Painted Bunting. Around 10:30 am, we found (thanks to Frank Lawkins) the reported female Common Goldeneye at Mullet’s Pond at Huntington Beach State Park. Killdeer were also added to the list. A final count of 135 was fantastic!

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Even though we probably endured a few inches of rain and fairly low temperatures on two of the days, it was a great trip.  I agree with Heather; our memories of our Winter Trip 2016 will always make us nostalgic.

Photo credits: Gail & Ferd Crotte, Cynthia Donaldson, Gregg Donaldson, Heather Moir

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