Wednesday, January 3, 2018


First of Year
I'll be adding these up too.

Here's to New Years!  The family and I watched the movie New Years Eve the night before (and I dozed after that, on and off until midnight), and we had a great time watching people in all parts of the movie following dreams, carrying out resolutions, and acting with courage.  Shameless movie quote:

What is one thing you would do if you knew you would not fail?  Now go out and do it!
"Now" would have been at 11 P.M., so I didn't carry the advice out to the letter, but the excitement of the New Year had me up a little bit before my 3:50 alarm, ready to start the year with owls.

There are twelve species of owls listed in Lewis County.  Three of them (Barn, Great Horned, Northern Pygmy) are common enough that I figured I wouldn't have to make plans to find them.  Three of them (Great Gray, Snowy, Long-eared) have been seen fewer than five times in the county, and I figured there was not much to do in terms of planning that could bring me any of those.

The rest should make for good stories this year.  I love owls, and the whole process of trying to find them is... well for lack of a better expression... "a hoot".

Code three birds are seen annually, but are generally difficult to find, and involve some planning.  On this list for Lewis:  Western Screech-Owl, Spotted Owl and Barred Owl.  The latter two are fighting for habitat right now, and Barred seem to be winning.  Western Screech has been seen in a few good spots around the county, so we decided to have Kevin try for them at the fish hatcheries south of Highway 12 as he came up from Vancouver.

The code 4 owls all have my attention in a big way.  Boreal and Short-eared are stories for later, but for me, it was surprising to see Northern Saw-whet Owl listed as a code 4.

Range maps from for Northern Saw-whet Owl.  Purple is year round habitat.  Red is breeding only.

There's an awful lot of Lewis County where these owls seem to have year-round habitat!  I tried for them this morning in the purple area (Highway 7) between the two red areas on the map below the arrow.  The Tatoosh Range is to the East, and.the other red area is National Forest land that gets up to 3500-4500 feet.  There are very few eBird records from there, and I'm honestly interested to find out if anyone knows much about the area!  But... that will be for another time of year.  Even the owls think it's a bit too high for this time of year.  

I entered Lewis County via Pierce County (one of 8 counties that border it.  I'll have to see how many of those borders I can cross this year!) at around 5 AM.  I smiled as I saw the sign:  "Entering Lewis County."   This whole county birding thing is built around these lines, and I always get that exciting feeling that some people may only get when they go to another country.
Close to how beautiful it was

I took the obligatory county line picture, and actually had to stop on the Lewis County side of the bridge and walk back onto the bridge over the Nisqually River (Who knew it formed the Pierce/Lewis county line!) to get a picture of the Super Moon playing in the clouds. 

Just over the river, I planned on stopping at places that looked good for Northern Saw-whet Owls.  Forest openings near water seem to be a plus, and there were a fair share of those along highway 7.  At Mineral Road, I turned up the road a little bit and called for saw-whet.  Bird one of the year, a Barred Owl (1) called from the far side of the river.  

A meander to Mossyrock

I made a few more stops on the way down.  I had a forest road at one point that was so beautifully illuminated by the moon.  The whole path in front of me and parts of the hills were lit with silver.  My phone... did almost nothing to capture how beautiful this was.  Maybe that will be the next technology.  Cameras that can capture how the most beautiful things actually look.   Or maybe the government already has this technology, and is hiding it with the belief that the populous will be better off going and looking at the most beautiful things with their own eyes.  I'll go with that. 

Kevin messaged me from the road and told me he'd be running a little late.  He was at the Cowlitz Trout Hatchery and had found a Great Blue Heron as his first bird of the year.  His path was along the Cowlitz, looking for Western-screech Owls.  This gave me a little more time, so my search continued.  I finally hung it up when I reached Morton (it was quite a tour of small towns early in the day!)  Neither of us were successful in pulling up any other birds, so we ended up meeting in Mossy rock at 7 AM.   
Still close enough to Christmas to be festive!

In advance of nearly any Christmas Bird Count in my area, I'll drive the streets and ask the folks out walking their dogs if they've seen or heard owls in their neighborhoods.  Lewis County is kind of a large area for something like that, but some contacts emailed around, and out of the blue I got an email:  "Hi Tim, We have owls in the Mossyrock area..", and with some follow up questions I was told that they were "The kind that hoot".   I couldn't think of a better way to watch the sun come up on the year!

Watching the sun come up on the year

Kevin and I walked and listened and occasionally called into the fog of the morning.  I haven't had a whole lot of luck owling in the fog, and neither has Kevin, but we didn't mind the walk, and we got a chance to see the habitat:  Along with some of the things mentioned as "good owl habitat" above, Kevin saw that there were quite a few mole hills.  One would imagine an owl looking for snacks would notice such things too!

We eventually started to see and hear birds.  For me, it was Song Sparrow (2), American Robin (3), and Common Raven (4).  For Kevin it went Song Sparrow (2), Common Raven (3), Cackling Goose (4).   So... 20 minutes into our year, I gave up on keeping a common list!  We knew we'd have more American Robins and Cackling Geese this year, but this was the essence of keeping ones own list, and only including birds that you feel sure about. 
Robin standing tall
Photo from Cornell labs
Eddie Callaway

For me, Robins seem... fat.  (Wow, Tim... rude)  and they also have a distinctive walk.   Skitter skitter skitter up.   skitter skitter skitter up.   They stand tall when they stop (in general) and just seem chunkier than a Varied Thrush, which Kevin didn't feel like he could rule out from the look.   The Varied Thrush walk is a little more bounce bounch hunch.  Bounch bounce hunch.

Varied Thrush laying low

Cackling Geese sound different from Canadas.  Distinctive.  My brain can only sort them out on the spot if I'm hearing both, however, so the calls (that had to have been Cackling) were enough for Kevin and not for me.  

I wanted to be clear on this from the start.  Kevin and I are doing this together, and will work especially hard to help the other person get good looks and listens at the birds we are identifying, but at the end of the day, we will be listing birds that we are confident with, and that may mean different lists!  I think we'll also learn a lot more than if we had tackled it on our own. 


We made a stop at the Mossyrock Shell station, and the poor gal at the counter asked if we had any big plans for the day.  :D   I feel like the conversation was pretty well done by my standards, and I think the agreement is that I would not be inviting Kevin and myself to come look in her barn for Barn Owls.  (If we get to July without a Barn Owl on our list... this agreement expires).
(Snipped from Google Maps)

From here we made our way to Morton.  It's  worth explaining the geography of all of this a little.  Riffe Lake is the largest body of water in Lewis County, sitting south of Highway 12.  The highway meets the lake at the east and west ends, but veers north to Morton in between.  So Riffe Lake is not visible from the south side of the freeway here, just 2700 foot Cottler's Rock.  

The fields to the southeast of Morton have had some good good bird sightings in the last few months, including Lesser Goldfinch, and Common Redpoll, so Kevin and I wanted to hit this spot in the early morning on the way to the East end of Riffe Lake. 

It was cold, and the walk was welcome.  We had a few Canada Geese (5) land in the field as we walked, also picking up House Finch (6), Fox Sparrow (7), Golden Crowned Sparrow (8),  European Starling (9), Dark-eyed Junco (10), Spotted Towhee (11), House Sparrow (12), Red-winged Blackbird (13) and Brewer's Blackbird (14).  
Geese over Highland Valley - photo Kevin Black

Continuing up Priest Road, we ran into some coniferous goodness and picked up Black-backed and Chestnut-backed Chickadees (15, 16), as well as Eurasian Collared-Dove (17), numerous Steller's Jays (18), California Scrub-Jay (19), American Crow (20),  Northern Flicker (21), Golden-crowned Kinglet (22), and Anna's Hummingbird (23).   Kevin picked up a Yellow-rumped Warbler that I missed (for the whole trip!  sure to get them in the future), and try as we might, we could not find any Common Redpolls. 

Kevin and the redpoll trees
(Shamelessly lifted from the WOS Newsletter)

It would be disingenuous not to talk about the trees.  Two days earlier, Kevin and I were walking Green Lake with our families.  Kevin spotted a tree and said "that looks like a redpoll tree" of the alder growing at the water's edge.  We found a whole flock of Common Redpolls there, feeding on the catkins.  Nice Code 4 bird for King County, and they were found twice on our CBC the next day. 

To quote Kevin Black from the WOS Newsletter in his article on the winter finch reports:

Common and Hoary Redpolls: Pittaway suggests that Common and Hoary Redpolls are more likely to move south this winter. He reports that White Birch and alder seed crops are below average in northern Ontario, which likely has spurred some movement south. As redpoll sightings have been on-going throughout the fall, this indicates a likely irruption year and redpoll sightings will continue to be seen throughout Washington. (WOS News 170)
So basically any tree now is a redpoll tree. We spent the rest of the day looking at every alder... every birch... every tree that had a finch in it... or a robin... or any leaf the size of a redpoll.   Two blocks later the sun went down on our big year.

I kid.  But Kevin and I had different approaches to the first day.  I stayed longer than I would have wanted an awful lot.  Kevin left spots earlier than he would have wanted and awful lot.  All in all, I think that together it will add up to an excellent year.  We're having laughs about it, and birding with a friend beats birding alone any day of the week.

Riffe Lake

From here, we made our way to the east end of Riffe Lake.  I'll quote again here, just because other people have already written about this spot, and have done so with experience behind them:

After turning onto Kosmos Rd., go to Champion Haul Rd. and turn left. Stop at the bridge over Rainey Creek (1.3 Miles) and check the pond and marsh on the left. Look for Wood Ducks and other waterfowl. Marsh Wrens and American Bittern are possible here. Continue another .5 miles to the parking lot on the right. Walk out to the lake and look for waterfowl, loons, grebes, and gulls. A few small ponds remain in the exposed lake bed when the lake drops, and is good for waterfowl and shorebirds. This area is also muddy in places. The flat open areas are good for American Pipits and Horned Larks during the fall migration. Caspian Terns sometimes can be seen in the spring. This section is best from mid August to November, with September being the most productive in species. The east end of Riffe Lake is a fall migrant trap, but spring time can be just as good.  All three sections are good from fall to spring, and has had the highest number of code 4 and 5 birds seen anywhere else in the county. 
This is from Dave Hayden on the Washington Birder website, where he included a site guide for birding along Highway 12 in Lewis County, as well as one for the north end of the county.  Kevin and I... I mean in retrospect, we were really just wandering around.  I just now read the site directions after the trip a little more carefully, and we may not have gotten to the best access.  Nonetheless, we picked up good forest birds as we walked down towards the Kosmos boat ramp:  Hairy and Downy Woodpeckers (24, 25), Brown Creeper (26), Pacific Wren (27), and Ruby-crowned Kinglet (28). 

At the bottom, we found scads of sparrows in the grassy fields, although no new species.   Imaginatively, we wanted to find Rough-legged Hawks, Horned Larks, Lapland Longspurs, and Short-eared Owls, but it was all pretty quiet this morning.  The one fun break was when we got to hear an American Dipper (29) singing from the rapids below.

As I was researching, however, I found two pieces of information, which put together are extremely interesting.  Without a single word of explanation from me:


So even as I'm writing this, and thinking of those grassy fields, Kevin and I have been exchanging texts about how poignant it would be to get a Short-eared Owl up there.

We hoofed it back up to Kevin's car and then visited the next boat ramp down - north of Taidnapam.   Setting up a scope on the boat ramp (many feet above the water at this point), we found a handful of Western Grebes (30) and a single Horned Grebe (31), a nice code three bird that we hoped to find at some point on Riffe Lake.

This whole time, I tried occasionally to call for Northern Pygmy-Owl.  I know they're a code 2 bird and shouldn't be too hard.  I know there may be better times. but I honestly just want to make sure to find one, rather than having to look for one, if that makes any sense at all!

We continued our search up the East end of Riffe Lake and found ourselves making a few wrong turns.

So... we wanted to just get to 5 (Lake Scanewa - named for a famous chief of the Upper Cowlitz tribe, also known as the Taidnapam), and made the first mistake by going over a bridge to 1 (although the river was fast and beautiful below), then finally found 2, (Conlay Road), but once we got to 3... we found three options:  Driveway, locked gate, or the road that appeared to go down to 4 (the falls).  We weren't entirely convinced that any of the above would have taken us to Lake Scanewa, but will likely make another go at this in another season.  Should be a good place for Ruffed Grouse some early spring morning.

Go West!

The hours were slipping away.  We'd hit perhaps 11 O'clock, and had 6-7 hoped-for stops before lunch in Chehalis.  This stretch had us simply driving back towards Mossyrock, and we picked up Bald Eagle (32) and Great Blue Heron (33) as we drove. 

Swofford Pond
Mossyrock Park - view of Riffe Lake

Lies.  We did not go to Swofford Pond.  At the time, we genuinely thought we were there, but Mossyrock Park is distinctly on the south side of Riffe Lake, and there's a right hand turn where Kevin asked, "Should we follow the sign to... Swofford."  Whoops!   Mossyrock Park was nonetheless a nice stop.  We had Double-crested Cormorants (34), and huge numbers of Cackling Geese (35) together with some Canada's.   Mixed in with the Song Sparrows was a pretty Lincoln's Sparrow (36).  Interesting to learn that we could have driven around this park, as the Parks Department allows people to open and shut the gate as needed. 

We had hardly just departed the Mossy Mini in two cars when we I pulled mine over.  Ducks!   The little ponds on the North side of the Highway had plenty of diversity - Ring-necked Duck (37), Hooded Merganser (38), American Wigeon (39), Mallard (40), Green-winged Teal (41), and a few Buffleheads (42).  It was a great stop, all things considered, and one we would make again.

Mossy Mini at right.  Ponds at left circled in red.  

Next we hatched a plan to...

See, that's a funny title because I said hatch... and we went to the trout and salmon hatcheries.  I'll give you a second on this one.  It's going to be even funnier because I explained it.  Fact.

We took Brim Road south of Highway 12, and found a sizable blackbird flock to pick through.  Nothing jumped out as a Yellow-headed or Rusty, but we will be in the business of checking blackbird flocks this year.  We also met some sweet sweet dogs that worried us when we first saw them, but were lacking in both bark and bite.

The trout hatchery, honestly was pretty quiet except for a Belted Kingfisher (43).  The good ducks were east of there at the Cowlitz Salmon Hatchery.  It's a little hard to set up a scope with the structures in the way (and that tree.  If you go there, and realize what tiny poorly placed tree I'm talking about, message me in agreement), but not impossible to pick through all of the birds, really. 

Lesser Scaup - Cowlitz Salmon Hatchery (Kevin Black Photo)
We found many Double-crested Cormorants on the Cowlitz, over a dozen.  Swimming around in the calm water over the manmade falls were Common Mergansers (44), Hooded Mergansers, Buffleheads, Common Goldeneyes (45), Lesser Scaup (46) and a Glaucous-winged Gull (47).  This is the most reliable spot to check for Barrow's Goldeneye, a tough code 2 bird.  There were none today, but we will surely be back!


Peregrine Falcon! (48) A nice surprise south of Onalaska
(Photo Kevin Black)
I wanted to get to Swofford Pond, and Carlisle Lake near Onalaska - both in hopes of finding Greater Scaup.  Right in the middle of the difficulty scale for Aythya ducks, Greater Scaup is a code 3 bird.  Lesser Scaup and Ring-necked Ducks are easier at Code 1, and there's always the hope that looking for Greater Scaup will lead to finding other diving ducks in that family:  Canvasback (code 3), Redhead (code 4) or Tufted Duck (code 5).   The Greater Scaup sightings are frequent enough to show at least some kind of pattern of where to look, and like the blackbird flocks, we'll be hitting these frequently.
The 225 foot Carlisle Lumber Company smokestack

Carlisle Lake is extremely easy to view, and had a good number of ducks - Green-winged Teal, Hooded Mergansers, large numbers of Common Mergansers, and a new bird for us:  Pied-billed Grebe (49), with three of them floating out on the North end of the lake. Fox Sparrows smacked away from the blackberries lining the lake.  "Lincoln's Sparrows."  I told Kevin as I went off to investigate.  Just another reminder to be careful calling some of those heard-only birds!

I got a picture of Kevin next to the smokestack for perspective.  Barely half of it is visible in the picture!  Onalaska was once the site of one of the largest inland lumber mills, but the Great Depression hit the company hard, and it closed in 1942.  The company actually tried to remove the smokestack, planning to break it up to use as silos, but dismantling a 225 foot monolith proved more difficult than they had imagined.  It remains as an historical monument, and is worth the visit.


I researched food pretty extensively before the year started.  One place that I wanted to try was Jeremy's Farm to Table.  Jeremy Wildhaber's family has operated a seasonal produce stand in Chehalis for over 30 years, and he has gradually built this restaurant up from scratch, which is also how he does his food.  Over the years, he's been using locally sourced products and making the things that many restaurants would have shipped to them.

Kevin and I happened to visit on New Year's Day when they were serving a buffet (as they do at most major holidays).  It's hard to talk about everything that was so amazing about this food, so I'll just talk French toast.  The easy thing to do would be to put some cream and sugar into a mixing bowl, and keep the whipped cream coming.  Maybe some maple syrup if you can get the Sysco truck to drop a bunch off the week before... whatever.  
New Year's Day Brunch at Jeremy's.  I didn't even go on about the biscuits and potatoes but could have!

Instead, there's these sauces.  (I'm viscerally upset right now because I didn't try the plum).  The apricot and strawberry sauces were done from scratch, and passed the shoe test, meaning I'd probably eat my shoe with that apricot sauce on it.  Strawberry?  Same. There was chocolate French toast as well, so I got a slice of that and added the chocolate hazelnut sauce (homemade.  shoe test.  check) and some of the sweet cream.  Sweet cream.  Not whipped cream, but - from the best I could tell/extract from the waitress and the internet - cream, cream cheese, and a little bit of acid (lemon?) whipped up together.  Shoe test worthy.   It took what could have been a sugar bomb (chocolate French toast with chocolate sauce and whipped cream?  are you kidding me?) and made it delicate and delicious.
Impromptu vegan goodness

And this wasn't even the best part!  I had let them know in advance that Kevin was vegan, and when we arrived, Jeremy whipped something up for him.  This vegetable saute had green beans, peppers, celery and mushrooms.  It was all cooked perfectly.  You kind of figure that a busy restaurant is going to do one of two things with vegetables to save time in a situation like this:  Rush it and send out crunchy vegetables, or have them done in advance and send out mushy ones.  Nope.  Perfect.  And the sauce was amazing!  Who was the one heading home from the buffet with a take home container because he was given more good food than he could possibly finish?  Kevin.

I'm trying to do a lot of things with the blog, and with this year.  Hopefully one thing I did here was to give you somewhere to stop on your way from A to B down the I-5 corridor.   Or what the hell, make this place B.  Worth it.

South and West from Chehalis

Kevin and I knew that we were running a little short on time.  2:00 had passed, and our list of wants was longer than our list of can-do's.  Since we were in Chehalis, we decided to skip out on most of the stops in and around Centralia.  I popped in directions to a swan sighting in Boistfort and we started out of town in Kevin's vehicle.
Trumpeter Swans - Highway 6

Reports had said that Tundra Swans were out in the Boistfort Valley, but we ran into another flock before we'd gotten very far out of town on Highway 6, West of Chehalis.   Good lord, it's easier to find swans than, say... a sparrow flock.  When we got out, they were being pretty vocal, giving the tin horn call of Trumpeter Swans (51.  I forgot to mention 50 - rock pigeon!).  
Poplar plantation

The birds, roughly 85 of them, were across the street from a poplar farm, and I had an exciting moment when a Red-tailed Hawk came racing out of the geometrically ordered "forest".  We'll call that 52, although we had seen Red-tails earlier in the day.  A Bewick's Wren singing in the field was species number 53 as the new habitat kept throwing new birds at us.  

We were unable to find any Tundra Swans in the mix, so we continued onward, towards the sighting location.  A field or two on the way got our attention, and we added American Kestrel (54) at one such stop. 

We were chasing daylight, so there wasn't really time to stop for pictures as we drove towards Boistfort, but it was absolutely gorgeous rolling farmland.  Apparently the area used to be home to one of the biggest hop yards in the state!  This I found on a sign which I photographed in haste, but you can read more here.  

Baw Faw Elementary (this makes sense if you read your link) was where we found the second huge group of swans, all 70 of them Trumpeters minus one or two suspicious individuals.  Mourning Doves (55), Kestrels and Scrub Jays played in the short trees separating the fields from the school itself.  Kevin reminded me to keep an eye under trees like those because it's exactly the kind of place one might find Northern Saw-whet Owls day roosting. 

Last stops

On our way back along Highway 6, we watched a grey ghost - a male Northern Harrier cruising over the fields.   56 species for the day!  We had enough light to make a stop at Hilburger Pond, a spot at the east end of the Willapa Hills Trail.  We found Canvasback (57) and Northern Shoveler (58) mixed in with the Ring-necked Ducks, Buffleheads, and Common Mergansers.   This is another spot we will be back to for sure (especially since we missed a Eurasian Wigeon in there!).  

California Scrub-Jay

With that, Kevin and I had seen our last species for the day.  We said our goodbyes as I got into my car at  Jeremy's, and I started up the slow traffic on I5, while Kevin started south with my phone on his passenger seat.

I figured this out... with slow traffic I actually had a long time to figure this out before I even hit the next exit up.   As I exited, I sat and enjoyed a view of a code 3 Merlin that I would not have seen otherwise!  (59)

Back to Jeremy's, phone calls made, phone returned.

On a post over the freeway as I went north again - Great Horned Owl! (60) and the day was officially done.  

Friday, December 22, 2017

Scouting run - Lewis County Christmas Bird Count 12/21/17

You know what someone ought to do...?

It's fun when people think imaginatively and then follow it up by acting with purpose. Today I got to see a little slice of that, making my way down for the inaugural Lewis County Christmas Bird Count.
Just for background, Christmas Bird Counts are annual events that take place across the country through local chapters of the Audubon Society.  The full explanation is here, from the Audubon site, but you should imagine the twelve people in that picture not all staring at the same bird, but working to cover a much larger area, scattered about for a good bit of the day and then returning with their data to tabulate, and their stories to share over pizza, chili, or whatever has been organized for that CBC.
Washington State Map with established Christmas Bird Count Circles

I have done the Kent-Auburn CBC for maybe 6-7 years now, and helped with others here and there, but Lewis County had never had a count circle... until this year!   Dalton Spencer, a high schooler from Adna, decided that this underbirded corner of the state ("It's... not a corner at all, Tim.  It's literally got counties on every side of it..."   "I know, Tim.  Shh.") needed its own count circle. 
A (very!) rough approximation of the Lewis County CBC Count Circle

I'm not sure how often high school students organize this kind of thing, but Dalton saw the need for it and just put it together.  (Go back and read the compiler instructions from the Audubon site.  You're not allowed to read more until you're impressed.)   So today, a dozen or so birders from Cowlitz to Kitsap to King Counties met at the Centralia Safeway to get assignments for the day.


It was hard for me to give away a full day to the birds when my own kiddos are off from school, so I decided to pitch in by getting an early start and doing some owling.

Owling (noun) - The act of looking for owls

Just thought I'd throw that in there.  Not every family of birds has had their name used this way.  Maybe I'll make thrushing a thing some day (yes... I see your little red squiggly line, spellcheck.  Wait on it... I'll win this battle).  For the moment, swallowing, ducking, and parroting still don't mean that you're... like... undertaking a very special process in order to find swallows.  You don't.  You just look at them.

Owling is something special.  For most birders, when I suggest a 3AM start for the day, they have other words for it besides "special".  I told myself to wake up in advance of 3AM, to allow plenty of time to look for owls, but I must have needed the sleep, as I didn't wake up until 3:30.  Ah well. 
Many houses had lights and nativity scenes
This was my favorite bit of d├ęcor, however.
(River Heights Road)

I "got ready", although in my desire to get out the door, wool socks and a scarf were left behind. I ended up finally pulling my car to the side of the road on River Heights Road, north of Centralia (The community is Galvin, a dot on my map, but not incorporated).  5:30 AM, and the stars were stunning.  It's always so weird to see the spring constellations high in the sky in December - Leo, Cancer, Gemini, Virgo.  

I followed a procedure that is pretty common for this kind of surveying - in areas not heavily birded, and with target species that are not particularly threatened in the area.  Stopping every half mile or so, I'd listen for a bit....whistle for small owls first, and if unsuccessful, call for larger owls.  One can have a bit more success by spending 10 -15 minutes at each stop, but I always start to get antsy about calling for owls for too long, and antsy about getting to enough places.  

Around River Heights Road, up Cooks Hill Road, then down Mattson Road to the end (which ends near "Cook Hill"... interesting!).  I got a surfeit of stars, a handful of phantom owl sounds that never repeated themselves clearly enough for me to be sure, and a single Barred Owl, calling "Who Cooks for you?" (From Cook Hill... coincidence?).

This was a lot of time for a single bird!  I don't regret it, but there is something fun about hearing the owls actually respond, and I knew I'd had better success on other mornings.  Here's what I figured out:  

This was me looking at all of my ebird records and figuring out when I have had different owls.  Here's my take on this:  I LOVE heading out to look for owls in January to start the year.  I'd bet I'm out there looking for them more, and despite that... it's not February.  February seems to be the best time to go look for owls, especially the little ones (saw-whet and screech).  So warmer weather may help a little, and get them calling a little more.  I'll still get out in January to try for some, but February will likely be the better month.

There should be a Barn Owl here

From Galvin Road, I returned to Harrison - the major North-South arterial which runs from Centralia all the way up to Grand Mound in Thurston County (think Great Wolf Lodge) - and took it North to Goodwin Road.  I'd heard word that there was a farm owner who had heard "hoot owls" from his property, so I went and called and listened for a bit, deciding in the end that the dog barking (his dog is actually a sweetheart - got to meet him again later in the day) was going to make it not worth the effort.

I passed two weirdos on the bridge over the Chehalis River, smirking a little, as I slowly figured out that they were quite likely also out on the CBC.  I got to the end of the road - parking for the Chehalis River Discovery Trail, and viewing point for Goodrich Pond - and took a dang nap.   

I... am pretty skilled at this.  Ten minute nap, and I'm good as gold.  That was about how long it took for the car to roll up to the parking area, and I discovered who had been looking out at the bridge.  Scott Ramos and Bruce Lagerquist are two birders from Seattle who had come down to Chehalis to help with the count.  They had the same thought as I had - why not do a little owling in advance?  To be fair, they had just arrived, and gifted themselves a good bit of sleep that I missed. 

Nonetheless, there was time before twilight would hit, so we tried in the fog for Great Horned, then went down to the trail and the riparian area to try for smaller owls.  As the sun gradually brightened the sky from below the horizon, the birds began to wake up, and we were treated to some quite vocal Bald Eagles, and scads of Golden-crowned Sparrows.

Names and faces

As the sun started rising, we realized we needed to skedaddle back into Centralia to meet up with the rest of the crew for the Christmas Bird Count.  This... ugh for me I won't be able to do this proper justice, but I'll try. 

We read about birds - paper or digital media, whatever.  Then we go out and we see birds.  It's exciting!  We have an abstract idea of this bird, and through some effort or serendipity are able to have that replaced with something abstract.  A bird!
Morning Clouds

For me, places are like this as well.  Any time I'm heading up a new road, looking at a hill, or a river that I've never seen before... any time I can change it from a blue meander on a map to a real river... from a collection of concentric circles to a real honest to god 1000 foot tall mound of earth separating me from Some Place on the Other Side of The Hill... I love this stuff.

If birds and places can do that, how much more so when we can put a face to a name.  I got to reconnect with a few people that I've met before in my birding, and also had a chance to put 5 or so faces to names.  I won't describe them like I described birds and geography above, because there'd be too much pressure to do them justice, so I'll just aim really low on description, and aim very high on accuracy:   It was nice.

Time to count

I hadn't really planned on staying for much, but reported my owls, and then slipped into a group that was headed north back towards Goodrich.  I found myself with Paul Hicks, Donna LaCasse, and Dan Froehlich.  Interesting that this Lewis County crew included people from King, Thurston, Pierce and Kitsap Counties!

Paul had spent a few days simply scouting the area, and had turned up a Brant in one of the fields off of Kuper Road, mixed in with some Cackling and Greater White-fronted Geese.  We arrived and found that it was a goose free field at the time (I checked later and found some cacklers).  We walked the roads a bit, peeking at ponds and pishing the bushes, but added few birds.  It was a cold and quiet morning, bird-wise, and things seemed slow to wake up.

We continued to Goodrich Road, where we met Dan.   Our initial exploration was not along the road, nor at the pond itself (which was nearly entirely frozen).  Paul had spoken to a few homeowners along the road, and more than one had extended invitations:  "Come look at our feeder!" and in the case of one farm owner, "Come bird my property!"
I'll be able to make a month by month calendar of bad car 
decisions at some point... Here's December!

Dan and I took my Taurus (the poor car... it's seen too many interesting places) down the driveway until the pavement turned to dirt.  From dirt, it kind of turned to grass, where the "road" had seen very little traffic from the owners.  The path narrowed, and finally opened up again into a large field.  We pulled up and birded the edges, finding a few sparrow patches, some kinglets and wrens (pacific and bewick's), a Red-bellied Sapsucker and some Anna's Hummingbirds.

There was nothing out of the ordinary, and eventually Donna and Paul finished their walk along the slough.  We tried circling back to see if some Swamp Sparrow-y sounds had actually been coming from a Swamp Sparrow.   Mourning Doves darted back and forth between tree tops while we tried without success to relocate it.

At this point, I was running a little late on returning home, so I gave the good people a warm goodbye, and made my way for home.   It wasn't a day that would "count" for the big year, which of course starts in a couple weeks, but I'd scouted a tiny corner of the county.  I'm excited to break out of the circle and see what I can find with Kevin on the first!

Monday, December 18, 2017

Lewis County Birds - by the numbers

I have many goals for 2018 in Lewis County, but the species goals will be the central goal that moves all of the others along.  A nice reachable goal will be 150 species for the year, just as a start.  Only three people have hit this mark before for a year, about twenty people have life lists that long.  175?  Only one person has done more than that in Lewis for a year:  Dave Hayden with 180 in 2010.   Nearly a dozen people have life lists over the 175 mark.  Life lists of 200 brings that down to 5 people!  With 275 birds on the county list, that's actually a pretty impressive feat.

I looked at this list pretty thoroughly, and I think that Kevin and I can do this.  We plan to keep the birding to only times when we can both make it to Lewis, but might have to be flexible on that point if a good chase comes up!

The list above has all of the birds that have been seen.  Included next to each is a code, which I'll explain here.

Code 1 birds:  88
Wilson's Warbler (Code1) - Chehalis Discovery Trail

Code 1 birds are the common birds that should be difficult to miss, given how much we plan to be birding the county.  These are your American Crows, Rock Pigeons, Mallards and American Robins.  There are few counties with so few birds in this category!   We should be able to clean up this group of birds fairly easily, although some will not arrive until they breed in the spring and summer.

Code 2 birds: 42
Wood Duck (Code 2) - Goodrich Road 

The list of code 2 birds is not a list that would accidentally get completed over the course of a year.  A person needs to try to find a Hermit Warbler, an American Dipper, a Greater Yellowlegs, or a Virginia Rail.  You just don't need to try all that hard.  Many of the Code 2 birds will show up over the course of looking for other species, but it's worth paying attention to them as we move along, especially with ones that have a small window when they are around.  Looking back at the Mason County year, I was able to get all but two of the code 2 birds, and even those got recoded to a 3 and 4.  Assuming this list is 95% accurate, I'd guess Kevin and I would fare just about as well.  Together, the 1's and 2's would make 130.

Code 3 birds: 36
Clark's Nutcracker (Code3) - Goat Rocks
Photo from eBird user Thomas Myers

I've hit about 80 percent or so on Code 3 birds in the past, although I'm wondering if Kevin and I might be able to do a little better?  These are birds that are sighted annually, but are difficult to find.  Sometimes they are birds that are very localized (Bank Swallows), not easily accessible (Pine Grosbeak), not numerous (Northern Goshawk), or have a small window when they are actually present (Western Sandpiper).  These birds will really be worth planning for and running after. 

80 percent of 36... uhh... my head tells me it's right about 29 (and yes, I have dealt with fractional birds before.  See Mason County in April/May).  Let's just say we have to hit... 26 of them.  I like throwing that number out there because it leaves 24 "good birds" that we have to find.  That will be birds coded as 4's and 5's and any birds beyond the first 26 code 3's.

Code 4 birds: 46
Northern Shrike (Code 4) - Centralia Steam Plant
Photo from eBird user Joshua Glant

These are birds that have at least 5 historical records over the years.  While some of these simply involve crossing fingers (will a White-tailed Kite make its way into the county this year?), some of them have patterns of occurrence that make it possible to almost think of them as a code 3.  In some ways, I would think of White-tailed Ptarmigan as a code 3, as they are in the county, but just a wee bit inaccessible.  This may be my favorite group of birds to think about.

Code 5 birds: 60 or so
Common Redpoll (Code 5) - Morton fields
Photo from eBird user Jason Vassallo

Code 5 birds must have been seen in the county before, but fewer than five times historically.  The number of birds on this list isn't all that important, but Kevin and I will always be thinking about the birds that could show up at any given time.  There may be a small number of these that are more common than others, but our searches won't necessarily be guided by them.

Spruce Grouse (not on the county list?) - PCT near Walupt Lake
Photo from eBird user Joe Veverka

We looked over the county list and saw a few birds that aren't on the lists from Washington Birder, but do have records in eBird (Brewer's Sparrow and Spruce Grouse), so those may get added in the end.  There are many other birds that aren't on the county list, but seem likely to show up in the county eventually.  Kevin and I came up with our best guesses for ones we might add to the list this year.

We had to pick six for our Fantasy Birdball (I'm sure I'll lay that all out at some point to clarify).  Here's the lists for each of us:

Tim:  Spruce Grouse, Lapland Longspur, American Tree Sparrow, Hooded Oriole, Black-crowned Night-Heron (seen in every county in the state so far except here), and Franklin's Gull.

Kevin:  Chestnut-sided Warbler, Brambling, Black-necked Stilt, Sage Thrasher, Emperor Goose, and Palm Warbler.

Who knows what we'll see!  and that... is part of why we do it!

Lewis County Birding

County Birding

I'm a county birder.  What does that mean
Birding is this kind of activity

First of all it means I'm a birder.  I think the more familiar term is "birdwatcher", which conjures up images of.. well, send me a message and tell me what image comes to mind when you hear "birdwatcher", but it's a passive sounding term in many ways.  Birding is active.  Birding is finding birds, and working hard to identify them.  Sometimes it involves lists (oh it does for me), sometimes it involves chasing down a rare sighting (I mean... not really for me, but I've heard it's fun).   I want to identify the birds that I see, and I'm actively out there trying to find them. 

The county tag on there means that I care about whether or not I've seen different species of birds in a given county.  Somehow, county birding in the state has been identified as the more gung-ho way of approaching this hobby, and people run off to corners of the state to try to bring their life lists in each of our 39 counties to 100, 150, 175, and 200 species.  "I could never get that deep into it,"  I've been told by people who care not at all about what county they're in, but would gladly drop what they were doing to chase a bird two hours away.

County birding includes this kind of activity as well (spreadsheet available at Washington Birder
Tucannon River - Columbia County

I had an amazing year in 2011 when I turned 39, attempting to see 39 species of birds in each of the 39 counties over the course of the year.  (The 39 counties blog seems to be only 95% intact.  Images have disappeared, and it is tied to an email account that will not let me manage it anymore.  There are still a ton of pictures,  and it's a fun introduction to the state.)  I was successful in the end, and continued the push until I got to 100 species in every county a few years later. 

"Fair warning.  It'll take you just as many years to get to 150," I was told by a fellow county birder.  I'm not great with warnings, and this statement got me thinking...  Thinking about the path it would take to make that happen - running around to the different corners again and again, and trying to time my visits to get a slightly different snapshot of the county being visited - I decided, "No."  I'm far too creative to take a process like this and take just as long to complete it as anyone else.

If I did things just right... I could take much longer.
Harlequin Duck - Pend Oreille County

Big Year Birding

Mason County - 2015

In 2015, I started a different approach to exploring the state, completing a big year in Mason County on the Olympic Peninsula.  One county at a time seemed like a beautiful way to tackle the challenge of seeing more.  It's inefficient on a grand scale, to be sure; Any tactical person just trying to "get this done" would continue to visit many counties each year, and would especially run after any rarities that came up (sometimes these rare birds are the only way to bring a small county up to 175-200 species).

One county at a time means that I'm not just passing through.  I'm not leaving corners unexplored.  In Mason County, it also meant that I was taken in.  I was adopted by a couple on a tree farm, got to know the folks at one of the commercial farms (where I was always able to get updates on the Barn Owls), went to the local festivals, had meals cooked for me, given free oysters, was invited onto numerous properties, shown hidden spots, led a field trip, and explored the county by foot, car, kayak, powerboat, and golf cart.
Warm welcomes - Mason County

I found so many birds that year;  I missed some as well, but came out of the year with zero regrets.  This was how I wanted to do it.  I was using the birds as an excuse to get to know people and places in depth, rather than using county lines as an excuse to simply make numbers and checklists grow. This was a year with an end that made the means very justified.

For the foreseeable future then, I suppose I'll be taking on one county at a time and continuing to blog about what I find.  This ought to keep me busy for another... oh 30 years or more!


In 2016, I completed a very similar year in Chelan County, making a run at 200 species for the year (nowhere near the record, but still not a bad year!)  I landed about where I expected, with 197 species in the end.  Chelan is a bit bigger, and a little farther away, and I would say I spent time with about half as many people as I did during my Mason trip.  If anything was missing, that was it:  the connections with people while I birded.  It wasn't absent, but it wasn't experienced as fully as it had been during the previous year.

In 2017, I "took a break" from focusing on single counties.  It seemed like a good idea at the time, splitting my trips between Snohomish and Yakima Counties.  In the end, this was not the year I had really hoped for.  I found 175 species in both counties, and I did get to spend wonderful time with family in both counties, but I felt thin.   I hadn't explored many corners of the counties, and the numbers themselves were not enough of a challenge to demand any creativity.  Sometimes more is not better!

Lewis County

Throughout this whole process, one birding friend has been a frequent copilot: Kevin Black.  The scattered "plan" of doing Yakima and Snohomish in the same year made it hard to plan much at all with Kevin, and we actually spent zero days birding together this year!  We got talking about this and have spent time off and on over the last year trying to come up with the right county for us to tackle together.  In the end, we decided on Lewis County.

Lewis County- thanks, Google!   

Why??  People who bird in the state with very little regard for county lines will accidentally find themselves in a few well-traveled spots time and time again:  Okanogan County for boreal species;  King, Pierce, and Snohomish Counties to chase rarities close to home; Clallam and Gray's Harbor Counties to find even more seabirds and rarities.   Over the Cascades on the East Side, Kittitas, Yakima, Walla Walla... all offer diverse habitat and birds that you just can't find on the wet side.

Some counties just end up underbirded, and Lewis County is one of those to be sure.  Lewis County has no salt water, touching neither Puget Sound, nor the Pacific Ocean.  It also has no contact with the Columbia River - a sometimes stopover for ocean loving birds during the fall.  These factors all mean that Lewis has a shorter species list than any comparably sized county in the state (barring Ferry County in the northeast corner - another county I considered tackling this year).
A dated, but intriguing map of Lewis County
from Roger Orness in Washington Birder
Summer 2003.  White-tail Kite sightings noted.

Lewis County does have some things going for it, however!   It touches two mountain ranges:  The Willapa Hills and the Cascades.  It is surrounded by large mountains (Mount Adams, Mount Rainier, and Mount St. Helens are all just outside of the county lines in different directions, and has some accessible habitat as well with the Pacific Crest Trail and the Goat Rocks Wilderness.  It has some farmland, some forestland, and a few large lakes.  Not counting some of the wide parts of the Columbia that have been given the "Lake" moniker, Riffe is exceeded in size only by Lake Chelan, The Potholes Reservoir, and Lake Washington.

Goat Rocks, Lewis County
Photo Andy Porter
Bird-wise, this is one of the places where Spotted Owls are hanging on, one of the places where Hermit Warblers can still be found reliably in their pure form, and one of the places where White-tailed Kites used to be found regularly.  The latter birds are not on my life list, and romantically, I'd love to be able to find a kite this year, especially as they seem to frequent some of the back roads that don't hold a whole lot of other birds of interest.

All the other stuff

I'm already hard at work trying to find ways to connect to the county and the people living there.  I won't type much about that here, as the stories of those people would best be told as I meet them firsthand.   I'm already excited by some of the small towns that dot the landscape there, and can't wait to pay them a visit.  Onalaska, Chehalis, Randle, Pe Ell, and Vader...

Birding with Kevin should be a treat.  We complement each other really well skill-wise.  I have really good ears for bird calls and songs.  Kevin on the other hand is quite a bit better than me with all of the little field marks and ageing birds.  Honestly, his ears are probably as good as mine too, but for the purposes of painting a picture of synergy and cooperation, we'll pretend that he really needs my ears out there.

Not just birds ;)

Stay tuned!  I'm hopeful that this post will at least paint a picture of just what the devil is going on this year.