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.  

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