SNOWY OWL!!!!! (and other birds near Seattle WA)

The essence of a megatick is to experience a moment that money can’t buy. Megaticks therefore typically require the chaser to go well beyond the usual birding norms. And that is exactly how I felt when I saw my first Snowy Owl just outside Seattle WA. Well yes, a Snowy Owl is not what one would classify as your normal megatick, and I didn’t really go beyond the usual birding norms of many serious birders. BUT, seeing this bird required some tremendous luck, while the closest most of us Africans will ever come to seeing Snowy Owls is spotting Harry Potter’s Hedwig. Here I share short notes on the experience, and also provide an overview of other birds I saw during my first visit to the Pacific Northwest. For the record, I think it’s appropriate to mention I also saw Emperor Goose (probably closer to a true mega than Snowy Owl), while I am also really really grateful for my girlfriend who allowed me to borrow her point-and-shoot camera, since my DSLR is broken :(

Snowy Owl at Ocean Shores WA, March 2012

Snowy Owl at Ocean Shores WA, March 2012

BACKGROUND

Snowy Owls irruptions occur every 3-6 years, mostly in relation to lemming population cycles in the high Arctic. Specifically, lemming bonanzas lead to superior breeding conditions, which result in extraordinary high Snowy Owl breeding success. Once Fall and Winter arrives, the elevated Snowy Owl population’s demand for food outpace the supply, and weak competitors (young, old, and sick birds) are forced away from their usual haunts to inferior areas further south.

2012 was an extraordinary year for Snowy Owls in southern Canada and the US’ lower 48 states. Some locations hosted spectacular owl abundances: Boundary Bay outside Vancouver had at least 31 owls at a time, while Ocean Shores near Seattle hosted 13 owls at times. While this irruption was by far not the biggest ever, the extent of the invasion was noteworthy. The midwest received some of the highest numbers ever, while some owls were seen as far south as TexasArkansas, and even Hawaii. (Tough to understand the prompt shooting of the Hawaiian owl, when many airports seem to be able to manage the Snowy Owl ‘problem’ year after year.) Things were a bit different here in the southeast, especially in the Carolinas. One bird from Kershaw county SC was reported on a radio show, while another was reported from Lamar SC several weeks after it was seen. But, being birds of open flat countries, snowy owls mostly skipped the forested and mountainous southeast.

Knowing this year was one of the best to see Snowy Owl, I trawled the internet like a hawk looking for nearby Snowy Owls. But, as the weeks passed, so did the chances for Snowy Owl in the southeast, prompting me to consider my first serious twitch here in the USA. But, after looking at the options it became somewhat clear that I missed the boat. Even relatively accessible birds such as New Jersey’s Merrill Creek Reservoir owl seemed to have moved on. I had little choice but to give up, hoping that one day I’ll have another chance. As I lost essentially all my hope to be part of the 2012 Snowy Owl party, a meeting in Seattle appeared on my calender.  The birders from Washington didn’t seem too interested in ebird, but the sporadic reports from Ocean Shores near Seattle together with regular reports from multiple individuals from Boundary Bay outside Vancouver just north of the Canadian border gave me some hope that I might see my first free-ranging Snowy Owl on this trip. I started counting the hours…

 

LOGISTICS

Useful resources

  • Dunn, J.L. & Alderfer, J. 2006. National Geographic Field Guide to the Birds of North America. National Geographic Society. Washington, DC.
  • Ebird, together with the iphone App BirdsEye
  • The Tweeters list is Washington’s email birding forum. I was however surprised by the inactivity of this list, compared to other larger states in the US. Many trip reports posted were from out-of-state birders, and WA birders seldom respond to RFI (unless there’s a culture of responding offline rather than over the email group).
  • An alternative email group for Washington is Inland-NW-Birders for areas east of the Cascades.
  • Ebird (with seasonal abundances) also proved useful on this trip, though WA birders were equally lethargic to log their sightings here. For example, according to Ebird’s records nobody saw Snowy Owls at Boundary Bay between 4/8/2012 and 4/22/2012  - hardly possible considering the amount of birders I saw during my brief visit.

 

Visas, transport, and accommodation

I (South African citizen) was on a F-1 student visa in the USA. Most visitors probably need visas to enter the USA; case-specific information is easy to obtain.

Like elsewhere in the USA, transport and accommodation options are abundant and easy to obtain in Washington. To save money I birded by day and commuted by night, sleeping in the car as needed, which worked well. During the first part of the trip I rented a car through Avis, from the airport. The second leg of my trip (after my meeting)  I rented a car from the Hertz office in downtown Seattle, and dropped at the airport with no extra fees.

 

DAILY LOG

Day 1: April 22, 2012

Needless to say, the plane ride could not end sooner. As soon as I arrived at Sea-Tac Airport, I collected my car and were off to Ocean Shores hoping that at least one Snowy Owl were still present. Looking for suitable habitat took quite a bit of time, mostly because I misinterpreted an old map I found on the internet that pointed to the best areas for Snowy Owl. But, even after I found the suitable areas that can be seen in photographs on the southern portion of Damon Point, my hike still produced nothing. Enquiries from a few people with cameras also yielded nothing new as few people were aware that the Snowy Owls were still if ever present. While chatting to a photographer and his wife strolling the beach, I decided to go look for a Rock Sandpiper at the nearby Point Brown Jetty before trying my luck again with the owls. As I scanned over the suitable open plain in front of me one last time, I caught a brief glimpse of a big white bird flushed by a couple of non-birders I asked about the owls earlier. BINGO!!!! Connecting with this juvenile Snowy Owl in the far south-eastern end of the point, I was a bit surprised how well camouflaged these owls were on the driftwood. But I truly didn’t care, as the photographer and I appreciated this owl for maybe an hour or so. Now that I knew where the owls were, I decided to make a large loop through the grassland from where the owl was originally flushed, and eventually saw one more juvenile, and a all-white adult on some driftwood close to the ground. I ended up being the last person to see the owls, at least according to Ebird. Apart from the Snowy Owl, other birds seen at Damon Point included a couple of Thayer’s Gull, Ring-billed Gull and Glaucous-winged Gull, Red-breasted Merganser, Common Loon, a single Peregrine, Bald Eagle, and an injured Surf Scoter that was carried by some guy to his car???.

With the owl in the bag and feeling that if I didn’t see anymore birds during this WA trip I would be happy, I pushed on to Point Brown Jetty where I rather easily saw Black Scoter while searching for my main target, a single Rock Sandpiper foraging on the rocks that extended out into the ocean (the sea was a bit rough, so I’m sure the people nearby thought I was a bit crazy to walk out on the rocks). Thereafter it was time to go look for a Emperor Goose that over-wintered on the Ocean Shores’ Golf Course, but failing at that, and with sunset creeping closer, I eventually decided to head on over across the Cascade Mountains towards my target birds I was aiming to see the next day. A quick nap in my car at some parking lot along Hwy 97 yielded some very noisy Great Horned Owls, before I continued on towards Leahy.

 

Day 2: April 23, 2012 

The main aim at Leahy was finding an active Greater Sage-Grouse lek. Finding the lek was very easy, and I counted 19 grouse in total, most of them males. After I finally spotted the Vesper Sparrow that tried very hard to be noticed, I was off to Scotch Creek Wildlife Area targeting mainly a group of Sharp-tailed Grouse regularly reported. But, after driving the road through the Wildlife Area about 3-4 times, scanning every corner of the agricultural areas where the grouse are supposed to hang out, I still missed the grouse. So, after seeing other fowl such as Grey Partridge and Ring-necked Pheasant, as well as American Kestrel, Violet-green Swallow and both Western Bluebird and Mountain Bluebird, I was off towards the Okanogan Highlands, spotting a few Chukars en route on Fancher Road near Tonasket.

I spent most of my time in the Okanogan Highlands on the Mary Ann Creek road near Chesaw, with a few loops onto Beyers Road. The plan was to look for some grouse (specifically Sharp-tailed and Dusky) during the day, and some owls (Great Gray, Northern Saw-whet, Northern Pygmy-Owl) at night. Finding grouse was rather easy, with Ruffed Grouse being the first and second bird I saw on Mary Ann Creek. While still welcome, it wasn’t my main target so the search continued. Despite my inability to find other species of grouse on Mary Ann Creek Road, an immature Golden Eagle offered the best views of this species I’ve seen so far, while a group of three American Three-toed Woodpecker was also a very welcome addition to the day-list. Waterfowl was also very prominent on Mary Ann Creek road, with Gadwell, Green-winged Teal, Ring-necked Duck, Bufflehead, and Barrow’s Goldeneye all very well seen, while Red-winged Blackbirds and Yellow-headed Blackbirds dominated the reedbed bird community. But yes, after many hours of searching I left Mary Ann Creek with none of my grouse or owl targets, en route back all the way to the Olympic Peninsula for the next day’s birding expedition.

 

Day 3: April 24, 2012 

My first destination on the Olympic Peninsula was  the Dungeness Landing County Park, hoping to find Emperor Chen and Empress Canagica, the two overwintering Emperor Goose. After a bit of searching I finally spotted the two Emperor Geese from the car park on a spit opposite the Oyster House among hundreds of Brant, American Wigeon, Northern Pintail, and a few Western Gulls. Thereafter it was time hitting the Olympic National Park, picking up Northwestern Crow in Port Angeles on the way.

Being National Park Week, I was a bit worried that my birding adventure to Olympic National Park might be complicated by large amounts of other visitors (always good for conservation, but not so much for birding). However, as it turns out, I had Hurricane Ridge almost to myself due to some late snow and thick mist that made hiking difficult. Despite the weather, birding was productive in the lower reaches of the Hurricane Ridge road, with multiple individuals of Band-tailed Pigeon, Stellar’s Jay, and Varied Thrush present in the magnificent Douglas Fir-Western Hemlock dominated old-growth lowland forests. Birding quieted down spectacularly above the snow line, with the birding community consisting mainly of singletons of Northern Flicker, and small flocks of Dark-eyed Juncos feeding on the roadside. My main aim at Hurricane Ridge was Sooty Grouse. However, despite this being apparently one of the easiest places to record the grouse, actually seeing them turned out quite the challenge. Hearing the deep booming of male Sooty Grouse was never a problem, with about six males calling in the vicinity of the snow line. But seeing these guys sitting in treetops of this dense Silver Fir-Western Hemlock montane forest was a different matter. My first strategy was to drive up and down along the montane forest of the Hurricane Ridge road, hoping for a grouse crossing the road. But after doing this 4 times I understandably felt the strategy wasn’t working, so I started looking for a way to get myself into the steep forested terrain. But even after getting myself into the forest and scanning treetops for about 2-3 hours, time ran out so I left the national park empty-handed, already planning my next trip here after my Seattle meeting.

 

Day 4: April 27, 2012  

 As soon as my meeting ended around 2pm on the Friday, I was off to the Herz office to collect my car, and on my way to Olympic National Park via the Edmonds-Kingston Ferry. Not much has changed from at Hurricane Ridge from my first visit – steep terrain, few other visitors, and Sooty Grouse booming from treetops near the snowline. Having more time to look for the grouse was however a significant positive difference compared to my first trip. So, as before I entered the steep forested terrain as soon as I could, positioning myself underneath a tree from where a grouse was calling. And again, after about an hour of scanning the tree from ever-expanding concentric circles around the tree I was frustrated by dense canopy obscuring my views. I then managed to find another bird near a valley, which offered an opportunity to scan a tree not completely surrounded by other equally tall trees. And BINGO! Success. Though not the best views, I even managed to see the white collar of this Sooty Grouse as it was displaying from the highest branches of this tree. With this birdie in the bag, I thought of making one last trip to the top of Hurricane Ridge to appreciate the snow-covered terrain. While I never saw any Mountain Goats or Olympic Marmots, ironically, my drive down the 17-mile Hurricane Ridge road at dawn produced no less than four Sooty Grouse crossing the road! Funny how this birding hobby sometimes plays itself out…

 

Day 5: April 28, 2012  

My last day in Seattle wasn’t going to involve too much bird-watching since I had to grab a plane flight at 10am the morning. Getting up early did however offer me a couple of hours at the Kent Road Ponds near the Sea-Tac Airport. Most notable bird here was a single Nashville Warbler among more numerous Audubon’s Warblers, while multiple Savanna Sparrows and Lincoln Sparrows were hopping on the roadsides. The waterbird scene was rather quiet, mostly consisting of Northern Shoveler, Greater Yellowlegs, and Canada Geese. I’m sure I would’ve seen more if I had more time doing more extensive scanning.

 

ANNOTATED BIRD LIST

I didn’t keep detailed notes of the birds I saw on this trip. The most notable highlights were however mentioned in the trip report above

 

BIRDS I MISSED

Owls: I seem to really struggle with this group of birds in the USA. I know that Great Gray Owl and Boreal Owl can be seriously tough. But I don’t understand how I fail to see and Long-eared Owl, Northern Pygmy-owl, and Northern Saw-whet. Washington seems to be really good for owls, considering the Washington Ornithological Society’s “Owls by Day” field trips! But I guess it’s all about timing – it’s going to be really hard seeing owls at night when they’re not displaying.

Sharp-tailed Grouse: They’re a bit on the periphery of their range in the Okanogan Highlands. But they’re frequently seen there, and I also saw the signs pointing out their protected areas. Despite driving up and down the roads where they should be I sadly dipped. I guess a bit unlucky, but I also didn’t want to run through private grasslands trying my luck at flushing them.

Dusky Grouse: There’s a small isolated population of this bird usually associated with the Rockies in the Okanogan Highlands. Tried, but failed.

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