Monthly Archives: August 2012

iPhone + Spotting Scope = Oystercatcher

I spent a long weekend with my family on the Olympic Peninsula, and squeezed in a little birding around the edges.  Yesterday we visited Ediz Hook, the long sand and rock spit that encloses most of the Port Angeles harbor.  The kids dug in the sand and chased tiny crabs around the beach, and I alternately helped them and looked through my spotting scope to see if there were any cool birds around.

I did see a nice Black Oystercatcher, which was only 30-40 meters away.  Alas, I had forgotten my camera back at the house.  But I did have my phone, and it has a camera on it.  I got my first ever mobile phone in May, and now I suddenly saw how useful it could be.  I hand-held the phone up to my spotting scope eyepiece, and snapped a few pictures.  Ok, so these pics won’t win any photography awards, but I was pretty impressed with how good a picture a phone can take.

Technology has made an impact in several areas of my big year already.  I have been playing around with eBird, a joint project of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and the National Audubon Society (  Basically, eBird allows anyone to record bird observations – which species you saw, where, when, etc.  This database of observations can then be used to map the range, habitat, and seasonal distribution of each species. For example, here is the Washington (and lower BC) map for Black Oystercatcher sightings for 2012.

Darker shades of purple correspond to a higher density of sightings.  If you zoom in, you can see the exact locations and details of each sighting.

You can also see the whole checklist of what else was seen when the target bird was recorded.

If you like birds, or you like playing with data, then you should check it out!  If you like birds AND you like playing with data, here’s how you will spend several hours of your free time over the next month.

By the way, eBird tells me that I’ve seen 351 different species since my big year began in mid-June!  I’m over halfway to my goal in only a little more than two months, but of course it will get harder to add species as I see more and more of the common ones.  I’m planning an expedition to Mt. Rainier for ptarmigan in the next week, and of course I’ll be headed to New Jersey (and a few surrounding states) in September.


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Spruce and Sage – Part II

On my last day, I descended from the spruce forests of the eastern Cascades to the sage-filled coulees and arid canyons of the Columbia River valley.  I arrived at Moses Coulee just after dawn, and the air was cool and filled with the aromatic smell of sage.  I was looking for sage specialists here, especially Sage Thrasher and Sage Sparrow.  (Sage Grouse don’t live here, but I plan to look for them further west in March when they are at their breeding lek.)  Sage Sparrows are habitat specialists here in Washington, preferring healthy tracts of Big Sage – and Moses Coulee is one of a relatively few places which feature a protected stretch of this habitat.

At first it was nearly silent, but eventually I was able to get good looks at the thrasher, sparrow, and a couple of Rock Wrens (another target species of the morning).  By now it was warming up, and the kestrels were flitting around the cliff tops.  The forecast called for triple digits temps today, so I decided to hit a few other places before my brain started baking.

My next stop was Dry Falls, just south of Grand Coulee dam.  This was not really a birding stop (although I did pick up some hawks circling below me), but just a break to admire the view and stretch my legs.  My picture (below) simply does not do this area justice (unfortunately the view is to the east, and it was still morning so the photo is backlit).

Dry Falls is what remains from the biggest waterfall ever discovered on the planet earth.  About 15,000 years ago during the last great ice age, huge continental ice sheets reached down from the pole to cover much of northern North America.  One arm of this massive glacier reached out over modern-day Idaho and formed a giant ice dam that blocked the flow of westward-draining rivers.  The water backed up behind the dam, eventually forming a giant lake – what geologists call Glacial Lake Missoula – which covered much of western Montana.  At its peak, Glacial Lake Missoula contained as much as 500 cubic miles of water.  (Envision a cubic mile of water for a minute.  For comparison, Lake Washington contains about 0.7 cubic miles of water.)

At some point, the enormous amount of water behind the ice dam suddenly broke free, and those 500 cubic miles of water were unleashed across eastern Washington in a cataclysmic flood.  The water blitzed over and through the landscape at 60 miles per hour, with flow rates averaging 10 cubic miles per hour.  The entire lake emptied in a couple days, its water carving out many of the notable geological features of eastern Washington including the coulees, pothole lakes, and canyons that are collectively referred to as the “Channeled Scablands.”

Dry Falls was a raging waterfall then, almost four miles across with a 600 foot drop.  By comparison, Horseshoe Falls (the largest and most impressive part of Niagara Falls) is about half a mile wide and drops 170 feet.  It’s maximum flow rate is between 1000 and 10,000 times less than the amount of water that coursed over Dry Falls during the great flood.  Crazy.  If you’re ever in the area, check it out – it’s just south of Grand Coulee Dam, just off of US-2.

On with the birding!  I stopped at Potholes Reservoir just south of Moses Lake to look for shorebirds, and was rewarded with a passel of goodies, including dowitchers, yellowlegs, plovers, Baird’s Sandpipers, and a couple of relatively rare Stilt Sandpipers.  I met a very knowledgeable birder from Spokane who helped me puzzle out a few of the more challenging IDs.  By this point it was afternoon, the sun was sizzling, and I had a long drive home, so I packed up my spotting scope and headed west.  Eastern Washington was a treat, and I’ll be back later on this fall or earlier winter.




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Okanogan County’s Spruce and Sage – Part I

I spent three days last week in northcentral Washington, mostly in and around Okanogan County.  I found both spectacular scenery and spectacular birds, but not always in the same place.

I decided to drive over the North Cascades Highway (SR-20).  This is a fun drive through jaw-dropping natural splendor.  I spent the whole morning stopping and hiking in four different places from Rainy Pass to Washington Pass (pictured above).

While I couldn’t ask for better weather or views, the morning was virtually bird-free.  In my first HOUR of hiking, I recorded a total of two birds: one juvenile American Robin (Turdus migratorius, TJ!), and one (briefly and distantly seen) Golden-crowned Kinglet – both birds I can easily see out my window in suburban Kirkland.  An entire morning of bird watching netted me about 7 species, none of which were particularly rare or unusual.  Not great stats, considering a “good morning” elsewhere can be 50+ species.  Still, it was hard to complain walking through meadows like this one.

Why was my morning nearly birdless?  Well, several reasons.  The first is the time of year; mid-August can be a bit of the doldrums for land birding.  May and June are the height of the breeding season for most species in Washington, and birds are abundant and conspicuous then: singing and chasing mates and rivals, building nests, and feeding babies.  It’s much easier to find them when they are making a huge racket!  In July, many juveniles are leaving the nest and becoming independent.  By mid-August, the forest can be nearly silent.   Many neotropical migrants, who only spend the summer in Washington to breed, are already winging their way south to their winter beach houses in Mexico, Costa Rica, or Brazil.  Even birds that live here year-round are quiet, done with the noisy business of finding a mate and raising a family.

Another reason for my low species count is that high altitude montane forests tend to have lower bird diversity and density than areas lower down.  The living conditions there are harsh, and the colder temperatures make food less abundant.  Also, when the breeding season ends, many birds give up defending a particular territory and become more mobile, sometimes joining mixed-species flocks.  This means that their distribution through the forest becomes more patchy.  You might walk for an hour and see nothing, then stumble upon a flock of 20-30 birds which will move through an area, and then silence falls again.  If you don’t run into a flock, you are just having a nice hike and not really bird watching.

I spent the night in Winthrop, and then headed out the next day to a birding hotspot – an area that had burned to a crisp in the 2006 Tripod Fire north and east of Winthrop:

Yep, I passed up birding in the beautiful pristine forests of North Cascades National Park and Okanogan National Forest to drive deep into an area that had been ravaged by wildfire.  Why?  Because burns can be incredibly productive for wildlife.

For most of the 20th Century, we listened to Smokey the Bear lecturing us about the value of preventing forest fires.  While Smokey (and his “handlers” at the US Forest Service) had the best of intentions, the severe curtailing of natural forest fires in the American West had some unintended consequences.

Western forests have evolved to benefit from low intensity fires that periodically sweep through and burn undergrowth, fallen branches, and smaller trees.  This opens up the forest, allowing sunlight to reach the forest floor and new plant communities to spring up.  Some trees (like the Lodgepole Pine) have cones which only open and release their seeds in response to fire (the cones are sealed shut with resin that melts during the fire).  When small fires are suppressed, forests can grow choked with timber and undergrowth.  These unhealthy forests are then much more susceptible to large scale devastating fires which burn everything in their path.  Fortunately, the forest service has changed its management strategy in recent decades, but it will take a while for natural fire to return Western forests to a healthy state.  In the meantime, events like the Tripod Fire (which burned 175,000 acres) and the current Taylor Bridge (near Cle Elum) will continue on an annual basis.

Even despite the size and intensity of the Tripod Fire, I still found some good birds in the burn.  Beetles and other wood-eating insects move in and multiply rapidly after a major burn, drawing woodpeckers from the entire region to come in and feast.  In particular, hard-to-find woodpeckers like Three-toed and Black-backed are burn specialists, and love a good burn.  This particular burn is actually a little old for woodpeckers, but I found a Three-toed Woodpecker (my first of the year) close by.  An explosion of wildflowers were thriving in the sunlight underneath the burned snags, and dozens of Calliope Hummingbirds were zipping around.  Calliope Hummers are the smallest bird in North America – about 3 inches long *including their bill* and about 0.1 ounces (2.8 grams).  FOUR adult Calliopes together weigh less than my wedding ring.  Also present were Bluebirds, Townsend’s Solitaire, and Boreal Chickadees (like the one pictured below) in the burn or at the edge of where the burn meets the unburned forest.  There are four species of chickadees in Washington, and this one is my favorite.  Note the gray-brown cap.

The next day, I explored Forest Road 38, north of Conconully.  This is an unburned area, mainly spruce and fir forest.  My target for the day: Spruce Grouse!  Spruce Grouse have a reputation for being tame and nonchalant around people, but they are very difficult to find because of their relatively small population size and remote habitat preferences (montane spruce forests).  I ran into lots of interesting critters along the way, like Dusky Grouse (the eastside “cousin” of the Sooty Grouse I wrote about in my Olympic Peninsula post) and this Gray Jay that was close enough that I was able to snap a photo with my phone (my camera was in the car).

After six hours of looking, I eased around a hairpin turn on the rocky, dusty road and almost ran over a male Spruce Grouse!  I got great looks as he wandered around eating weed seeds and spruce needles.  When I went to grab my camera, though, he freaked out and flew off down the ravine, so sadly I have no pics.  Still, it was a great day up in the mountains.  I had one day left in my little Okanogan trip, and planned to spend it down in the sagebrush.


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Southwest Wrap-Up

I enjoyed my trip to the sun-baked American Southwest, but it’s good to be back in Seattle (where we are currently experiencing a little baking weather of our own, augmented by the fact that we have no air conditioning!).

Total bird species: 183

Total miles driven: 2229

Total miles hiked: 40 (approximately)

Favorite Place: Madera Canyon, AZ

Best bird: Red-billed Tropicbird

Biggest Miss: Mountain Quail and Pinyon Jay

Scariest moment: Engine trouble 80 miles off-shore

Road washouts that curtailed my birding: two

Road washout that I had to somehow navigate to make it back to the airport for my flight back to Seattle: one (pic below!)

I’m hanging out most of August with my family, picking berries with the kids, trying to get my house re-roofed (yea), and catching up on some house and yard work.  September will take me to New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and nearby states to explore Cape May and visit some schools.  More then…


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