Category Archives: My family

New bird added at the Aquarium, almost…

At the Seattle Aquarium this morning, I added a new bird for the year: Cassin’s Auklet.  My intrepid assistant was the first to spot it, and alerted me to pair of them diving (for frozen shrimp).

We did have a great time at the Aquarium, but of course birders don’t “count” captive birds in zoos, aviaries, or aquaria.  They must be “alive, wild, and unrestrained” to count for my year list.  Seeing Cassin’s Auklet from 6 inches away was an amazing treat though, especially since my most recent sighting in the wild was from the deck of a heaving ship at range of 100 yards, squinting through the fog with my spray-drenched binoculars.

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Mt Rainier Ptarmigan Adventure!

I knew White-tailed Ptarmigan was going to be a hard one.  If you want to see all of the regularly occurring birds in the US and Canada in a single year, you know that some birds will be easy, and other birds will be like ptarmigan.  White-tailed Ptarmigan are birds of the mountain West.  They prefer alpine habitat above the treeline, mainly above 7000 feet in Washington state.  While there are scattered records for ptarmigan from several locations around the state, there is only one place where they are seen more than just occasionally: Mt. Rainier.  So last weekend, Kristi’s mom watched the kids while we spent the day at Sunrise on the eastern flank this enormous dormant volcano.

We got up well before dawn, and arrived at Sunrise by 7:30am.  Earlier in the summer, several other birders had reported seeing ptarmigan near the end of the Mt. Fremont Lookout trail, a 6 mile hike with about 1000 feet of elevation gain.  Not a walk in the park, but totally reasonable.  We set off.

The views were spectacular.  We spotted some common mountain birds, like Horned Larks and Mountain Chickadees.

Lower down, the wildflowers were in full bloom.  I think the meadows reach their peak color in late August.

Frozen Lake was mostly unfrozen, with a medium patch of snow and ice still hugging the shore.  As we ascended higher, we spotted some mountain goats in the distance.

They were grazing and frolicking in a meadow down below our trail.  Although birds weren’t plentiful, the scenery was spectacular in every direction.

At last the lookout tower came into view.  This tower was used as a wildfire lookout for several decades in the middle of the last century.  Modern technology has rendered it obsolete in its role in fire detection, but you can still climb its steps and enjoy the view.

As we approached the tower, we scanned the hillsides for any signs of ptarmigan.  It was amazingly quiet up there, and we listed for any telltale ptarmigan clucks or whistles that sometimes betray their presence.  Half an hour passed, and checked the trail again going some distance in both directions from the tower.  We stopped and had lunch, and snapped a few more pictures.

Then more looking, listening, waiting, and watching.  Another half an hour passed, and then another.  We saw a falcon, perhaps a Prairie Falcon, harassing some ravens, and flocks of rosy finches flit from rocks to snowfields and back.  But no ptarmigan.  Finally, we decided to head back to Sunrise for the trip home.  Six miles, five hours, spectacular views, a great hike, and no ptarmigan.

I knew ptarmigan would be hard.  They are extremely well camouflaged and often sit inconspicuously among the rocks and heather.  The habitat up there doesn’t support huge numbers of them, and they move around from place to place in search of food.  My success rate in seeing ptarmigan in the alpine zones of Washington is only about 25%.  Unfortunately my window for viewing them seemed to be closing, as their high altitude habitat is only accessible during the summer months: mid-July through late-August is considered the best time to see them.  Fall snows will be coming soon to Rainier, and I left without seeing the ptarmigan.



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Olympic National Park: Mammals and Birds

We’re spending a few days on the Olympic Peninsula, and Kristi and I decided to spend the morning at Hurricane Ridge in Olympic National Park while her mom watched the kids back in Port Angeles.  We got up early, and enjoyed a great many mammal sightings (and a few birds).

This mamma bear and a tiny cub were foraging on a nearby hillside.  We watched from the car for a few minutes.  They were chowing down on some low-growing plants and flowers.  Kristi tentatively identified their favorite snack here as Martindale’s lomatium (can anyone confirm this?).

They were too cute.  Mid-July is the season of mammas and babies at Hurricane Ridge.  We saw pairs of mamma and baby bears, deer, grouse, ravens, and juncos.

This Olympic Marmot surveyed his domain from the entrance to his burrow.  We saw some severed marmot feet on the trail, so some carnivores are using these guys as a food source.

Deer were abundant and very tame.  We saw several dozen without even trying.  It’s obvious that the big predators (like wolves) that used to cull some of these deer are missing from the park.

Olympic Chipmunks were always scurrying around, looking for handouts.

My target bird species for the morning was Sooty Grouse, one of the larger grouse species in North America.  This bird used to be part of the Blue Grouse, which was split a few years ago into Sooty (western Washington) and Dusky (eastern Washington) Grouse.  We saw a mamma grouse and two fluffy chicks around milepost 5, and another set of mamma and chicks around milepost 12 on the main road.  Despite some good viewing through binoculars, the low light made photos difficult.  All in all, it was a good day.

Later on this week I’m leaving for southern California and southeastern Arizona.  More then!

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Eastern & Western Washington

It’s been great just spending a little time home in Washington state, enjoying our “early summer” weather (55 degrees and raining).  I had one free day last week, and decided to make a quick run across the mountains to do a little birding.

One of the few good things about getting up at 4am – the amazingly spectacular sunrises:

In less than two hours I was on Umtanum Road, southwest of Ellensburg.  This area is one of my absolute favorite places in central Washington.  The scenery is gorgeous, and the birds are usually plentiful.  I lucked into a nice male Bullock’s Oriole in the first 10 minutes.

This area is predominately sage brush, open Ponderosa pine forests, and some brushy riparian areas near the creeks (which were running high).  There were still some areas of wildflowers blooming amongst the sage.  [And Umtanum Falls was bee-free, Jonsies!]

I soon came to a little creek, where a Lazuli Bunting was singing his little heart out at the top of a small tree.

Other highlights were Western and Mountain Bluebirds – I saw dozens of them, including this nice male Mountain below.

I was a good trip, and I headed home around noon to do some errands and mow the grass.  I picked up most of my target species, but I dipped on White-headed Woodpecker – next time, Mr. Pecker!


I spent the weekend with my family on the Olympic Peninsula.  While the weather was mostly marginal, we enjoyed our time there.  Sunday morning was actually quite nice, and Kristi and I hiked the Geyser Valley trail in Olympic National Park.

This is one of my favorite hikes in the northern Olympics.  Bird highlights were Hammond’s Flycatcher, Warbling Vireo, and Western Tanager.  We also saw a Northwestern Garter Snake.

Despite its otherwise rich biodiversity, Olympic National Park is home to only three total species of reptiles – two of which are garter snakes.  It’s just too cold and rainy here for herps, I guess.

We wrapped up a visit to the Peninsula with a trip to Graysmarsh Farm in Sequim.

If you’re ever in the area, I highly, highly recommend a stop there between early June and the end of August.  They have (in rough chronological order of ripening): strawberries, boysenberries, blueberries, raspberries, blackberries, and marionberries.  The berries are delicious, and it’s easy picking – as opposed to many of the places around Seattle that are usually so picked over it’s hard to find a ripe berry.   We picked about 6 lbs of strawberries in less than 30 min with the kids “helping” – and it was less than $11.  You can also cut your own lavender there in mid-July.

All in all, it has been a relaxing couple of weeks.  I’ll be mostly around Washington state for another two weeks or so before heading to southern California and Arizona.




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