Saturday, January 12, 2019

500, Again

"Well, you won't be seeing as many birds, that's for sure."

That sentence, or at least that sentiment, seemed to be what most folks felt the need to tell me in the months leading up to Mason's birth in October 2017. From some it felt like a cautionary admonition: you won't have time to waste on silly things like birding any more. From some it felt like condolences: sorry you won't get to have hobbies now. Either way, the point was clear: your life is going to change, and birds are going to be one of the first fun things to go.

I usually just smiled when folks made these comments. I had a sense they were off the mark, but I didn't have any way of knowing for sure.

And my life did change.

But what people don't tell you is that, for all the change that comes, you are still the same person as a parent that you were as a pre-parent. Life gets fuller, no doubt, and a little sleepier. But lo and behold, my desires and habits and personality before becoming a dad look very similar still today. I could still eat tacos every day. I'm still an unashamed introvert. I still need regular time outside to be a contributing member to society.

Enter, 2018, my most unexpected year of birding to date.

In 2018 Mason grew from 2 to 14 months, a time span that included gathering new skills like walking and climbing and babbling with a purpose not quite yet matched by diction, and a lovely 3 month sleep revolt during our busiest time of the year. I taught 4 undergrad classes on top of my normal work. I picked up a new hobby, running two half marathons and over 500 miles. Jen and I even had a few dates along the way.

And, somehow, I saw 500 birds. Again.

Perhaps the primary similarity to the first time I saw 500 species in a calendar year (2014 was the year) was that, when the year began, I absolutely didn't see it coming.

Since 2014, I've been in a nice groove of seeing 400 species a year: 440 in 2015, 433 in 2016, and 439 in 2017. This involves a pretty straightforward formula of birding the home state well, and getting to take a trip or two to another part of the country.

But 500 requires more. In 2014 I birded Illinois hard, had a couple trips home to Washington, then time in Florida and southeast Arizona to make it happen. I made time to blog the whole thing, too. In 2018 I birded Oregon more than I had before (322 species is my highest state year list ever), then had trips to Texas, California, and Nome, Alaska to make for a final tally of 500 species on the nose. If there was one thing that I did not do in 2018, it was blog. That appears this has bothered a total of no one. But, it was quite the year, and it deserves a post, so here's a rough and tumble recap.

Strong start in Oregon

A rather impressive group of birds gathered in Oregon at the beginning of 2018, and I tried to see as many as possible. By February 9, I had seen White-winged Crossbills, Common Redpolls, Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, Virginia's Warbler, Ruff, Steller's Eider (lifer!), and Emperor Goose (lifer!). Of that group, Common Redpolls are the only species I saw elsewhere over the course of the year.

Steller's Eider (found by Adrian Hinkle)
Seaside Cove, Clatsop Co, OR
January 20

Emperor Goose
Deschutes Co, OR
February 9

I took a quick camping trip to Eastern Oregon in March to snag a couple easy state lifers, and in the process I found my own Northern Saw-whet Owl on a roost for the first time and saw my only Harris's Sparrow of the year. 

Northern Saw-whet Owl
Umatilla Co, OR
March 9

Migration on the Texas Gulf Coast

By April 19, I was at 201 species and had not yet set foot outside of Oregon. After a quick family reunion in Texas, I returned to Oregon on April 23 with 364 species.

This was the trip that changed things for the year list. I was thinking we'd maybe see 200 species, hopefully 15 warblers. We saw 215 (many photos here), and 27 warblers. It was the flurry of Golden-winged, Mourning, Cerulean, and Canada on the final morning that first got me thinking that 500 could be an outside possibility. The crown jewel of the trip was this surprise, even a state lifer for my dad!

Violet-crowned Hummingbird
Corpus Christi, Nueces Co, TX
April 23

California Dreamin'

After a pretty normal May of Oregon birding I was sitting at 399 for the year, which was just enough for me to start crunching numbers. With 11 days in California to start the month of June quickly approaching I combed through eBird filters and maps and realized that, if I made the most of my time there, I could maybe add 40 more year birds in Cali, maybe even double digit lifers.

Jen flew down to a conference in LA, we spent a few days with friends, then she flew home out of San Diego. Before, during, and after this, I executed one of my crazier birding feats, similar to my cross country adventure in 2015.

The numbers kinda tell the story. 220 species (many photos here). 87(!) state lifers, bringing me up to 273 for CA. 12 lifers, bringing me to 647 ABA birds at the time. And 41 year birds, bringing me up to 440 for the year.

The ABA lifers provide a skeletal sense of the itinerary:
  • Ridgway's Rail and Black Rail at China Camp State Park in the Bay Area.
  • Bell's Sparrow on the entrance road at Pinnacles National Park.
  • California Condor on the High Peaks Trail at Pinnacles—an absolute BEAST of a trail in the middle of the day for an absolute BEAST of a bird. This was probably my most rewarding lifer ever.
  • California Thrasher at Carpinteria Bluffs Nature Preserve—got nice scope views, but I'm looking forward to spending more time with this species on future trips to Cali.
  • Scaly-breasted Munia at Biola University, site of the conference.
  • Red-crowned Parrot at O'neill Regional Park. Yay established invasives.
  • Black-vented Shearwater on a two hour whale watching trip out of Newport Beach, which was completely overshadowed by lifer BLUE WHALES! It was such joy getting to share this experience with Jen, Mason, and our dear friend Rachel.
Blue Whale
Orange Co, CA
June 8
  • California Gnatcatcher at Dana Point put on quite a show!
  • Lawrence's Goldfinch at Cuyamaca Rancho State Park, 100% as cool as I anticipated.
  • Yellow-footed Gull at Salton Sea! They hadn't been reported in the area so far this year, so I was thrilled to find one, another very rewarding moment.
  • LeConte's Thrasher at Harper Dry Lake showed way better than I anticipated, an incredibly satisfying cap on a trip in which I found all 12 of the lifers I was seeking!
Yet for all the lifer success, and all the incredible California terrain I covered from desserts to mountains, one moment from the trip still stands out above the rest. Deep in the San Bernardino Mountains one evening I was listening to a Mexican Whip-poor-will call—an excellent state and year bird, but nothing compared to what was about to come. An SUV pulled up and out popped Roger Woodruff, a birding friend whom I hadn't seen in years! I soon learned that he and a friend were on a mission. I joined for the mission, and a few minutes later we were looking at this beauty:

Spotted Owl
Right Place
Right Time

It was one of the most surprising and serendipitous experiences of the entire year, quintessential birding. 500 wouldn't have happened without it.

On the heels of California I was able to take a quick weekend whirlwind trip through Eastern Oregon. The point of the trip was mostly to build my Oregon year list and see a few new-to-me places over there. In the process I added 13 ABA year birds, 11 of which I wouldn't see anywhere else the rest of the year. 500 wouldn't have happened without it.


The first week of July arrived, and my year list sat at 454, and a week long trip lay ahead that was far bigger than any numbers could contain. Nome.

My first trip to Alaska came when I was 13, a whopping 17 years ago now. A rather quick tour through Anchorage, Seward, and back out to Denali National Park, that week left a lasting impression on me. I remember being blown away by the scenery on the shuttle ride from the airport to the car rental location, and from that moment on I was utterly enthralled as I was swept up into days that never grew dark and a world wilder than I knew existed.

I took my family's first digital camera on that trip—a 4 megapixel Panasonic point-and-shoot. Somewhere in the process of taking grainy-but-memorable photos of Moose and Gyrfalcons and Humpback Whales and Grizzly Bears, an interest in nature photography blossomed. More than any other experience, that trip is the reason why photographing the natural world is still a hobby of mine.

I had been dying to get back to Alaska ever since.


Running on the patchwork of an hour and a half of accumulated "sleep," mostly on an oddly shaped bench in a SeaTac terminal, I groggily stepped onto an early morning Alaska Airlines flight.

The idea was to get some sleep, but when I boarded I made the mistake of beginning Noah Strycker's 2015 World Big Year tale, Birding Without Borders. His story paired with some coffee made for a jolt of adrenaline sufficient to keep me up for the first leg of the flight. Reading of someone else's birding adventures (and misadventures) in far flung corners of the world stoked the flame of Nome excitement all the more, and before I knew it the very snow peaks that stirred my enthusiasm all those years ago were appearing out my window as we descended into Anchorage.

On the layover I met up with my dad and our friend Gary. Gary is the reason this whole trip happened. In a remarkable act of generosity he offered to take my dad to Alaska, and when the idea of Nome came up, my dad then offered to buy my ticket to make it possible for me to go too. It's an incredible gift for which I'll forever be grateful.

With another cup of coffee in hand I paged through The Arctic Guide and The Birders Guide to Alaska, trying to glean any relevant details I could find. Birding in brand new places takes a good deal of study and preparation. It's one of my favorite parts of the hobby, actually. There's no substitute for field experience, but having a sense of what to expect where and when goes a long way towards making a an unfamiliar place a little less daunting. Nome was still daunting to me, though. In the months leading up to this trip I spent time working through these books, perusing blogs from those who had wandered this way before, and mining eBird's wealth of data in the form of bar charts and species maps and target species lists. Of all the corners of the internet, it's not a bad one to occupy.

The flight from Anchorage to Nome was quick. The bulk of Mount Denali and its surrounding beauty was surprisingly out to be enjoyed. But after a while the land retreated as we made our way over a body of water completely new to me, the Bering Sea. We flew along the south shore of the Seward Peninsula for some time, until the first and only town along that stretch appeared. Nome.

Somewhere in my years of dreaming and hours of studying about Nome, I had mistakenly conjured up an image of a relatively flat, barren-looking land. I assumed arctic tundra implied a lack of elevation. So as we made our descent I was amazed to see the terrain rise up into rather mountainous formations not all the far from town. My eyes grew wide and my heart began to pound.

Our plane had been on the ground and taxiing for about 30 seconds when I got my first bird for Nome. An adult Long-tailed Jaeger loafed along the tarmac in its textbook buoyancy, whirled around a time or two, and took off. An Arctic Tern followed suit. I had not reached the terminal and was already thoroughly charmed.

We touched down around noon on July 7 and left midday on the 12th. In the two half days and four full days we had to explore, we tallied 112 bird species (including 10 lifers) and 11 mammals (including 3 lifers). If you just want the pics, check out this album.


There were a few moments and photos from Nome that seemed to capture the essence of the whole trip. For instance, the very first photograph I took was of this point-blank Muskox just on the outskirts of town.

Nome, AK
July 7

Mind you, I was running on an excessively small amount of sleep at this point in the day. My fuzzy mind was not ready for a herd of lifer Muskox this quickly and easily. So it was in a bit of a daze that I moved back and forth between my camera and binoculars to take in these odd looking, hairy creatures. A jaeger from the plane and a Muskox in our first minutes on the road was evidence enough—there would be no easing into Nome. And the onslaught only continued.

Our next stop, the Nome River Mouth, was without a doubt our most productive birding location of the trip. Just 4 miles east of town, it was an easy place to check nearly every time we left or returned to town, so we wound up visiting it more than a dozen times during our stay. Upon our arrival, it didn't take long for the first lifer of the trip to show itself. I scanned through a pile of gulls, mostly Glaucous, then came upon terns, mostly Arctic. But then one of the terns was different. A slim bird with silky gray wings that bled into a similarly colored body, sporting its diagnostic black bill and white forehead—Aleutian Tern! There turned out to be more than a handful of them flying a bit further off, and we took our time soaking in this stunningly elegant bird. With Aleutian in the name, we were reminded once more just how far north we had made it.

And the Siberian species that followed it signaled to us just how exotic our time in Nome was going to feel. As we drove around to the bridge near the river crossing, a funny, new-to-us call caught our attention. A raspy cheeep, I suppose. It took a little while to get on the bird as it seemed to be on the move continually; but once we discovered it flitting back and forth above us there was little doubt as to what it was. Eventually the bird dropped down to a perch near its partner, and we enjoyed views of our lifer Eastern Yellow Wagtail! Much to our delight, we saw many of these over the following days, each time in this exact same manner: calling, flying overhead, and in pairs.

Eastern Yellow Wagtail
Nome River Mouth, AK
July 7

But it was this first pair that was particularly meaningful because it wasn't just any ol' lifer, it was my dad's 700th ABA bird! 700 is really a milestone mark in the ABA area. It was so fun to get to be together for this momentous occasion—what a bird and what a place for it to all come together!

Celebrating Dad's 700th ABA Bird
Nome River Mouth, AK
July 7

Cape Nome was next on the itinerary, another especially fruitful place for us right out of the gate. After scoping over the Bering Sea for a few minutes, a couple murres flew by. Elongated, with a dark brown-black above contrasting starkly with their white underparts, they were obviously Common Murres, a bird I regularly see by the hundreds off the Oregon coast in Summer. But every once and a while a group of two or three of these birds would fly by with a stockier friend in the mix. Its build, partially due to its body shape and partially an artifact of its stubbier bill, in addition to its jet black back, made this bird stand out far more than I anticipated: my lifer Thick-billed Murre! My dad had just seen them for the first time a few days prior on a boat trip, but these were significant to me as they represented a personal milestone: my 650th ABA bird!

And before that could even sink in, 651 showed up in the scope as one Common Eider, then another Common Eider, and then a whole raft of Common Eiders appeared. In keeping with the first half of its name, I knew this was going to be the easiest of the lifers I would find on this trip, but that didn't keep me from enjoying it thoroughly! We saw these in good numbers daily over the course of the week, and each time I was blown away anew at just how massive these sea ducks are. As I kept scanning, a young male King Eider emerged in the group, a bird that we knew would be tougher in early July. A very nice addition to our trip list, and a lovely introduction to Cape Nome!

Then it was off to Safety Sound, which is large enough that one could easily spend an entire day birding the area and not see everything it held. Being just our first afternoon in the area, we figured we'd poke around for a bit to get a sense of the area before heading back to town for dinner. More wagtails flew overhead and our first dapper Lapland Longspurs of the trip were quite ubiquitous. Semipalmated Sandpipers ushered their families around roadsides and parking areas. A Eurasian Wigeon stood out in a flock of dabblers, Black Turnstones made a quick pass overhead, while jaegers were in view the majority of the time. At the bridge, a distant flock of Brant and a group of three Bar-tailed Godwits came into view on the far shoreline.

Heading back towards town, a drizzle began to fall just before some waterfowl on a pond by the sound caught our attention, a group of Greater Scaup. But something larger was on the opposite side of the same pond. "SPECTACLED EIDER!" I exclaimed, and pandemonium ensued. We raced out of the car towards the pond for better views, where this gorgeous male dazzled us. This was one of the most desired and least likely lifers for us coming to Nome, and it easily secured its place as our bird of the trip.

Spectacled Eider
Safety Sound, Nome, AK
July 7

Having scored a three eider afternoon (making for a full sweep of the eider family this year!), we finally got back to town before dinner, though not before a beautiful adult Slaty-backed Gull at the Nome River Mouth put an excellent cap on the first evening.

After five lifers and a smattering of other outstanding birds, we could have seen nothing else the rest of our time there and the whole trip would have still been a huge success. I could not have dreamed up a better start. But we did in fact see a few other things. The fun had only begun.

July 8: Nome to Teller, Almost

When sunset falls around 1:30 am, and sunrise comes at 4:45 am, there is no such thing as night. And there's barely such a thing as sleep. On my first trip to Alaska I became convinced that I was solar powered because I didn't seem to ever get tired, no matter the time of day. If the sun was up, so was I. The experience wasn't much different this time around. I had a couple mornings where the prospect of getting out of bed wasn't all that appealing, but for the most part I ran on adrenaline and only really slowed down because we eventually arrived back at the hotel each night (though even then I was still tearing through Birding Without Borders). Thankfully I was not on the insurance for our rental vehicle because I probably would have gone back out on my own every evening and wound up with even less sleep.

The first night was pretty stormy as rain showers met a stiff westerly wind. Before proceeding to our intended destination for the day, we made a quick stop at the Nome River Mouth to see if anything had blown in. The bird numbers were down from the evening before, but as we were about to leave I spotted two dark blobs floating on the water. We stopped to check out the ducks, only to find that they weren't ducks at all. We were looking at Short-tailed Shearwaters! This was a species my dad had already seen on the first half of the trip, and I was hopeful that I would get the opportunity to see one as well. But I did not think it would happen like this. At point blank range, a group of three of these worn out shearwaters sat on the water, lazily flew around a few times, and even landed on the beach at one point.

Short-tailed Shearwaters are essentially the doppelgänger of the Sooty Shearwater, a common bird in the Summer and Fall off the coasts of Oregon and Washington; a bird I've seen by the tens of thousands on a couple occasions. These two species can be difficult to separate in the field, so the opportunity to study the diagnostic features of these Short-tails so closely was a treat and a gift all at once! Short-tailed Shearwaters have rounder heads and a more petite bill than Sooties. Their underwings are different too, darker and a more solidly silver color compared to the smudgy and lighter makeup of the Sooty, though this is notoriously difficult to judge as lighting conditions can make this underwing sheen appear drastically lighter or darker than it actually is. These birds checked all the right boxes, and in one flight shot you can even see the feet extending beyond the end of the negligibly shorter tail.

These were the first Short-tailed Shearwaters to arrive in Nome this year, pretty much on schedule with their standard arrival dates. They winter in Australia and New Zealand, and every year this tubenose makes the full tour from the south Pacific Ocean up along the coast of Asia, eventually crossing the Bering Sea to nest in Alaska. We were seeing these birds mere hours, if not minutes after they had completed that harrowing journey. And here nature had rewarded them after a rough final night with a safe harbor loaded with food. I tried to process the wonder of the moment as this individual picked at a dead fish on the surface of the water a few feet away from me.

Short-tailed Shearwater
Nome River Mouth, AK
July 8

If Spectacled Eider was the bird of the trip, this experience with these shearwaters was the surprise of the trip. Remarkably, different individuals from this trio were present when we returned over the next few days, offering even more quality views.

Amazed at all we had seen so soon and so close to town, we set out for some birding further afield. There are three main roads that depart from Nome, each of which are 50+ miles long and bear the name of a different community on the outskirts of everything: Teller, Kougarok, and Council. We had specific target birds down each of these roads and made a day trip out of each of them.

Our first intended destination was Teller. Some uncertainty on the nearest gas station to replenish our hearty Ford Explorer cut our day short, so we didn't make it as far as we originally planned, but the day was still a major success. On our way down the Nome-Teller Highway we made a handful of stops, the most productive being the Sinuk River. Among the avian delights here, the opportunity to watch Arctic Terns hover at little more than an arm's length away was probably the highlight. This is a bird I've wanted to see and photograph well for a long time, and it still exceeded expectations. And on the topic of long migrations, this one actually takes the cake. At 44,000 miles a year, it travels further than any other animal on earth. But for now this one was focused on staying put and finding a little grub for brunch.

Arctic Tern
Sinuk River, Nome, AK
July 8

Here's my dad photographing the same individual:

Beyond the specialty lifers Nome had to offer, one of the things I had most desired to see here was nesting shorebirds. Shorebird migration—both Spring and Fall—has long been one of my favorite aspects of birding, and the idea of seeing these birds in their most natural element was always intriguing to me.

Nesting shorebirds can be found down nearly every road around Nome. Semipalmated Plover and Sandpipers, Golden Plovers of both varieties, and Whimbrel were a few of the species we encountered with some regularity. But some locations are particularly good, and the ridge line at mile 34 along the Nome-Teller Highway is one of them. At one of our first stops along this road, I detected a shorebird call that was unfamiliar to me. As the call persisted, I eventually got on the bird circling overhead and followed it until it landed a few hundred yards away. I scrambled for the scope and finally found it amongst tundra rocks and grasses that all seemed to be about the same height as the bird. And there it stood, a gorgeous adult Red Knot, brick red in its alternate plumage. A little further down the road its mate appeared, and for a brief moment one of this pair's young emerged and tumbled around on its untrained legs.

Red Knot
Mile 34 Ridge, Nome-Teller Highway, AK
July 8

Red Knots unfortunately stand in a long stream of birds that encapsulate the real world effects of climate change. They're listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act (which itself is threatened under the current regime), declining in numbers due to habitat loss, truly hanging on by a thread. This bleak reality made this encounter with a successful breeding pair a remarkably meaningful experience for me, one that I wasn't expecting coming into the visit. Seeing these birds thriving on their home turf was one of the highlights of the entire trip for me.

And they weren't alone. The higher and dryer elevations were home to American Golden Plovers as well, which in my opinion are one of the finest looking birds out there. Even slightly past the prime of their breeding plumage they still look exquisite.

American Golden Plover
Mile 34 Ridge, Nome-Teller Highway, AK
July 8

Speaking of birds that look pretty fine in alternate plumage, Lapland Longspurs entertained us the entire trip. You can see the whole checklist with more pics here: Mile 34 Ridge Line.

Lapland Longspur
Mile 34 Ridge, Nome-Teller Highway, AK
July 8

The most surprising wildlife encounter of the trip came on the way back into a town when a cow Moose appeared in the road in front of us. But she wasn't alone. She had in tow not one, not two, not three, not four, but FIVE calves! This is quite anomalous, as Moose never have more than two calves at a time. It appears that two of these calves are larger than the rest, two are a little smaller, and the fifth the smallest—in other words, calves of three different ages. Out best guess is that this Moose gave birth to one or two of them, and generously picked up the other three or four along the way over the Spring. Raising five young on the rugged Alaskan tundra is not for the faint of heart.

Nome-Teller Highway, AK
July 8

The shorter day on the Teller Highway provided time for some extra birding near Nome. We headed back to the Nome River Mouth, where this bulky Parasitic Jaeger put on an outstanding show for us, a nice compliment to better looks at Aleutian Terns and Wagtails.

Parasitic Jaeger
Nome River Mouth, AK
July 8

Next it was on to Anvil Mountain, which provided an authentic Alaska experience: my lifer Northern Wheatear in a skirmish with a Short-tailed Weasel! It may help to click on the pics to zoom in and see some of the action. The top shot has both the Weasel and Wheatear.

Northern Wheatear and Least (Short-tailed) Weasel
Anvil Mountain, AK
July 8

July 9: Kougarok Road

Our most frustrating day of the trip was our day down Kougarok Road, though that was no fault of the road itself, which offered up an early morning Moose for us:

Nome-Kougarok Road, AK
July 9

For much of the day we felt a tad late for the specialty species we desired. The ridge line at milepost 72 lacked the Bristle-thighed Curlew we were hoping to see, and left us instead with a cumbersome hike that was memorable in all the wrong ways. We made multiple attempts at finding a Bluethroat, but only had a single, unsatisfactory encounter with this much anticipated lifer. It took us the majority of the day to not find the things we were looking for, which was a bit deflating.

The main highlight from the day came in the form of a couple more Slaty-backed Gulls (a third and first cycle) and point blank looks at a sharp adult "Vega" Herring Gull.

Third Cycle Slaty-backed Gull
Nome River Mouth, AK
July 9

First Cycle Slaty-backed Gull
Nome River Mouth, AK
July 9

"Vega" Herring Gull
Nome River Mouth, AK
July 9

July 10: Teller

With a full tank of gas we left the next morning to take a second stab at the Teller Highway. There was one primary target on the mind: White Wagtails. On that account, we could not have been more successful. We encountered successful breeding pairs with healthy young in two different locations!

White Wagtails
Bluestone River, AK
July 10

White Wagtails
Teller, AK
July 10

From the town of Teller, a spit juts out into the adjacent bay, providing good opportunities to watch alcids and sea ducks flying by. These were some of our best view of Common Eiders and Horned Puffins on the whole trip, but the big surprise here came in the form of our lifer Black Guillemot! I wasn't able to get a photo due to the distance and rough waters, but my dad and I both got great scope views of this bird we absolutely were not counting on: solid white wing patch with no black stripe, white underwing when it flapped. Awesome.

A stop along Woolley Lagoon Road on the way back gave us more great views of nesting shorebirds, including our only Black-bellied Plovers and Ruddy Turnstone of the trip. But for the most part, the highlights along the Nome-Teller Highway this day belonged to the charming mammal encounters: Alaskan Hare, Red Fox, Grizzly Bear sow with cubs, an entertaining troop of Caribou, and of course, Muskoxeses.

Red Fox
Nome-Teller Highway, AK
July 10

Brown (Grizzly) Bears
Nome-Teller Highway, AK
July 10

Nome-Teller Highway, AK
July 10

Nome-Teller Highway, AK
July 10


At this point, the trip had been an absolute success, and we still had a full day of birding to work with. We used it to take the trip to Council. The morning began with some excitement at Safety Sound as I found our first and only Sabine's Gull of the week.

After leaving the sound, the road to Council climbs to higher elevations than any other route around Nome. The purpose of the day was not to find lifers, but to experience a new terrain and habitat in this wild land. At long last we arrived at the edge of the boreal forest, where we were met by this roadside beauty:

Golden Eagle
Near Council, AK
July 11

And these views:

Beaver Home and Dam
Near Council, AK
July 11

Beginnings of the Boreal Forest
Near Council, AK
July 11

In one sense, it was a completely foreign land, new to us in every way. But in another sense, the bird life made us feel right at home: Northern Waterthrushes singing left and right, the melodies of Pine Grosbeaks in the air overhead, raspy Boreal Chickadees excitedly moving from bush to bush. It felt like a July day at Salmo Mountain, one of our favorite haunts in the under-birded northeast corner of Washington.

The Blackpoll Warblers and Gray-cheeked thrushes mixed things up pretty nicely.

On our way back we got our best looks of the trip at this gorgeous Bar-tailed Godwit at Safety Sound. Peep the underwing:

Bar-tailed Godwit
Safety Sound, AK
july 11

Nome's Long-tailed Jaegers entertained every time we got back near town:

Long-tailed Jaeger
Nome, AK

All of a sudden our final night in Nome was upon us. Presented with the opportunity to rest up before going home, my dad and I did the logical thing and spent most of the evening on the picturesque Kougarok Road. It was one of the sunniest stretches of time we had the entire trip, and it made for a perfect cap on an unforgettable trip. We had some great looks at Arctic Warblers this evening:

Arctic Warbler
Nome-Kougarok Highway, AK
July 11

For all the amazing birds and wildlife we saw, all the lifers and specialties, there was one creature that stood out above the rest for me: the Alaskan Hare. We saw them on a couple occasions and both times I was blown away by their sheer size—nearly two feet tall!—a truly Alaskan-sized rabbit. Our first encounter was fleeting, but on our last evening we got to watch a mother hare with four young for a while at close range. These babies were the size of the Snowshoe Hares I'm used to seeing back home. The dark gray back and white belly matched with the bold white eye ring and mile-high ears made for one of the most striking mammals I have ever seen.

Alaskan Hares
Nome-Kougarok Highway, AK
July 11

Here's just a taste of some of the scenes from that night:

Nome-Kougarok Highway, AK
July 11

On the final morning we stayed local, adding a few species to the trip list. If it was appropriate that a Muskox was the subject of my first photo of the trip, it was equally fitting that a Parasitic Jaeger was the subject of my last.

Parasitic Jaeger
Safety Sound, AK
July 12

112 species in all, 31 of which were year birds, bringing my total to 485 for 2018.

Unforgettable Pelagic

The last major surge to the list came from one outstanding day with Oregon Pelagic Tours in the deep offshore waters west of Newport. The weather, species diversity, and staggering views of every species combined to make my favorite pelagic trip yet. You can see all my photos here, but for now I'll leave you with one of our three Laysan Albatrosses from the day:

Laysan Albatross
Offshore, Lincoln Co, OR
August 25

Yet, for all we saw, we did miss South Polar Skua and Flesh-footed Shearwater, both of which were seen on nearly every other OPT trip this fall. Every species counts. And when you're inching towards a goal, every miss hurts. My total at the end of the day was 492.

The Long, Slow Crawl to the End

It was about this time that our son staged a sleep revolt that would last through the end of October, and the semester began, which meant long days stacked on long days with little reprieve. And very little birding time.

493 was a White-tailed Ptarmigan on a picturesque morning at Mount Rainier National Park over Labor Day Weekend.

494 was a Sharp-tailed Sandpiper at Fern Ridge, mere yards away from where I saw my lifer Sharp-tail two years prior.

Sharp-tailed Sandpiper and American Pipit
Fern Ridge, Lane Co, OR
September 23

495 and 496 came when I cleaned up Palm Warbler and Rock Sandpiper on a day at the Lincoln County Coast in October.

497 was an exciting lifer when I finally got away to see the long staying Tundra Bean Goose at Finley NWR!

Tundra Bean Goose
Finley NWR, Benton Co, OR
December 7

So I was three birds away with three weeks left. Finals week and the grading aftermath of finals week kept me from chasing anything else in Oregon. We were off to Spokane for Christmas, and my total was at the mercy of Eastern Washington.

We set out December 22 with five potential targets. Our early targets were unsuccessful: Gray Partridge and Blue Jay. The margin for error evaporated.

By late morning we made it to Asotin and decided to check out a group of gulls on the river before heading to the landfill. Out of that group I plucked not one, but two adult Lesser Black-backed Gulls! This was a bonus for me as it 498 for the year, but also a Washington state lifer for me, #328.

Lesser Black-backed Gull with Herrings
Asotin, Asotin Co, WA
December 22

Just down the road this Western Screech Owl was soaking in the sun, 499!

Western Screech Owl
Asotin Slough, Asotin Co, WA
December 22

While in the area we hopped across the river into Idaho and birded Hell's Gate State Park, where I found another Screech sitting out in the open, one of three species of owls roosting in a 50 yard radius!
Western Screech Owl
Hells Gate SP, Nez Perce Co, ID
December 22

And number 500 came in the form of one of my very favorite birds. We stopped by a roost on the way home, and it put on a nice little aerial show for us when we arrived!

Long-eared Owl, #500!
Whitman Co, WA
December 22

An exciting and satisfying moment to end such a wild, improbable year of birding! In 2019 I'm on to smaller and better things, trying to see as many species as I can within a five mile radius of home. Who knows? Maybe I'll even blog about it!