Friday, January 3, 2014

January 3: Slow Day

After heading south for a day and staying local for a day, today's plan was to head north and west into Steven's and Lincoln counties. We were hoping to focus on woodland birds in the morning and get out to the west plains for the late afternoon. It was a great plan. Only, the birds didn't get the memo. It would be a lot easier to just not blog about today and wait till my next exciting sighting to post, but I'd like this blog to accurately reflect the natural ebb and flow of this crazy hobby.

If you've been birding for longer than week, you know that slow days happen. It seems to be a more frequent phenomenon in winter, but it's liable to occur at any time. Thankfully, we've already had such a great start that we really can't complain. But still, there's something about two great days that makes you expect the next one to be just as good.

I started the day knowing that an average outing would get me to 85, and above average would put 90 in reach. 11 hours, 340 miles, and 16 eBird checklists later, I'm at 81.

Our most productive stretch of the day came before the sun even rose, which is not totally out of the ordinary. We worked the fields by Chewelah and Valley and quickly nailed Red-tailed and Rough-legged Hawk, Northern Harrier, Merlin, Bald Eagle, and Cooper's Hawk on our way to another nice raptor day. We also found our first of four (!) Northern Shrikes on the day. As we made our way up behind Waitt's Lake, we ran into fog for the third straight day, and struggled with little birds yet again. But here we did find the first year bird of the day, Northern Pygmy Owl! It was actively calling as we got out at one of our stops, and we were even able to get some decent looks at it, which is not always the case with these diminutive denizens of the forest. Yet for all our efforts, we couldn't manage a woodpecker other than a flicker, a single nuthatch, an interesting corvid, or Chestnut-backed Chickadee.

Northern Pygmy-Owl
Waitt's Lake, Steven's Co, WA
January 3, 2014

Our next target was a White-headed Woodpecker that had been reliable for my dad all throughout the Fall. We worked Martha Boardman Road for a while in search of it, and came up instead with only a couple crossbills. Tough dip. The rich ponderosa forest was almost entirely devoid of sound; quite strange. The road descends into a creek bed, where a Northern Flicker was a welcome sight - that's how dead it had been. This prompted us to get out and look around, and in quick succession we had American Dipper, Bewick's Wren, and all three nuthatches - White-breasted being #80 for the year.

The next target was a wintering Ferruginous Hawk at Sprague Lake, which had also been reliable recently. We should have known better. The location was quite a distance out of the way, and coming up empty was a real bummer. We got Horned Larks along the way, which was an expected year bird, but even they were pretty sparse in areas where we normally get large flocks. And no Snow Buntings were to be found. This fancy male Ring-necked Pheasant was a sight for sore eyes as we passed through the tiny town of Edwall:

Ring-necked Pheasant
Edwall, Lincoln Co, WA
January 3, 2014

We made our way back up to Hawk Creek Canyon, hoping to get a Clark's Nutcracker. Again, we missed. Mountain Chickadee was our only addition for the day, though another calling Northern Pygmy-Owl was a nice Lincoln County bird. Nearby was our third Northern Shrike of the day - for all those days you go looking for a shrike and miss, today we found four, crazy! That is the essence of birding.

Northern Shrike
Lincoln Co, WA
January 3, 2014

From there, we headed to the west plains hoping for the late afternoon to produce some magic. In the process, we rounded out a nice raptor day as our Red-tailed tally ascended to 36, Northern Harrier to 12, and Rough-legged to 22!

Rough-legged Hawk
Lincoln Co, WA
January 3, 2014

The loop around Old Kucks and Mayberry Roads has historically been a great spot for winter specialties such as Gyrfalcon, Snowy Owl, and Short-eared Owl. In keeping with the rest of the day, we missed all three. I did spot a Prairie Falcon though, which was definitely a nice consolation. Another three falcon day, too! Here are some poor pics of it. That falcon profile is unmistakable. The light brown coloration was more obvious in the field, but you can kinda make it out here. And you can barely see those black axillaries in the distant flight shot.

Prairie Falcon
Lincoln Co, WA
January 3, 2014

For the second time in three days, Great-horned Owl was our final bird of the day. We got one for Lincoln and Spokane County, and finished the day at 44 species. That really puts yesterday in perspective, when we racked up 46 in just a few hours in a small radius within Spokane County!

Still, 81 is a great number after just three days - I wonder how long it'll take me to hit 81 in Illinois. Given the current conditions there, I'm thinking it could take quite a while. As of right now, I'm almost considering not going back. Not really, of course. But maybe.