Sunday, November 3, 2019

Pumpkin Spice and Everything Nice

A male Ruffed Grouse puts on a show for his lady friend
This week we take you to the beautiful Pacific Northwest where I joined friend and bird guide Khanh Tran for a scouting mission.  

Our mission?  To scout several new areas for owls and grouse, specifically the Boreal Owl.  And while I was there, I wanted to understand the Blue Grouse habitat better.  Several years ago, they were split.  The Dusky Grouse. And the Sooty Grouse. 

Pine Grosbeak
It was a fun trip.  There were no expectations other than to go birding with Khanh and have fun. Khanh needed to do some scouting for his clients and we definitely checked out some amazing places together. 

Pine Grosbeaks were definitely in good numbers for this time of year.  We had them at virtually every location.  Khanh mentioned that this might be a good sign for winter birding in Washington state. 

We maneuvered around hunters during this week on mostly secure roads. During one outing, we had three species of chickadees.  My ears could pick out ONE Boreal Chickadee and we both briefly saw the bird.  A huge flock of Mountain Chickadees passed through the area, but one lingered a little longer.  Bingo!  But it didn't stick around for a pic. This chickadee prefers the higher elevations, above 5,500 feet, in Engelmann spruce.  The tighter the growth of these spruce; the better chances of us finding this species of chickadee. 

A Mule Deer evades the hunters
It was fun watching Khanh bird.  He is unique from other birders in that he studies habitat well.  He knows his elevations.  In fact, his jeep has a sensor detecting elevation hikes. And what separates him from other birders is that he doesn't use ebird.  He's aware of it, but he does his own thing.  I admire that about him.  It frustrates some local birders because he doesn't report his findings on ebird. In fact, during our time together, I hid several reports to protect the owls.  It takes a lot of time and money, along with the habitat knowledge, to find these birds.  This kind of birding is very different from much of my Arizona work.  However, I will say today that Ebird has blocked out several sensitive and specific owl species sightings from their program.  And I'm appreciative of that.  It's all to protect the bird.  You want an owl?  Teach yourself by attending conferences, reading and personal exploration.  There are no short cuts. 

The roads and hillsides burst forth with bright fall color.  I don't think Khanh even knew how wonderful it would be.  Every year, I plan an autumn trek somewhere where I can just bird and look at the pretty landscape.  During this time of year, the birds take a backseat to all the trees and bushes changing color. 

Chestnut-backed Chickadee
Often during our trek to find the Boreal Owl, there would be flurries as we hiked in elevation.  Then the snow would happen and it was time for the holiday music.  Everyone always apologizes for the weather, but I informed Khanh that I bring the rain and snow with me everywhere I go.  I hate the heat so much and I love wrapping myself up in my fuzzy lined jacket.  It makes me happy to feel that cold.  He told me it wasn't optimal weather, and I understood that very well.  I didn't care.  We were just birding and doing what I would normally do in Arizona. Chasing birds gets old.  Exploring new habitat however NEVER gets old. 

I frosted my hair for this trek so that I would match my surroundings:)  Snow. The older I get, the more and more I hate the heat.  I'm not sure I could live along the Pacific Northwest because of the constant overcast skies.  But eastern Washington or Oregon wouldn't be such a bad option. The minute you leave the rain forest strip, the skies open and the sun shines. 

One of the most stressful things about the birding here are the roads. On this trek, there was only one road that was questionable. I mean, if that rock below my feet let go, there's no way of surviving that fall. The pic below shows me on that sketchy part of the road.  The rock juts out and underneath the rock there is nothing for a couple thousand feet!

For those of you following my Dusky Grouse search in Arizona, you will know that I have not had any luck with this bird over the years.  I have searched the right kinds of habitat for this bird and looked in the right locations. Well, I'm excited to say that I spotted my first 3 Dusky Grouse! After studying them for 20 minutes, I attempted a pic.  Understanding their behaviors and where they prefer to feed has helped me understand our only AZ grouse better.  They are found in the White Mountains around Greer, the North Rim of the Grand Canyon and around Snowbowl north of Flagstaff on Mt. Humphrey.  Next year, I know how I'll approach finding my last "new" breeding AZ bird. 

An elusive Dusky Grouse
Now onto our Boreal Owl story.  Our first night was too windy.  The snow storm was strong and the night dark.  No luck. 

It was on our second night, again during the most beautiful snow storm, that we'd find our Boreal Owl in a new location.  There was no wind.  It was quiet. Dark. And snow flakes gently fell to the ground.  The packy kind of snow. As we stood under the snow umbrella of a dense conifer tree, we heard the unmistakable "skee-oo" of the Boreal Owl.  Most people just get to hear that call, but I was rewarded with a great look as the bird flew into my light.  It's short body and longer wings flew silently under that quiet umbrella into the branches above our head.  I didn't know which was cooler, the atmosphere surrounding the bird or the bird itself.  It wasn't long, but it was enough to ID and memorize.  I closed my eyes and tried to mentally capture this moment for those really difficult days at my job. There are no souvenir pictures other than the one my mind mentally took.  I was proud of myself for letting the camera at my side so I could just enjoy watching this bird. "Skee-oo!" and it moved further away.  And then another quieter, further "Skee-oo!" The Boreal Owl was gone. 

It was hard to top that sighting of the owl, but the following day, we saw a male Ruffed Grouse on display!  Never in our lives have we seen this bird display.  Khanh sees this bird all the time, but never like this.  I have only ever dreamed about seeing this bird in his mating stance ever since the day I began studying them in Wisconsin.  I thought I'd never see this bird do it's strut.  But years later, both Khanh and myself get the observation of a lifetime!

The larches of the North Cascades were a brilliant yellow as the sun hit them with a gentle ray of light. 

We hiked northern Washington along the Canadian border in lots of snow. 

Don't mind my crazy hair.  Khanh looks great.  I need a haircut. Until next time friends!


  1. The ethereal sounds of a forest during a gentle snow storm are truly magical. We have great horned owls in our back forest that we hear all the time but are only treated to an occasional glimpse. Just being in the moment adds to the experience.

    1. Yes. That was my great lesson of the Boreal Owl. I'll never forget that moment. It was so so special.

  2. I great tale - and I am with you on the heat. Bit of a shame I live in Australia then!

    I spent a few days in the Pacific North West many years ago - I have great memories of the Hoh Rainforest.

    Cheers - Stewart M - Melbourne

    1. I know. And in Arizona it's the same but I have to say that I love AZ birding. So what we need to do is buy a home in each other's area. Then you can winter in Arizona during your summer and vice versa. You'll never know heat again:) So glad it's fall now.

  3. Such and incredible 1st picture!

    1. That was the complete prize from this trip. I still glow from seeing a Ruffed Grouse in its breeding plumage. That was incredible.


Thanks for stopping by!