Friday, August 30, 2013


As a self-confessed coffee junkie / aficionado, I've finally met my match in Washington State. I'm standing at the counter of Olympia Coffee Roasting Company, feeling under-tattooed, under hipster-dufusy, and undereducated on the bean offerings. Heck - I don't even know why the coffee needs to be ground to within fractions of a second, filtered over lab scales, and dripped into Erlenmeyer flasks. But I do know it tastes heavenly!

My caffeine nirvana is interrupted by news from the interwebs - the Smith's Longspur was just seen this morning. Damn my inability to get out of bed while it's still dark! But at least that means the bird is still there / alive / willing to pose for birders.

I arrive at Ocean Shores and meet some birders who arrived after the initial sighting and haven't seen it (yet.) I'm hoping this initial early morning sighting and then disappearing until evening isn't a pattern for this bird. While I'm waiting, stomping around the marsh grass, there's plenty of other birds to watch...

Red-necked Phalarope - these birds breed in the high Arctic, on shores in Canada and Alaska. It's heading south to spend the winter at sea in the southern hemisphere. 
(Western Sandpipers in the background.) 

Peregrine Falcon - taking a break from chasing sandpipers. 
This is a juvenile bird (adults are steel blue above.) 
The pale eyebrow and spotting suggest this is the northern tundrias subspecies.

And then the weather starts getting worse. Then really worse. And then un-birdable (rain, 30 mph winds, no birds, slight to moderate chance of planet-destroying apocalypse.) Those of us still holding vigil decide to leave and come back later. For me, that means a much-needed caffeine injection in distant Aberdeen. It also means an unintentional 90 minute sleep as I pass out in the car (thankfully parked *outside* of Starbucks and not *on the drive* there. When are we getting those robotic flying cars?) 

Not that I've missed much while being comatose. When I get back to Ocean Shores, the weather is even worse, if that's possible. It's early afternoon, and I'm calling it quits for the day. Beaten again by the pesky Longspur.

Smith's Longspur 2 - Neil Hayward 0

As I'm sitting in the car at Ocean Shores, being rocked by the howling wind, I have 2 crazy thoughts:

(1) to check the forecast for tomorrow morning, to see what I would be missing as I'm flying to Alaska: apparently 5mph winds and no rain (seriously?);

(2) to delay my 6am flight for later in the day (Alaska Airlines only charges $25 for a later flight.) 

That's it! I'm staying. I'm going to spend the night at Ocean Shores and give the bird one last try in the morning and endanger my mental health if I miss it.

Not too rainy for State Capitol ticks - Olympia at sunset.

I wake up before dawn with one pesky Longspur, a 3 hour drive and a flight to Anchorage ahead of me. I'm relieved to find Ocean Shores is calm and dry. Perfect weather for Longspur hunting. But wait - there's a new type of weather…

Fog. Just when you thought it was safe to go birding in Washington.

The fog sticks around most of the morning, making it hard to see much ("much" of course includes the Smith's Longspur.) 

And then, after an hour of waiting, I suddenly hear it: the dry rattle I've been waiting 3 days for. I look up as a long-tailed bird, silhouetted against the low ceiling of fog, bounds off into the distance. That's it! The call is diagnostic for Smith's Longspur - but what a lousy view of the bird. 

I stick around, hoping for better views, and am joined by local birder - Rolan Nelson. Forty-five minutes later, we get a repeat performance of the flight call. But this time I'm able to follow the bird to a distant log, half hidden in the long grass. I run like crazy, getting close enough for a distant scope view…

Smith's Longspur. Warm cinnamon-brown body tones, and distinctive Longspur shape and posture. The diagnostic bright white outer 2 tail feathers are completely hidden on the perched bird. Notice the longish primary projection on this bird.

We watch the bird for 5 minutes before it leaps into the air, calling and showing its white outer tail feathers. It makes a wide circle over the entire area before dropping down into the short, muddy area. Another quick sprint, and I'm 10 feet from a feeding Longspur…

Smith's Longspur.

Like many birds this year, patience finally pays off. After 3 days of tracking the bird down, it's incredibly confiding. It's a real treat being able to watch it feed right next to me, picking at the long vegetation and occasionally sticking its head up, periscope-like to scan the horizon for danger.

Here's a movie of the bird feeing in the grass...

Smith's Longspur feeding in the grass - the movie!

And that's it for Washington! Thank you Pacific Northwest for 3 great birding experiences - the chimney of roosting Vaux's Swifts, the ferry over to Vancouver Island for Sky Lark, and the chase for the Longspur.

I'm jetting off to Anchorage today, and then to Gambell, St Lawrence Island tomorrow. I guess that means it's officially fall.

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NEW YEAR BIRDS (1): Smith's Longspur

1 comment:

  1. Neil,

    Late breaking news: Nutmeg Mannikin in So. CA has been added to the ABA checklist

    Steve B.