Words On Birds by Steve Grinley
Memorable Quest for the Elusive #700
December 10, 2016
By Steve Grinley
“Steve, wake up! The alarm didn’t go off!!” That was the ominous start to our trip. There was only a half hour to gather our wits, shower, dress, and finish packing before the arrival of our scheduled ride to the airport. Somehow we made it out the door just as the taxi arrived.
We were heading to Seattle to see my grandchildren, to attend a Brian Wilson concert, and to do some birding on the Olympic peninsula, an area that Margo and I had never visited before. We planned to spend the first few days birding in Olympic National Park and the surrounding area before heading into Seattle proper to see family. While on the peninsula, we hoped to find one more life bird for Margo, reaching number 700 species of birds seen in North America!
As we rode to the airport, we checked our cell phones for Seattle weather. It showed rain forecasted for the next four days. Unfortunately “wet” is the norm for the Northwest much of the year.
Once we arrived in Seattle, we rented a car and headed toward the peninsula. We drove along the Hood Canal and, despite off and on rain, we stopped at a few areas scanning the canal for ducks, geese, and gulls. We had close views of glaucous-winged and Heerman’s gull, two species of gulls that we don’t see on the east coast. We also saw a number of Steller’s jays, another western bird, as well as the more familiar bald eagles and ravens.
We arrived at our lodge in Port Angeles and made a plan to head up into Olympic National Park in search of our target birds the next morning. We were hoping to see Margo’s nemesis bird, the red-breasted sapsucker, which had eluded her on previous trips to the northwest. She also hoped to see an ancient murrelet, but knew that was unlikely as they usually arrive a month later. The sooty grouse would also be a life bird, but they are elusive and we knew that there was a good chance that we would not see one. Dave Larson and Dave Weaver led a Mass Audubon trip there a month earlier and they gave us some good tips to help us find the birds we were looking for. The told us where they found the sapsucker, and a few places to look for the grouse.
The next morning, we awakened to cloudy skies and drizzle – not encouraging for the task ahead. We stopped at the park headquarters to check conditions on Hurricane Ridge where we would need to look for the grouse. The remote cameras showed that at least it wasn’t fogged in, which it often is, and it still could be by the time it will take up to drive up to that mile high elevation.
We decided to stop first at the Heart o’ the Hills campground, a short distance from the entrance gate. It was there that the Mass Audubon trip found a sapsucker just weeks before. We had off and on showers, as predicted, still we walked around the nearly empty campground in search of birds. We found pockets of small birds, twittering high in the trees, but they were hard to get the binoculars on as they moved quickly among the branches.
We started down one trail that was mostly quiet, the soft earth and moss dampened any sound we made. Then we started to hear noise ahead of us – it was human noise. We finally saw some young park personnel moving logs and rocks and maintaining the trail. One of them had music blaring which , I guess, kept them from being distracted by the peace and tranquility of the forest.
We decided to turn around, but as we headed back, we heard a soft tapping of a woodpecker! Could it be the sapsucker? It took much patience, as the sound seemed to move about in front of us without detection, but finally we caught a glimpse of a woodpecker. It was the all-too familiar hairy woodpecker. Our hearts sank a bit, but we enjoyed watching him, a much darker version than we see in the eastern states.
Back in the campground, we again heard the twittering of small birds high in the trees. The dark, dreary weather made it hard for us to make out colors and patterns, but we finally saw some birds low enough, and open enough, to identify. Golden-crowned kinglets were the majority of the birds we were seeing, but travelling with them were chestnut-backed chickadees and red-breasted nuthatches. We also came across a couple of brown creepers spiraling up the tall trees.
As we continued to search the area, I saw a larger bird with white in the wing, fly behind the trunk of a tree and disappear. Then, I heard tapping. Another woodpecker? As I stood watching, the bird moved around to where I could see it. Red-breasted sapsucker!
I called to Margo and in the time she walked over to me, the bird had disappeared around the tree again. Its soft tapping let us know that it was still there, only to add to our frustration. It seemed to stay hidden for a long time, but suddenly we saw a flash of movement to another tree. How can one bird be so difficult?
Finally, the sapsucker circled to the side of a large tree trunk and Margo had excellent views of her life bird. We watched it for a long time as it worked the area in search of food. We could see the deep red color about its head and breast – it was a beautiful male. This was, indeed, a bird to remember for number 700!
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