Saturday, October 31, 2015

Ultra-crazy Hardcore Boreal Birding!

When I met Jon, he told me of a mystical place so far north in Washington that if you stand in the right spot, you can see Canada.  He informed me that Boreal Owls have been detected in good numbers every fall for over ten years.  Being the owl freak I am, I was obviously intrigued.  Right around the peak time, which is mid-September to mid-October, I read a post on the local listserv with specific directions to a good spot for this incredible species.  The hotspot is known as Salmo Pass, and also holds such other goodies as Northern Pygmy-Owl, Northern Saw-whet Owl, American Three-toed Woodpecker, Dusky, Spruce, and Ruffed Grouse, Boreal Chickadee, Pine Grosbeak, Gray Jay, Northern Goshawk, and White-winged Crossbill, as well as many more birds that can be found in Maricopa County AZ at spots such as Mount Ord.  So, it's pretty much a juicy northern wonderland.  As always, this will be a long post, so grab some popcorn.

After reading the post, I knew I had to go.  It was a duty, a calling, a must-do, if you will.  3.5 hours away?  Doesn't matter, I have my own car!  I didn't have a choice.  My owl-obsessed brain packed my things quickly and robotically, and I was off for a camping trip to the 6800' elevation grizzly-bear habitat of Salmo Pass.  On the road in, I ran over a poor Spruce Grouse.  It didn't make it, unfortunately.  Those darn birds flush in all sorts of weird ways.  Other goodies included numerous Gray Jays, Steller's Jays, and Pacific Wrens.

I arrived at the trailhead.  It was pretty dang cold!  I am from the Sonoran Desert, and I am used to mid 50s at worst!  Well it was 40 degrees, and the sun was still out!  Uh oh, I am not sure if I was prepared in my shorts!

Inspirational, awe-inspiring, or just dumb?

The sun set, and I couldn't contain my excitement!  This was it!  Now, as of this May, I had 3 owls on my list.  Namely, Great Horned, Burrowing, and Short-eared.  As of the writing of this post, I have 12 owls!  They are:

Great Horned
Western Screech
Northern Pygmy
Whiskered Screech
and *spoiler*

Needless to say, 2015 has been the Year of the Owl for me, without a single doubt.  So it makes sense that my dumb luck/crazy skill would continue.  Right??  Right??  Don't answer, it's rhetorical.

I owled along the stretch where Boreal Owls were most often reported. and I picked up a Saw-whet.  While not my target, it was a great bird to get, and a lifer.  My fingers were growing numb, and the 28 degree cold was getting to me.  As I owled, a car drove up.  It was Dan Lockshaw, the owner of  He was there to search for the Boreals as well.  We listened together for around an hour, with nothing, not even a hoot.  We split up, and I owled for another two fruitless hours.  I was about to give up, due to the cold and literally not being able to feel my feet, when I heard a clutch buzzer-beater hoot sequence, paired with a contact call!  BOREAL OWL!  All bodily pain vanished.  I did not see the bird, but obtained a short recording.

It was a surreal experience, birding in those northern forests.  I had to go to sleep though, I had been owling for five hours, and had to drive home the next day!  I sincerely regret splitting up from Dan, because he had visuals and incredible photos of the Boreal Owls.  Live and learn though.  I guess you earn that privilege after owling for many years.  I am still a newbie when it comes to owling, and my time for photos will come.

The next morning, after fitful sleep and dreams of Boreal "skiew" notes, I awoke to bird the area.  Ironically, I found U.S. Border Patrol patrolling the area near the Canadian border.  Just two months before, I had seen U.S. Border Patrol patrolling our Mexican border!  Funny how those things work out.  I quickly had 3 Pygmy Owls responding to my whistles.  And what was that "pik"?  Could it be, an American Three-toed Woodpecker???  Yes!  Another flyover lifer.  I also had Boreal Chickadees, but was unable to obtain photos.  Over the pass, distant but obvious, was a more-than magnificent adult male Northern Goshawk.  WOW!  Second sighting for me, and always impressive.  Well, I drove home after a large amount of success.  I added three lifers to my list, but did not accomplish my goal of seeing Boreal Owl.  Oh well, I'm young and have a lot of time.  The whole week, I thought of the Boreals constantly, and planned a trip for the next weekend.

Northern Saw-whet Owl
Boreal Owl
American Three-toed Woodpecker

The next weekend, I was feeling a strong, obsessive, Captain Ahab-like drive to return.  I called the Forest Service to inquire about road conditions to that primitive site, and the lady mistakenly told me the roads were closed.  Much to my everlasting chagrin, I awoke to a post on the listserv the next morning praising the great Boreal Owling another birder had had the night before.  I will not lie, a tear or two were shed, and I nearly sunk into a deep depression.  However, I had my studies, along with Red-necked Grebes, at college to keep me busy.  The next weekend, October 9th, I determined to drive the distance no matter what the well-meaning but oh-so-mind-bogglingly-wrong Forest Service employee said.  I had purchased some cold-weather clothes, much like Captain Ahab, and was fully prepared for all circumstances.  I arrived, after seeing Ruffed Grouse on the way in.

I started owling at 7:30.  I was excited beyond belief.  I walked down to the previously-unproductive stretch of beautiful forest road.  It is a weird feeling, being 30 miles out from the nearest person, owling alone on a dark, cloudless night in grizzly bear country.  Some might call me crazy, I call myself dedicated and hardcore.  After about an hour and a half, using playback on and off, I heard an incredibly loud SKIEW call.  The Boreal Owl was right above me!  I switch to the contact call and it went crazy!  It came in 20 feet away, and called again.  I was actually shaking out of joy and could hardly stand.  I directed a light towards the sound, but could not locate it.  But, what was that?  A second Boreal Owl?  Could it be?  Yes!  There I was, standing beneath two duetting Boreal Owls.  I will never forget that night.  However, I still had not seen one.  I listened and played tape, alternating, for about ten minutes, with the owls vocalizing continuously.  This is when I had my moment.  I turned on my flashlight, and saw the adult Boreal Owl perched about 15 feet up in an Engelmann Spruce tree!  THERE IT WAS, my new favorite bird.  It flushed after five seconds, calling as it went, and I lost it.  Then, two young birds kicked in with begging calls.  FOUR BOREAL OWLS!  WHAT A NIGHT!  I was standing in a Boreal Square of four owls.  I wonder if I picked up any superpowers from that.  After a few more minutes, I picked up an adult, one of the original two, flying silently across the path.  They all went silent after about thirty total minutes.  I was slightly disappointed with my lack of photos, but I am more than grateful to see Boreal Owl twice!  I kept owling hard, for another few miles, and heard distant skiew notes here and there, no big deal right? Haha.

I wrapped it up at that specific spot and headed up to the parking "lot."  There, a trail leads into Canada and Idaho.  That trail is often productive for Boreal Owl as well.  I owled this road, picking up one owl giving alternating partial song and contact notes.  No visual.  At around 1:30 A.M., after six hardcore hours of owling, I decided to call it a night.  Wow!  Exhilarating and exhausting, to say the least.  I placed my count at FIVE Boreal Owls for the night, though it could have been six or seven.

I camped in my Subaru Outback, and woke up the next day not quite sure if the events of the night before were a dream.  I was determined to bird as hard as I ever had before, and I did.  I nabbed Ruffed Grouse, lifer Dusky Grouse, Pacific Wren, Chestnut-backed Chickadees, Pygmy-Owls, American Three-toed Woodpecker. Pileated Woodpecker, Northern Harrier, Spruce Grouse, Red-breasted Nuthatch, Pygmy Nuthatch, Dark-eyed Junco, lifer "red" Fox Sparrow, and a pleasant surprise mixed flock of my lifer White-winged Crossbill and Red Crossbills.

Boreal Chickadees have a lower and buzzier call than any of the other three expected species at Salmo Pass, and this is the best way to ID them at long distances.  I heard one, and knew this was my chance to photograph it.  I lured it pretty close with pishing, and came away with ONE PICTURE:

So very fulfilling!  I have photographed five chickadees this year, Mountain, Mexican, Boreal, Black-capped and Chestnut-backed.  I feel pretty blessed to have self-found both Mexican and Boreal, two chickadees at opposite borders of the U.S. in the same year!

What a way to end the trip.  And I had even more grouse on the road out.

Dusky Grouse
Fox Sparrow
White-winged Crossbill

Boreal birding is fantastic.  I think it is quickly becoming my favorite habitat to bird in.  The Boreal Owls, Boreal Chickadees, White-winged Crossbills, Pileated Woodpeckers, American Three-toed Woodpeckers, Northern Goshawk, Gray Jay, Northern Saw-whet Owl, Northern Pygmy-Owl, Spruce, Dusky, and Ruffed Grouse combine to make an incredible hotspot of epic proportions.  I am very fortunate to have had the birding experience in Arizona, and while I have a LOT to learn about birding Idaho and Washington, I feel like I am well on my way to good local knowledge.  At the time of this writing, my Idaho state list is at 129, and my Washington list is at 130.  Not bad for living here since August!

My 22 lifers since moving here have been:
Calliope Hummingbird
Dusky Flycatcher
Hammond's Flycatcher
Least Flyatcher
Swainson's Thrush
Boreal Chickadee
Gray Jay
Baird's Sandpiper
Stilt Sandpiper
Semipalmated Plover
Red-necked Phalarope
Franklin's Gull
Golden-crowned Kinglet
Common Nighthawk
Pacific Wren
Varied Thrush
Northern Saw-whet Owl
Boreal Owl
American Three-toed Woodpecker
Dusky Grouse
Fox Sparrow
White-winged Crossbill

Here I sit, at 483 on my lifelist, and 383 on my ABA list, trying to hit 500/400 before the year is out!!

Thanks for reading!

Bird hard always,


1 comment:

  1. The Northern birds are some of the scarcest, shyest, and most camouflaged birds in the US! You have been absolutely crushing those specialties. I am so happy to see your life list growing. And it's not only the numbers that matter. I know that the Boreal Owls you saw mean so much more to you than just one more tick on the list. That kind of bird isn't seen, it is experienced! I didn't realize that so many Eastern birds are up there also. I believe that you can make it to 500 by the end of the year. You're super close. Remember to keep your hands on the bins, eyes on the Listserv, and your ears listening always!

    Godspeed and good birding,
    - Joshua Smith