Anyone who knows me knows that I always get a bit excited when I get some new camera kit. In the last year I have made a sincere effort to slim down the optics and to switch from Nikon DSLRs to Fujifilm mirrorless DSLRs. The mirrorless is smaller, lighter, cheaper and equal to (or nearly so) my Nikon’s file quality. I sold several Nikon lenses before we left Portland and banked most of the proceeds to wait for the arrival of the new Fuji 100-400 f/4.5-5.6 lens. It is the entry of Fuji into a fairly long focal length lens. Initial reviews were excellent even if they came from sponsored users for the most part. I was excited to get the long waited for lens. It came to our door just as our dear friends, Jenn and Gerry, arrived in town to spend the weekend with us. And so the convergence of good times began… new glass and good friends in town when the weather forecast was great and there were recent reports of birds that would help populate all of our life or year lists. Off we go…
Jenn and Gerry are the most purposeful and deliberate birders I know. They work at it and even though Gerry is frequently out of country they still rack up more bird species seen than others I know who are in the birder camp. Me, I’m still mostly a guy who enjoys the pursuit of a decent bird photo and who is learning the complexities and joy of birding. When we get a chance to venture out birding with Jenn and Gerry we plan a route based on recent bird observations and the desire to add either life birds or additions to other lists. Regardless of what happens, we are outdoors and enjoying the time. As we planned for this visit we hoped to see snowy owls (year bird), gray partridge (life bird for Jenn, year bird for Jenn and Gerry), bohemian waxwings (same as the partridge) and a variety of sparrows that would have all been life birds for me. Gerry has a habit of predicting that we will see at least 70 species over a day or two. The history of his success at meeting this target is quite good.
We met up with J and G shortly after they got skunked looking for the Bohemian waxwings that had been in an East Wenatchee neighborhood for weeks. It’s all part of the game to miss birds that one expects or hopes to see. Whatever. On we go. We headed to the river path that Dianne and I walk frequently. The goal was to ease into the birding with a casual walk on the path that would be punctuated with an IPA endpoint at a nearby pub. We found the usual wigeon, geese, mallards, golden eye and crows. Not a rousing start but a decent warm up. This single female Common merganser was preening nearby and became the first real bird target for the new lens. Gerry, who is a great photographer, and I both looked at the LCD and concluded that the lens was OK if not good. Not a fair test really until the image hits the computer screen but the magnified screen on the back of the camera showed a sharp image. That is exactly what I expected and hoped for.
We shared a pint at the pub and headed for home and dinner. A few more pints disappeared as the evening matured. We laid out our game plan for an extended auto loop on the Waterville Plateau the next day and hit the hay.
After a cup of tea or two and breakfast we set out to find the targeted birds and any others that we could glass and record. Our cameras were ready and the scopes were positioned for easy access. We started up the canyon from Orondo to Waterville and stopped as Gerry began itching to give a listen to and scan a couple of small canyons for canyon wrens or others. Gerry jumped ahead and was listening intently for birds in a small canyon. We soon saw him waving for us to join him and he had all of us listening for the sound of a Canyon wren he’d heard. No luck audibly or visually so we headed on.
The fields of unbroken snow on the plateau looked wonderful below a blue sky as we headed east through Waterville. We saw our first Rough-legged hawk along the way to Withrow.
We had seen frequent reports of Gray partridge at the Withrow grain elevators so we pulled in to take a look. I’d been there a couple of times without success. I honestly believe that other, more accomplished birders like my friend Steve Howes or Jenn and Gerry bring me good luck. Their experience always teaches me how to more effectively participate in this chase. We had all but given up after scouring the area with binoculars and were readying to leave when a single Eurasion Collered Dove stopped us for some reason. Once stopped, two partridge flushed and headed away from us. We backed up and set out to get a better look at them that would qualify for a legitimate sighting. As we walked around several more flushed and we tracked them as they flew and settled in among the weed and rills. Gerry set up his scope and placed it on a pair of Gray partridge. Bingo. Life bird for Jenn. Year bird for J and G. Dianne and I had seen some a few weeks earlier when we drove a similar route with Steve Howes. All of us enjoyed the sight of these pretty birds. The photo below was taken on the previous trip with Steve.
We drove on to the town of Mansfield and stopped at the cemetery that Steve and I had explored a few months prior. We hoped for owls in the big trees and sparrows in the hedge rows. What we got was good viewing of a Swainson’s Hawk flying away from us (life bird for Bruce), a fleeting glimplse of a Moutain bluebird and a clear view of a Snow bunting flying directly overhead. That bird was so white it stuck out vividly against that clear blue sky. Our lists were growing as we headed east of Mansfield to search for Snowy owls.
We drove several roads in the area where the owls had been reported and glassed every pile of rock and hummock that we saw. Actually, I drove and glanced, Gerry, Jenn and Dianne did the real scanning. Nada. We stopped in an intersection for lunch. Gerry made use of the time by walking down the road to look into other areas with his scope. Nada. He did see a Northern shrike but it stayed off our lists since the rest of us were slackers and stayed near the car… and food.
As we approached our lunch spot we saw what we thought was a red-tailed hawk sitting on a power pole. As I drove by Jenn started voicing second opinions and was thumbing through the Sibley’s guide as she convinced us to go back for a better look. The bird was not realy cooperative but we got to see the under-wing feather pattern that led to identifying the bird as a Broad-winged hawk (lifer for Bruce). Identifying a bird can frequently be a challenge with all the seasonal variations they experience, hybridization, morphs and natural variability. Size, shape, flight patterns and plumage are key diagnostics. But sometimes you just have to go back and check again with an authoritative book for reference. We were all glad that Jenn’s doubts resulted in our circling around for a few more views of this bird. Lesson learned.
We headed north toward the Columbia River. Along the way we saw other raptors like this Red-tailed Hawk.
Once on the river we recorded many waterfowl… scaup, bufflehead, geese, ring-billed ducks, golden eye and others. All are beautiful birds but their common presence dulls the thrill of the check mark on the list. We kept moving south to the Beebe Springs Natural Area near Chelan, Washington. I’d driven by there a number of times with Dianne and Steve Howes but had not stopped due to snow packing the access. We all wandered the area to see what it offered. A few sparrows showed up as did a couple of Killdeer. The variety of habitats and proximity to water suggest that this place will be a rich location to visit in a month or two. It’s always nice to have a path through a rich area and I’m betting that if we get there early in the day we will have the area largely to ourselves.
We headed south out of Chelan toward Wenatchee as the sun started to lower to the horizon. Jenn had not seen Bighorn sheep in the wild and I was hopeful that the herd just north of Wenatchee was still hanging around and visible. Gerry spotted them about 100 yards upslope from the highway so we parked and set up a scope to scan them and give Jenn the chance to add another mammal to her list. The photo below is from a previous trip that Dianne and I made about a month ago. Same animals and location, different time.
Once we were back to the house we sat with an adult beverage and Jenn and Gerry went through their routine of documenting the birds seen for the day. Honestly, I was a bit surprised at this process even though I had heard about it several times. The list isn’t official until it is written while enjoying a pint. Gerry pointed out that going through the Sibley book page by page and bird type by bird type allows you to see the birds again which helps reinforce their field marks and relation to others. Good thought I think. Me, I use an app on my phone to log birds during the day. I was hoping that I’d gotten all of the birds entered. I hadn’t and added 2 or 3 more as G and J called out their notes. At the end we’d seen 51 species during the day. There were a few more that Gerry knew were out there but couldn’t count… the Canyon wren he’d heard but not seen and that noone else heard or saw and the Northern shrike he saw at lunch and which we’d not seen because I’m a slacker. We didn’t hit the 70 mark which was a bit of a disappointment only to Gerry.
The next day we added Great Horned Owl to the list as we drove Colockum Canyon south of Wenatchee. Once again, this area will be worth a visit in a month or two. We then retreated to the house and said farewell to J and G as they headed back to Portland. Of course they continued to bird as they drove and added a couple more “first of year” birds to their growing list. The last I heard, Wild Turkey was number 161 for the year.
I opted to go the river park to continue to practice with the new lens. There is always a learning curve with a new lens and this large lens is no different. I practiced panning and shooting as geese, wigeon and goldeneye flew by. A few of the images tell me that I have potential to get decent images if I can catch up to the lens quality. I’ll keep after it.