Tuesday 9 June 2015

Varied Birding (more travels)

So, I've been away again. Possibly it is time to rename the Blog. "Sometimes Wanstead Birder" has a certain ring to it. Then again so does "Hardly ever Wanstead Birder". So too does "Never.....". That said, local birding has been indescribably DULL throughout May and what we've seen of June so far. April was fantastic of course, so it's not like we didn't get a bit of migration action, it's just that May in theory ought to be even better. But birding always has the capacity to surprise, not necessarily in a good way. Who would have thought for example that this spring would see both Hudsonian Godwit and Hudsonian Whimbrel. The latter is sat somewhere in Sussex as I type this. I couldn't get there due to work, but I am generally pretty sanguine about this kind of thing. And anyway, I am still recovering from the excitement of the sleeping Godwit. I'm all for variety (of foreign locations) in birding, and the ability not to focus on any one thing to the detriment of others (except the patch of course!) has always been an advantage as I see it. So after a welcome 12 hours at home after Fuerteventura, this past week I've been in the Pacific Northwest, specifically in Washington State with a teensy bit of British Columbia thrown in at the start and finish. 

In many ways it was my ideal kind of trip. A new location with stacks of new and interesting birds, a variety of habitats to explore, and a week with no limitations whatsoever. If I wanted to bird a location for several hours, I could. If I wanted to spend two hours photographing a single bird, I could. If I wanted to drive for a few hours to a different site, that too was entirely possible. Complete freedom to do whatever floated my boat in other words, but also with a plan in mind, and a clear list of places to go and birds to try and see. The planning phase to me is almost as interesting and exciting as the executing of the plan, and this part went swimmingly - superb in every respect. It may surprise you that I used my bins and scope equally if not more than my camera, it was primarily a birding trip. So of 155 species seen, I've probably got photos of only 20, which is fine by me. In hindsight, and as always, I tried to do too much. There's a lot of light at this time of year, and I caned it every single day, with early starts and late finishes. And I drove 1,600 miles in six days, which averages to a lot, although it didn't feel like it apart from on the final day when I needed to be in Vancouver in the evening but found myself still birding considerably east of the Cascades at 8pm. My 1.30am arrival in Canada put paid to my early morning birding on the final day, but I still found the time to get half a dozen new species and was birding up to almost the final minute, making the plane with a quarter of an hour to spare. That said, I reckon it might have waited for me ;-)

Highlights were many, and this is a trip worthy of a massive day by day report, which will follow in due course as I'm away again at the weekend.... Of particular note were two non-birds. A boat trip out to the San Juans to see Killer Whales was superb, resulting in fantastic views of at least six of these magnificent creatures. And then finding a Rattlesnake crossing my path in the Entiat mountains was a real treat, and included some extremely cautious photography. 

On the bird front, top place has to go to Varied Thrush. This stonker of a bird is a real NW speciality and was my top target of the trip. It is also a proper skulker, and in suitable habitat I heard them all over the place but never saw one. Thick fog and cloud in most of those locations didn't help matters, but even in clear weather they remained invisible. The haunting calls are brilliant but of course rather frustrating. However on day four at a place called Denny Creek (east over the Cascades off I-90) all that changed. I rounded a huge pine on the corner of the path and a bird flew up. Initially I didn't know what it was, it was very dark in there and it had been too quick. But I was convinced it hadn't flown more than a couple of meters, and so I cautiously poked my head around the trunk and was blown away. Absolutely beautiful. And it just sat there, with its beak full of food, looking back at me. I had my camera fortunately - as mentioned that wasn't always the case on this trip - and so tried a few speculative shots in the gloom. Even an orange blur would have been OK, but look what I got! This photo was taken at 1/40s, at 910mm in old money. I've lightened it up in photoshop and applied a bit of sharpening, but sitting here I'm blown away at how it came out. This of course is testament to my upper body physique, where really only Arnie is my equal. I am steady as a rock, my arms are like tree trunks - Ponderosa Pines to be exact. Who knows how this worked? The image stabiliser is a huge help of course, but largely it's probably to do with luck. The shutter sounding terrible, in a series of blurry messes the odd tolerably sharp one will emerge out of the blue, and this is one of those. But getting past the geeky crap, just look at this belter of a bird and be stunned at how lovely it is. A special moment.

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