Thankful

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Thanksgiving season came and went this year, leaving behind warm memories and ample leftovers. On Thanksgiving, as on every day, I gave thanks for the friends and family that I cherish, the experiences I have lived as well as those yet to come, and the privilege I have to live in a warm and safe home. In terms of birds, these past two weeks have also given me much to be thankful for.

On the evening of Sunday the 19th of November, several friends texted me excitedly to notify me of a male Painted Bunting that had just been reported coming to a feeder in La Conner, an hour and a half north of Seattle. Painted Buntings are one of the most gloriously colorful birds in North America, whose French name nonpareil (meaning “without equal) gives a notion of just how special an experience it is to see this species – especially in Washington State, a thousand miles away from where they should be! Indeed, this male was only the fourth record for the state in history. I knew I had to go see it as soon as I could, and I had a nagging worry that the bird wouldn’t be around until the following weekend. The solution was obvious…

…skip school!

Yes, I know, readers may remember that I also skipped a couple classes to see the Swallow-tailed Gull in August. However, I must inform you that I have *very* good grades, and the classes I have before 10:45 AM are classes in which the schoolwork can be easily made up. For this reason, I feel secure in missing these classes once in a while – as long as it doesn’t become a regular habit, there should be no problems!

But anyway, I digress. The next morning, I rose at 5 AM to travel north with my mother and grandmother, who was staying with us for Thanksgiving. We arrived at daybreak – so early that no cafés in the town of La Conner were even open! Our excitement to see the bird soon overrode our hunger, and we drove across town and reached our destination, an alley between a tennis court and a few houses. Five birders were already staked out with scopes trained on the bunting’s preferred feeder, and two birders who had arrived before dawn said they had already seen the bird. We sat and waited in the drizzling rain. House sparrows, house finches, and juncos came and went, but no sign of the bunting yet… until – now! It was hard to mistake the brilliant flash of a multicolored songbird among muted brown company on a dreary November morning.

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After 20 minutes of enjoying the Painted Bunting feeding on shelled seeds, the bird dropped out of sight and I knew that it was time to return to school. Veni, Vidi, Vici!

The following Friday, a day after Thanksgiving, I had another birding experience to be thankful for. I headed south for a day of birding Lewis County with my friends Adam Crutcher, Jason Vassallo and Dalton Spencer. It was a legendary day! Our highlights included county Code 4 Northern Shrike, a nice American Dipper, a Northern Pygmy-Owl that came in to the sound of our whistled imitations, a Swamp Sparrow calling a few times at the edge of an expansive wetland, and perhaps best of all, a male Lesser Goldfinch on the same eBird checklist as two Common Redpolls – the latter of which were only a second county record, very rare so far south in western Washington!

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The next morning, I finally netted a Mountain Chickadee for my home county. After seeing a couple reports of Mountain Chickadee in lowland Puget Sound back in late October, I correctly predicted that an irruption was soon to follow. For a month, reports came in one by one, from feeders and random coastal pine stands across King County. Finally, I had the chance to chase my own in the yard of a friend in Kirkland. It didn’t take long for the white-eyebrowed star of the show to come down to their seed feeder and allow for a couple nice photos.

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A week of school passed, and I was excited for the weekend. I was set on chasing a Glaucous Gull one county south of me, a lifer. The gull had not been looked for since the 26th but had been seen daily before that date, so I was not too worried. I slept in until 9:40 AM the next morning (UC college apps are exhausting!!) and then woke up to check my rare bird alert – and noticed that there was a Glaucous Gull report from just the prior day in my own county! I immediately nixed my previous plan and set a new course. The car battery was drained, which provided a minor inconvenience, but I paid my brother to chauffeur me to Carkeek Park.

The name Carkeek Park may sound familiar. That is because it is the very same park at which Ryan Merrill found the now-famous Swallow-tailed Gull on August 31st. When I got down to the beach today, I was very happy to discover that my lifer Glaucous Gull was standing on the very same pebbles as the Swallow-tailed had been three months prior – marking my second lifer gull species in the same 10-foot-square area!

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The gull was a first-winter bird, and may well have never seen a human up close before today. As such, I was able to crawl on my belly until I was decently close to the bird, and get some absolutely smashing photos!

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At noon, my chauffeur was growing impatient, and it was soon time to return home. I bid adieu to the handsome Glaucous Gull still standing on the edge of the surf and walked back up to the car.

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As we come to the end of this post, I have a slightly different perspective to add. Today I birded the Snoqualmie Valley east of Seattle with my friends Adrian Lee and Joshua Rudolph – the latter of whom is about to move to Hawaii to assume the position of Endangered Species Biologist for the Pacific region (a region encompassing over 2.5 million miles)! We set out with hopes of finding Short-eared and Northern Pygmy-Owls. However, though we did get my county yearbird Rough-legged Hawk, a few gorgeous though non-native Ring-necked Pheasants, and a couple heard-only Swamp Sparrows, we missed out on both owls. However, here is where I must sit back and ask: was it really so bad, even though I dipped? I got the hawk, and what’s more, I got to spend time with someone who I may not get to see for a long time. The moral of this story is: be thankful for what you have, and not disappointed by what you don’t. As I drove home from the outing, I sang along to Christmas music on the radio; partly because I was exhausted, but partly not, I began to tear up thinking of how fortunate I have been to spend so many Christmas seasons with family.

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Here’s to a happy December for you and yours – and birds to brighten the winter season! Whatever comes, and whatever doesn’t, I hope you have a holiday season to be thankful for.

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