At this time last year I was visiting the Washington Coast for my third time and was getting ready for an exciting trip to Maine. Every year is different and his year my first trip to the Coast was not until Mid-May – planning a day of birding some favorite spots before again joining Westport Seabirds for a pelagic trip out of Westport – my tenth or so with them.
There is always a dilemma going to the coast in Washington – when you get to Aberdeen do you head south for the Westport area or do you keep going west (through the depressing “downtowns” of Aberdeen and Hoquiam) and head over to Ocean Shores. Over the years there have been many great birds in both areas and during migration (both Spring and Fall) the possibility of something special is always there. I had two “targets” for the trip in addition of course to the pelagic specialties: Red Knot and Snowy Plover. The former is usually best found at Bottle Beach and the latter on the open beach or near the dunes in the Grayland/Midway Beach area. Both are on the Westport side. But the best time for the Red Knot is a couple of hours before high tide and on this day, high tide was late – around 8 p.m. So the decision was easy – go to Ocean Shores first and then get back to Grayland and Bottle Beach late in the afternoon for the two targets there.
Having survived the tedious twists and turns to finally get past Hoquiam, the first stop is always the Hoquiam STP. This spot has produced some wonderful birds in past years as well. Some examples are Sharp Tailed Sandpiper, Lapland Longspur, Stilt Sandpiper, Red Shouldered Hawk and Ruff. The location is continually changing as the access and surroundings of the sewage ponds changes and the shorebird habitat is affected by the water level. On this visit the water was high, mud for shorebirds poor and not much was there. I had hoped for some phalaropes but no go.
Sharp Tailed Sandpiper (Hoquiam STP – September 2014)
Red Shouldered Hawk (Hoquiam STP – September 2013)
This visit was pretty bleak. The water was high and the only shorebirds were on the bay side. But as is generally the case, there was a consolation prize – maybe my best photo of a sitting Turkey Vulture.
So off to Ocean Shores and a first stop was to be the open beach near the Casino. I was hoping for some miraculous repeat of last year when I found a Lesser Sand Plover in this area – but that was August and this was May. Lots of shorebirds: more than 400 each of Dunlin, Western Sandpipers and Semipalmated Plovers, but nothing special. Most enjoyable was getting up close to both Caspian and Common Terns for good photos clearly showing the black legs of the former and the red legs of the latter.
Caspian and Common Terns
I moved on to the Point Brown Jetty looking for “Rockpipers”: Black Turnstones and Surfbirds most commonly but sometimes a Rock Sandpiper or a Wandering Tattler. The tide was very low so I could walk further out on the sand than usual but my rock hopping days are long gone so no clambering out of the jetty itself. It was too late in the year for a Rock Sandpiper (one of the reasons I had gone much earlier last year) and surprisingly there were no Surfbirds or Black Turnstones, but at least I had seen and photographed these birds elsewhere this year. The ONLY bird on the jetty was a single Wandering Tattler – my first of the year. It was way out at the tip of the jetty and there was no hope for a photo but seeing it was great and I hoped for a photo op on the Westport Jetty tomorrow returning from the boat trip.
Rock Sandpiper (Pt. Brown Jetty February 2015)
My next (and last stop on the Ocean Shores side) was the Oyhut Game Range – another of those hot spots that has produced many great birds (including rarities and lifers) over the years. I opted to go in via Tonquin Avenue. The entrance is always somewhat challenging but this time moreso as the foliage was overgrown and the logjam even worse than usual. I made my way out to get a view of the wetland and the tide was just too low. Many scope scans suggested there were just no birds to be seen – or at least readily. I had hopes of a Golden Plover – but not this time.
Time to head back east and then south to the Westport side and a chance for the Snowy Plover – definitely one of the cutest of all shorebirds. I had surprisingly seen one in Colorado in April but it is a “must” to have one in Washington each year. Since they are a threatened species, their breeding area is roped off and inaccessible in the Midway Beach dunes, but my experience has been that slowly driving the open beach adjoining the area can often find some. The low tide made for a very expansive beach area, but sticking to the plan resulted in two Snowy Plovers – and driving slowly and carefully allowed up close observations and photos. The green and white leg bands on one told me it was part of the monitored research of the species here.
Other than hundreds of Sanderlings in various plumages, a lot of Semipalmated Plovers and hundreds of Barn Swallows nothing more to see. Even though it was still a bit early given the tides, I decided to check into my hotel and then move on to Bottle Beach.
It is generally best to bird coastal shorebird spots on an incoming high tide. Planning to be there an hour or so before high tide is the typical plan. Not so at Bottle Beach where the tide comes in quickly and it is best to be there at least two hours before the scheduled high tide. When I got there, high tide was still 3 hours off and the mud/sand flats were extensive. But my scope saw lots of birds far out and I decided to just walk out to them with hopefully some good scope views and then closer looks and photos as the tide came in. I took my time and the strategy worked well as I quickly found some of the targeted Red Knots. Some distant “record” shots and then moved out further as they slowly moved in. There were Dunlin and Black Bellied Plover in all plumages and then a large flock of Short Billed Dowitchers made an appearance mixing with the now closer Knots.
The number of Red Knots was much lower than at some other visits but I estimated about 50 or so, somewhat lower than the Dowitchers but greater than the Dunlin and surprisingly way more than the Black Bellied Plovers. I was able to get quite close to many Red Knots as they fed actively and oblivious to my stealth. I also found a very handsome Greater Yellowlegs and a distant but still gorgeous Ruddy Turnstone in resplendent full breeding plumage.
Dunlin Nearing Full Breeding Plumage
The tide was still fairly far out and I was not seeing any new birds arriving so I decided to leave. I was surprised not to see any other birders at this productive spot, especially since there had been a pelagic trip that day and it was likely that it had returned and this would have been a likely post trip stop. Maybe they came after I left, but I think it was the first time I had been at Bottle Beach without company.
I got a call from Jon Houghton who had been on the pelagic trip that day (and had birded Bottle Beach the day previously) and got a good report from their trip. I met Jon and his wife Kathleen for dinner in Westport and then retired for the early morning wakeup and the next day’s trip to Gray’s Canyon with Westport Seabirds. And that will be the subject of my next blog post.