Maybe the birds don’t care if the seas are rough or not but the birders do. Frank Caruso and I did a whirlwind trip to coastal stops on Saturday August 27 the day before we were to join Westport Seabirds for a pelagic trip. The weather was not very good – drizzly and foggy. It was not too bad for birding on shore but it did not look too good for a trip out on the ocean if it continued to the next day. Indeed there was another Westport Seabirds trip that day and we wondered how they fared. Our first stop was the Point Brown Jetty and we could barely see anything in the mist – definitely could not find the early Rock Sandpiper that had been reported there the week before. Andy Rogers was there taking photos and getting wet. He had not seen the Rock Sandpiper either but had a Wandering Tattler which had flown to the other side of the jetty. We settled for some Sanderlings on the beach and some Black Turnstones on the jetty and then headed to the Oyhut Game Range – our main target area for the day anyhow.
Black Turnstone at Point Brown Jetty (in the mist)
We understood that the Game Range was not so great from the Oyhut entrance so we walked in from the STP side. The skies had cleared a bit but the light was still pretty dim. The tide was high and the bay was full of Sooty Shearwaters, molting Red Throated Loons and gulls. Some of the loons still had their red throats which was very cool and I was also able to get a photo of one that showed two reasons they were so close to shore – no wing feathers for flight on one and another with a fish.
Red Throated Loon with Red Throat
Molting and Flightless Red Throated Loon
Red Throated Loon with Fish
The loons were great but our quest was for shorebirds and we trudged through the sand and mud and salucornia to an area that had some activity. Not a lot of birds but it looked like there might be some potential for a goody or two. First though we were distracted by some very friendly calling, flying and posing American Pipits. Not flamboyant but very pretty birds. Too bad none of them had red throats.
As we got close enough to look at the shorebirds, one jumped out immediately as “the right size” meaning bigger that a peep. It proved to be a Stilt Sandpiper. We had good scope views before it took off and disappeared. There were no other “larger” shorebirds – just some Least and Western Sandpipers, Sanderlings and Semipalmated Plovers and a single Baird’s Sandpiper.. We had hoped for some Golden Plovers but not even any Black Bellied Plovers and definitely nothing as exciting as a Ruff or Buff Breasted Sandpiper – two rarities which have been previously found at this location. We gave up on anything special and headed back. But somehow without our noticing it , a larger shorebird had come in to the area and was foraging along the channel. Probably because we wanted it to be one, we tried hard to make it into a Sharp Tailed Sandpiper. Some of the characteristics were right but – no – the rufous cap was broken and the breast markings too distinct. So we settled for some very good looks at a Pectoral Sandpiper.
Pectoral Sandpiper – what we saw
Sharp Tailed Sandpiper – from Hoquiam STP on September 19, 2014 – what we wanted to see
The rest of the day was pretty disappointing although we saw lots of birds. Nothing of note at the Hoquiam STP. Thousands of gulls at North Cove but no Elegant Terns. Not a single shorebird at Tokeland and again no Elegant Terns. We saw thousands of Sooty Shearwaters from North Cove – not too far offshore – as we had earlier at the Game Range in the bay. We drove the beach at Midway/Grayland with friends Melissa Hafting and Ilya Povalyaev from Vancouver and had very few shorebirds and definitely nothing of note and definitely no Snowy Plovers although again there were thousands of Sooty Shearwaters. We did not check the ponds at Midway but Ilya and Melissa did later and had some nice birds but again no Snowies nor Buff Breasted, Ruffs or Sharp Tails.
Time to head to Westport and check into our motel. We stopped at Float 21 and scanned the hundreds of Marbled Godwits but we were not able to find the Bar Tailed Godwit that had been hanging out with them Our plan was to get checked in, have an early dinner and then head to Bottle Beach. High tide there was at 9:38 pm so our goal was to arrive around 7 and catch the shorebirds as they moved in with the incoming tide. The check-in and dinner part went according to plan. While waiting for our pizzas, Melissa called to say they had returned and had the Bar Tailed Godwit near the Coast Guard station off Float 21. Fortunately it waited until we finished dinner and got there around 6:30. There were actually far fewer godwits than when we had seen there before, but the Bar Tailed was pretty easy to find as its paler feathers contrasted with the browner/tanner plumage of the somewhat larger Marbled Godwits.
Bar Tailed Godwit with Marbled Godwits from Float 21
Timing was perfect for us to then get to Bottle Beach by a little before 7:00 pm. From many previous visits I have learned that it is generally necessary to get to Bottle Beach at least 2.5 hours before high tide and bird as the tide comes in bringing what can be many hundreds of shorebirds in with it. As Frank and I passed over the bridge next to Brady’s Oysters, we wondered if we had read the tide tables wrong since the oyster beds were covered and there was lots of water and little mud. And when we hiked out to Bottle Beach joined by Melissa and Ilya and again saw very little mud and the pilings almost completely under water we figured we had made a mistake for sure. Turns out that high tide was indeed at 9:38 and we were more than 2.5 hours ahead of it – BUT the low tide had been a very “high” low tide and the high tide was a very “high” high tide so there was just no mud for the shorebirds. We had a few peeps, a few Semipalmated Plovers and maybe 150 Black Bellied Plovers – and again thousands of Sooty Shearwaters. AND the shorebirds we had did not stay long as a Peregrine Falcon flew by and they disappeared.
A small consolation prize was an up close and personal look at a Virginia Rail from the bridge on the boardwalk coming back to the cars. We heard at least two others in the reeds.
So much for the preliminaries; time to get some sleep and be ready for the pelagic trip the next day. I had gotten word that the sea conditions had not been the best for Saturday’s trip but they had some good birds including Scripp’s Murrelets, lots of Red Phalaropes and some Arctic Terns. I was particularly interested in the latter as I have only seen them a couple of times in Washington and have never had a photo. The weather had continued to improve though the day so I was optimistic for a good trip on Sunday.
Frank had been fighting a cold most of Saturday and the combination of that battle plus medication for it and Dramamine for the boat trip left him a little groggy but we were on board and in good spirits by 5:45 a.m. We had great spotters in Bill Tweit, Bill Shelmerdine and Scott Mills and the seas were C-A-L-M and there was no W-I-N-D. Unlike the previous morning there was also no rain or even fog or mist. Maybe no sunshine but decent visibility in the cloudy day. Captain Phil and First Mate Chris were their usual wonderful selves and all looked good. Let’s go!!
Seas were as calm on this trip as any I can remember. Crossing the bar was a piece of cake and there were essentially no swells or waves the entire way out and the entire way in. We almost immediately started seeing close in Sooty Shearwaters – continuing our experience from the day before. Hundreds of Common Murres, some adults with chicks, and in all plumages were seen immediately as well. Additionally we had the usual large numbers of Brown Pelicans and California Heerman’s and other Gulls. Also much earlier than usual I spied some small birds floating in the air just above the water – Fork Tailed Storm Petrels – always a treat and this close in – perhaps a good omen.
Fork Tailed Storm Petrel
Not too far out we also found our first (and almost only) non-avian treat – a fairly large Mola Mola (Sunfish) swimming on the surface. I have been on trips where we have seen more than a dozen of these pretty weird fish.
We also had some Cassin’s Auklets closer in than usual and lots of Phalaropes – unfortunately all Red Necked. A striking flock of mostly White Winged Scoters was also fun.
White Winged Scoters (Trailed by a Common Murre)
As is often the case, we hit a slow period as we traveled towards deeper water. We continued to see Cassin’s Auklets and then a number of Rhinoceros Auklets – but no Scripp’s Murrelets which were hoped for by all. We also had a close fly by from a Pomarine Jaeger. I wish the focus was better for my photo. We also had more Red Necked Phalaropes, and a couple of Pink Footed Shearwaters stood out with their white bellies in contrast to the numerous and continuous dark bellied Sooty Shearwaters.
Captain Phil Anderson had noted that there were some shrimp boats south of us in Pacific County. These boats are prizes on any pelagic trip as often dozens or even hundreds of birds follow them hoping for scraps. When found on a pelagic trip the close up views and the diverse species and even rarities are treasured. We saw the boats off in the distance and could tell that there were many birds circling them – adrenaline began to flow. Phil is a great captain not only because he handles the boat so well but because his years of experience have taught him where to find birds and how to approach them to give his birders the best views etc. He also has great eyes and identification skills himself.
On the way to the boats I heard a call that was music to my ears “ARCTIC TERN!!”I rushed to the front of the boat just in time to get a few rushed photos. This has been a nemesis for me in Washington and now I finally had a photo – not a great photo but clearly it was this sought after bird. It was the 300th species I have photographed in Washington this year and number 397 on my Washington Photo Life List. YAY!!!
Arctic Tern – Photo 300 for the Year and 397 for my State Photo Life List
As I said not a great photo so I cannot resist again including a very great one from an earlier blog – a breeding plumaged Arctic Tern up close at Machias Seal Island in Maine.
Arctic Tern – Breeding Plumage – Machias Seal Island Maine
Phil maneuvered us perfectly to the first shrimp boat and we had LOTS of birds. Lots of numbers and lots of species. One excellent bird was a Long Tailed Jaeger. Another was a Short Tailed Shearwater and the very best was a Flesh Footed Shearwater which accommodated the birders with several flights around the shrimp boat its all dark body and pale bill and pale feet easy field marks to see and distinguish it from the other shearwaters. The Short Tailed Shearwater was not as easy to distinguish as it closely resembles the abundant Sooty Shearwaters, but its thin bill, rounder head and at times visibly shorter tail (with feet extending behind), grayer chin and faster wingbeat were all observed. More common species included many Pink Footed Shearwaters, Sooty Shearwaters, Northern Fulmar, Sabine’s Gull, more Fork Tailed Storm Petrels and Black Footed Albatross.
Short Tailed Shearwater
Flesh Footed Shearwater
Pink Footed Shearwater
Fork Tailed Storm Petrel
Black Footed Albatross
We changed course and found another fishing boat with more birds but no different species and then in quieter waters Phil and Bill Tweit chummed in some birds and at another time laid out a fish oil slick which brought in more good birds including more than 50 Black Footed Albatross at one time. At the chum spot we had excellent looks at a Long Tailed Jaeger that circled several times. Briefly we also had a fly by of a Parasitic Jaeger and more Short Tailed Shearwaters.
Black Footed Albatross at Fish Oil Slick
Long Tailed Jaeger
It was time to return to port. We still had not seen any Red Phalaropes even though the day before they had more than 1300!! Also no Buller’s Shearwaters – also missed on the earlier trip – a surprise and disappointment. We remedied the Red Phalarope absence with several groups on the way back – at times mixed with Red Necked Phalaropes. Best of all we found a single South Polar Skua – completing the so-called Skua Slam with the three species of Jaegers. A light phase Northern Fulmar was another good bird but we never did see a Buller’s Shearwater nor any Scripp’s Murrelets although we saw many more Common Murres and Cassin’s Auklets and added two more alcids – a single Tufted Puffin and a very close Pigeon Guillemot.
South Polar Skua
Northern Fulmar (Light Phased Adult)
As we got closer to Westport we passed through many Sooty Shearwater flocks and off in the distance there was an endless stream of them flying close to the water. I don’t know how one can count/estimate the numbers of these birds but all agreed that there were more than 35,000 all told and it could have been a large multiple of that number. We also saw a couple of Wandering Tattlers on the jetty and the large flock of Marbled Godwits circled overhead as we approached our dock.
Passing though a Flock of Sooty Shearwaters
It had been another great trip on very calm seas. Some species were missed but the Skua Slam and both Flesh Footed and Short Tailed Shearwaters more than made up for those misses. Indeed it was a “Magical Pelagical”. I added 7 species to my year list for Washington and got photos of them all. For me at least the bird of the trip was that single Arctic Tern and it no longer will be on either my Want nor Need list for photos in Washington. But there are others…