It was a little over two weeks since I had returned from my wonderful trip to Florida. The two previous weeks had been the mountains in Washington versus mostly the coast in Florida – very different indeed. But how about our Washington Coast and the one in Florida? This weekend gave me the opportunity to compare those two very contrasting coasts as I made my first visit of the year to do some pelagic birding with Westport Seabirds. The early start for the pelagic trip out of Westport makes it almost essential to stay over the night before and thus provides the perfect chance to bird the coastal areas the day before – and possibly some more after the boat trip as well. Visits are planned around the tides and I always include favorite beaches often with a first stop at the Capitol Forest just south and west of Olympia – a go to spot for Hermit Warblers. As usual in mid-May they were there in good numbers. So too were Wilson’s Warblers.
A birder is faced with many strategic decisions when birding the Washington Coast – and the first is whether to try to include places in two different areas – turn south from Aberdeen and go to the Westport area or continue west and go to the Ocean Shores area. A full day can be spent in each area, but with a sufficiently early start and/or a sufficiently late conclusion, both areas can be included and that was my plan.
A first stop at the Hoquiam Sewage Treatment Plant was disappointing as I found no shorebirds and my only new bird for the year was a Bonaparte’s Gull. Many great birds have been found here in the past – not this time. So I moved on to Ocean Shores – hoping for shorebirds on the sandy beach near the Casino north of town. I love driving on the sand and there can be thousands of birds if one is lucky. At first there were no birds at all and I worried that the relatively low tide was the cause. But then I started to find mixed flocks foraging at the edge of the water. This was quite the contrast with the Florida coast where shorebirds were relatively few and were generally only found in the tidal wrack. My first group was primarily Western Sandpipers with a few Dunlin and Sanderlings – maybe 100 birds. Later groups were similarly sized but also included Semipalmated Plovers – my first for the year and the species I felt I was most likely to add here.
Dunlin (breeding plumage)
The only similarity with Florida was that Sanderling were present in both basic and alternate plumages. I had hopes for another bird seen commonly in Florida and relatively rare in Washington but at least a possibility here – a Ruddy Turnstone – but not this trip. There were also no larger waders or “special sandpipers” but one surprise was a group of four Red Necked Phalaropes.
Sanderling – Basic (non-breeding) Plumage
Sanderling – Alternate (breeding) Plumage
Red Necked Phalaropes (both male and female)
My next stop was the North Jetty where I hoped to find a Wandering Tattler. The tide was pretty low and I found no birds on the jetty at all. I decided not to go to the Oyhut Game Range – often a fantastic spot. It had not received good reviews lately and the low tide was discouraging so it was off to the Westport area – meaning yet another trip through the ever bleak Hoquiam and Aberdeen.
If the tide timing had been right (2.5 to 3 hours before high tide), I would have stopped at Bottle Beach, but as it was barely noon and high tide was not until 8:30 pm, I drove straight to Grayland Beach – another drive on the open beach this time hoping for Snowy Plovers. The weather was great. There were some cars on the beach but not that many – and once again the tide was working against me -just too much exposed sand – and I did not find a single shorebird. A few gulls and a few Caspian Terns and that was it. Again time to move on.
It was now on to Tokeland. It has been a great place for Willets – the most reliable spot on the coast – but there had been none reported recently – so I was not optimistic. Whimbrels and Godwits were also a possibility – so I was at least hopeful. But once again the tides were wrong or the bird gods were unhappy as there were no birds there at all. Now the plan was to go to Westport – check out reports of Fork Tailed Storm Petrels and Phalaropes that had been seen regularly in the marina area and also check a favorite spot for a Wandering Tattler before checking into the hotel and then heading back to Bottle Beach – with a favorable tide.
My favorite spot for Tattler is at the far end of the jetty just past the cabins at the “groins” where there is a viewing platform. No Tattler there, but indeed Fork Tailed Storm Petrels were soaring just atop the water very close in. Usually this species is seen far out in the open ocean so this was a treat. So too was a Peregrine Falcon perched on the corner of a nearby building.
Fork Tailed Storm Petrel
The plan was to get to Bottle Beach 3 hours before high tide. I arrived a little before that along with Chuck Jensen. Indeed the tide was still pretty far out but as we started to walk out onto the mud, we could see birds at the water’s edge and my first look through my telescope found the most hoped for bird – Red Knot. A real beauty in breeding plumage, they can almost always be found – sometimes in the hundreds – at Bottle Beach in May. There were other shorebirds as well. As the tide pushed them closer into us we could find Red Knots, Black Bellied Plovers, Western Sandpipers, Dunlin and Short Billed Dowitchers. No Godwits and again no Ruddy Turnstones, but the Dowitchers and Knots were new for the year and beautiful as the sun came out and provided great light. Then a flock of Whimbrels flew in and gave us good looks.
Short Billed Dowitcher
Black Bellied Plover and Red Knot
Figuring the show was over around 7:30, I headed back to town for dinner and then early to bed for an early start the next morning as the boat was to depart at 6:00 a.m.
I don’t know how many pelagic trips I have been on with Westport Seabirds – at least a dozen. It truly is a first class operation. Captain Phil Anderson and First Mate Chris Anderson are as good as there are anywhere. The spotters are always terrific and this time Bruce Labar was aboard as well – not as an official spotter but he just couldn’t help himself and added to the expertise of Bill Shelmerdine, Michael Donahue and Scott Mills. We were in good hands. It was also great to see familiar faces on-board as well – Brian Pendleton, Michael Charest, Todd Sahl, Steve Giles and Ed Newbold among others. The weather was gray but the seas were supposed to be relatively calm and it looked like a good trip. Certainly a good start when the Fork Tailed Storm Petrels were again seen close in to the marina.
While no two pelagic trips are the same, there is generally a similar pattern as certain birds are seen close in and others are not seen until we reach the deeper water. Some birds are almost guaranteed (Sooty and even Pink Footed Shearwaters). Others are almost for sure (Black Footed Albatross, Fulmar and Sabine’s Gull). Others are regular even if not necessarily seen well (Cassin’s Auklet, Fork Tailed Storm Petrel, Parasitic Jaeger). Then there is always the chance for something special (or different depending on the time of year) like a Laysan Albatross or a Manx Shearwater or even (be still my heart) a Murphy’s Petrel. If you are lucky, a processing boat or shrimper is found and there my be hundreds of birds flying all around it. Other times, birds are more scattered and are seen in small groups or as singletons. Usually many will come in at chum stops – providing the best views and photo opportunities. And always some and often many marine mammals – whales, seals, sea lions, dolphins, porpoises. Each trip is different and this one was definitely no exception.
The start was slow – very slow. A few Pacific Loons, some Gulls and some Common Murres and not much else. Finally a few miles out, we picked up our first shearwaters – a few and then many Sooty Shearwaters – often seen very close to shore and often in the thousands – or even tens of thousands. We diligently looked for a Pink Footed Shearwater but it was quite some time before the first one was seen. A single Sabine’s Gull was seen and then another but it remained slow – except for a mammal show and then another and another. Some, but not as many good looks at or as many different kinds of whales as on some trips but I have never seen so many dolphins: 100+ Risso’s Dolphins, 350+ Pacific White Sided Dolphins and 70+ Northern Right Whale Dolphins. Often they were immediately next to or even under the boat and they put on quite a show. One Humpback Whale fully breached – a spectacular show not far from the boat – unfortunately it was a complete surprise and was not captured by any cameras.
Pacific White Sided Dolphin
The mammals were fun, but I wanted more birds – and at least for quite a while there just were not many. Another group of shearwaters did include some Pink Footed and there were a couple of Cassin’s Auklets but they were very hard to see with the 5 foot seas – not enough for real discomfort but unsteady for photos and any birds on the water were hard to observe.
Pink Footed Shearwater
Then we started seeing Phalaropes – lots of Phalaropes – one or two or groups of 5 or 6 and then more of the same. Most were Red Phalaropes but a good number of Red Necked Phalaropes were also seen. Sometimes the two species were together giving great comparisons. Red Phalaropes really are spectacular – especially the females. Unlike most bird species, Red Phalarope females are both larger and more colorful than their male companions.
Red Necked and Red (Male) Phalaropes
Red Phalarope Female
Red Phalarope – Flight
Red Phalarope Male
Red Necked Phalarope
Red Necked Phalarope – Flight
Then at last we had a Black Footed Albatross. Usually they are plentiful and come quite close to the boat. On this trip, they were uncommon and mostly remained far away and poor light for all but one did not help photo ops.
Black Footed Albatrosses
Failing to find a fishing boat with birds around it was disappointing but we managed some good birds (even if sporadically nonetheless). A Jaeger was spotted at some distance but the combination of good luck and Phil’s expertise brought it in closer and we got good looks at a Parasitic Jaeger. Later in the trip another Jaeger was first thought to be a Long Tailed Jaeger but as it got closer, good looks and photos proved it was another Parasitic Jaeger.
Then the surprise and best bird of the day. Even though there had been very few Black Footed Albatrosses we were gifted with a visit by a Laysan Albatross – seen almost each year but not regularly and always welcome.
Now no matter what else – the Laysan Albatross made this a great trip. Nothing that rare but another good find was a single Tufted Puffin. Along with the many Common Murres, some Rhinoceros Auklets and a few Pigeon Guillemots and Cassin’s Auklets, this made for a good sampling of alcids for the trip.
Cassin’s Auklet (Distant)
The light had also improved and that allowed for a better photo of some Sabine’s Gulls. Not killer shots but truly beautiful gulls.
A big surprise and disappointment was that we had only a fleeting and single view of a Northern Fulmar. They are always cooperative at chum spots – when there are many birds around – but that was not our experience on this trip, so I am glad I have lots of Fulmar photos from other trips. It was time to head back to port. We were traveling in sunshine and with an incoming tide which made the trip very smooth. No exciting new birds on the return and we were not able to find a Wandering Tattler on the jetty – a common feat. But once in the marina we had our first terns of the trip – a group of Common Terns, some Brown Pelicans, a photo op for a Double Crested Cormorant that I could not resist, a posing Bonaparte’s Gull and a surprise Heerman’s Gull.
Double Crested Cormorant
So another great pelagic trip. Missed some hoped for birds and not nearly the quantities of many that we usually have. But great looks at many Phalaropes, a cooperative Puffin and the lovely Laysan Albatross plus quite a marine mammal show. But the day was still young and I was hoping for some shorebirds that were missed the previous day. Another try for the Wandering Tattler – but again no luck. Back to Tokeland – nothing there. One last gasp – another try for Snowy Plover at Grayland/Midway area. Again zero shorebirds on the beach – but wait – about 1 mile past the normal breeding area, I saw two little blips on the beach. Positioned the car for a photo – snap, snap – and they were gone. Definitely cute little Snowies.
Encouraged by this find – which I had given up on, I decided to make one more try for the Tattler – this time looking at a spot where Brian Pendleton had seen two the day before – at about the same time. No luck there but at the next “groin” over I finally found one. A good end to a very good day and a very good trip.
So what about that contrast and comparison with that other Coast – the one in Florida. My trip there had also included a pelagic trip – the boat trip to the Dry Tortugas. Other than they were across salt water, there were almost no similarities. Heck they are only about 3000 miles apart on two different oceans – so what would one expect. I don’t think there was a single species seen at either coast that was seen at the other one with the exception of the Sanderlings and a couple of Western Sandpipers. The gulls were different, the terns were different and there were no tubenoses or alcids in Florida at all although I sure wish there had been an Audubon’s Shearwater!!
As I said, that is one of the things that makes birding so interesting – different birds in different places – all fun to see – challenges and surprises and hopes everywhere.