I got a message from my Canadian birding pal and info source extraordinaire Melissa Hafting, that a Horned Puffin had been reported from Smith Island in Puget Sound. After numerous exchanges and some research it was determined that a single Horned Puffin had been seen by a research group surveying the Island’s Tufted Puffin population and that a primarily whale watching company out of Bellingham had trips scheduled to Smith Island on the following weekend. I have seen Horned Puffins in Alaska and had organized a boat trip a few years ago to chase one that had been reported in the Sound. That trip was unsuccessful so Horned Puffin remained as a coveted new State of Washington species. The boat trip from Bellingham was long and was not focused on finding a Horned Puffin or any other birds. There did not seem to be a high probability of success and I had other calendar obligations, so I decided to forego the attempt.
Horned Puffin – Off Adak Island Alaska – May 2016
But Horned Puffins remained on my mind. Then on the evening of July 19th, I got a Rare Bird Alert from Ebird of an observation by Jonathan Scordino: “(Horned) Puffin observed with rhinoceros auklets inside the outer breakwater at Neah Bay. There is a post (telephone pole size) sticking up out of an area with new rocks in jetty in general vicinity of puffin. Puffin had two dark points coming up above eye, white face, darker bill tip than rest of bill, and a black band around neck when observed in flight. My friend has photo on his phone that is suitable for identification and I can upload it when he sends it.” As written in my earlier blog post, two special birds were cool coincidences (Red Necked Stint and White Winged Dove – at wordpress.com/post/blairbirding.wordpress.com/17102). Was this going to be great bird karma again? One way to find out – follow Rule One and “Go Now”!
It was now after 10:00 P.M. so as close to “now” I could get would be to take the 6:20 Edmonds ferry the next morning and as I had done so often last year – get to Neah Bay. I sent Steve Pink an email with the news of the Horned Puffin and told him my plans. “Let me know if you want to go”. I figured he was likely in bed which is where I was headed, but maybe he would rise early and see the message and at least have the chance to go. But there was no return message in the morning, so I boarded the ferry alone and I was off.
It is about 130 miles to Neah Bay from Edmonds but time for the ferry and to navigate many twisting roads especially near the end makes it an almost three hour drive. I was on the Boom Road – the long rock jetty/breakwater that protects the harbor by about 9:10. I had hoped to see other birders – with the Horned Puffin already in their sights. No such luck. As it turns out and it would be thus the whole day – I was alone. The weather was a bit overcast with rain threatening. I looked for the “post/pole” mentioned in Jonathan Scordino’s report but could not find it. I was at the end of the road and was not about to walk out on the jumbled boulders of the breakwater. There were lots of birds out in the harbor. Would my scope reveal one of them to be the prize?
The first birds seen were Scoters – both White Winged and Surf. Then I found Rhinoceros Auklets – a couple closer in and then more and more and more further out. In groups of 3 or 4 and in long rafts of as many as 50 birds, there were hundreds of them. The harbor was relatively calm as the tide was coming in, but still with the distance and some chop, it made it hard to search through them for a Puffin. But after maybe 15 minutes of scouring every group, there was one bird that was – different – a very distinctive white face and – YES – a very large parrot like colorful bill. With the full magnification of my scope at 60x, I could conclude: “IT WAS HERE!! This had to be the Horned Puffin.” I watched it in the scope for many minutes and it would disappear and reappear as the raft reformed its order and when even a small ripple would bring the puffin behind a rise in the water and out of scope view. It was frustrating but exhilarating as each subsequent view confirmed the identification. Even with the power of the scope, it was not a great view, but I wanted to try for some kind of photo.
I abandoned the scope and raised my 100-400 mm lens. Which raft was it again? There were several. In the dim light and at the distance and with the darkening effect of looking through the camera, I could not find the Puffin among the many Rhinos. Back to the scope and as all of the rafts had moved, I repeated the search and it seemingly had disappeared. This is when having other birders is especially helpful as many eyes are far more effective. I kept looking and refound the raft with my white faced bird. Again a move to the camera failed to work. Maybe I was looking in the right spot, maybe not. I had not just imagined it, but the birds were just too far out and seemingly getting further away. It was now past 10:00 a.m. and I wondered if the show was over. It started to rain and I retreated to my car.
My observations had all been on the harbor side, east of the jetty. When the brief squall passed I returned to the road and I was hearing calls from the other side and now they got my attention. Marbled Murrelets were seemingly in family groups and the young ones were calling for food. They swam in closer and closer and I got nice photos – if only the Horned Puffin had been so close.
I remained at my post and watched a Bald Eagle fly over, more Scoters, some Pigeon Guillemots, more Murrelets, and over and over scanned the many Rhinoceros Auklets hoping for another view of the Horned Puffin. No luck. At 11:15 I had been on watch for almost 2 hours. Something needed to change. It was getting close to high tide and maybe that would make a difference. There is a Coast Guard station in Neah Bay. A Coast Guard boat came into the harbor heading into the area where so many Rhinoceros Auklets continued. They scattered. Some flew north and east – out of or at least to the outer edge of the harbor. Some others returned to the area they had just vacated and others flew closer towards me and the jetty. As a small group landed maybe 100+ yards away, some white flashed in my binoculars. I tried to get my scope on them but they were diving and bucking around in the chop. I got a quick look at one with a white face and that parrot bill. Finally the Horned Puffin was not buried in a large raft. But it was still distant and hard to track. Instead of using my “good camera and big lens”, I switched over to my “old camera”, the Canon SX that had stood me well for so long and which had a much greater magnifying power – if only I could find the bird in the chop.
I had it. I lost it. It bobbed up. I had it. It bobbed again and I lost it. I took photos as quick and as best I could, but one of the big problems with this camera is that you cannot take photos in rapid succession. I would either get lucky or miss it entirely – and at best at this magnification, it was not going to be a clear picture. But oh how I wanted one. This continued for another 10 minutes or so and then this group of Rhinos and the Horned Puffin were gone. I looked at my pictures and a couple looked “promising” but I would have to wait until I could get them onto the computer, use my pitiful Photoshop skills and – be lucky. I watched for another 30 minutes – nothing. I had good enough views to be sure of the ID and to “count” this new state species. Maybe that would have to suffice.
I took a break and headed up the Wa’atch Valley and then up onto Bahokas Peak hoping for some Sooty Grouse. It was very quiet – almost birdless. Time to go home? I had to try the jetty one more time. On the way out there was a gathering of Bald Eagles, Northwestern Crows and some Turkey Vultures. There must have been something in the rocks to scavenge. The weather had changed and now there was good sun and the Eagles made for good photos.
Juvenile Bald Eagles
Back at the end of the jetty road, I returned to the scope. Nothing was close and if anything, although the rafts of Rhinoceros Auklets continued, they were even further out. In the middle of one, there was the barely discernible alcid with a white face – the Horned Puffin was still there now at after 1:00 P.M. but no more photo ops at that distance. I left.
On the jetty I had wondered if a closer view might have been possible from some of the marina areas. Behind the Warmhouse Restaurant I saw the dilapidated former dock that was now a bit scary to walk but I gave it a try. There were lots of Pigeon Guillemots very close, a Purple Martin flew overhead, and I could still make out some Auklet rafts but they seemed to be moving out of the harbor. What if I had started there earlier? And I also noticed the “post/telephone pole in front of the new rocks at the jetty”. Jonathan Scordino must have first discovered the Horned Puffin from this vantage point. I took photos of the Guillemots and then called it a day – time for the long trip home – greatly pleased but worried about the photo.
Two men were bringing in a small fishing boat to a marina dock. Would a boat trip get me close to the Horned Puffin (if we could find it at all)? Could I convince them to try? I will never know the answer to the first question as the amount of money required to interest them in taking me out was more than I was willing to risk. So home it was.
I had posted my find on Tweeters and Ebird. I advised Steve Pink and some others that the Horned Puffin was still present. When I got home I went through all my photos and could only come up with one that was even ID quality – magnified almost beyond use. I also put together an area map that showed where I had been, where I had seen the Horned Puffin and then the dilapidated dock behind the Warmhouse and the distant post/telephone pole. I shared that with many others also. In the following days MANY birders made the long trek to Neah Bay and also found the Horned Puffin. Carol Riddell figured out a way to rent a boat and it took her and several others out into the harbor for fantastic photos – wish I had figured that out. After seeing her photos I was tempted to return but that rational thinking overcame that quickly.
As I wrote in a post last year Neah Bay is a gift that just keeps on giving. Within less than one mile of the same jetty that had given me my Horned Puffin, I have also seen these amazing birds: Dusky Capped Flycatcher, Brambling, Rustic Bunting, Orchard Oriole, Blue Gray Gnatcatcher, Tropical Kingbird, Harris’s Sparrow, Clay Colored Sparrow, and Rose Breasted Grosbeak. Charlie Wright found a Red Legged Kittiwake there (which three of us chased and missed the next day). Not much further away, I had seen Tufted Ducks, the famous Eurasian Hobby, my only Washington Cattle Egret, heard a Lucy’s Warbler, and saw a Hooded Warbler. I have also missed a Dickcissel and a Prothonotary Warbler found by others in the same area. Every one of these birds is a great species in Washington and most are extraordinary.
It’s a terrible photo – but it’s a Horned Puffin —– in WASHINGTON!!!