One of the many challenges when birding for shorebirds is timing the tides and choosing which spots to bird to best allow for their effects. When I bird the Washington Coast that first and foremost means choosing between the Ocean Shores area or the Westport area. Except in the very longest days of summer, there is only one birdable high tide and it is generally best to be in an area on an incoming tide often, such as at Bottle Beach, two or three hours in advance of the high tide itself. A similar choice had to be made on Friday this week as I was planning a trip North. Do I try to catch the high tide at Semiahmoo or at the various great shorebird spots in Canada?
Actually the choice was easy albeit somewhat complicated by other factors. High tide (essentially the same for both areas as with the Washington Coast) was scheduled for 3:40 p.m. The target for Semiahmoo would be the Hudsonian Godwit (often called a “Hudwit“) that had been seen there fairly regularly over the past two weeks. I had missed it earlier but it was seemingly more consistent. In Canada the real target would be spending time with birding pal Melissa Hafting, but there had been several really good birds as well including both American and Pacific Golden Plovers, Hudsonian Godwit, and a Sharp Tailed Sandpiper. So the choice was seemingly easy … except that the day prior to my visit, none of the Canadian birds had been seen and the Semiahmoo Hudwit had been seen and photographed.
My quick calculation determined that the odds were decent that with Mel’s help and further assistance from her good bud Ilya Polyaev, at least one of the Canadian birds would be found and there would still be the visit with her in any event. So Canada was the choice stopping first at Semiahmoo on the off chance that somehow the Hudwit would show there early – long before high tide. Dream on…
I left early and was at Semiahmoo at 7:30 a.m. It was low tide – very low – and it was cold – only 42 degrees – proof that summer will soon be over. No shorebirds were to be seen anywhere but the light was good and I had a few hours to kill, so I decided to just enjoy some leisurely non-focused birding, see what was around and take some photos. The first bird I saw was a beautiful Lincoln’s Sparrow at the south end of the spit. No photo, but in the same area I quickly added several species including Song, Fox, White and Golden Crowned Sparrows, Spotted Towhee, Anna’s Hummingbird, Pileated Woodpecker, House Finch and Yellow Warbler.
I walked through the bushes to get a view of the shore and hoping for some shorebirds and was greeted by Mew and Ring Billed Gulls. Far out I could see Scoters and Grebes and many Cormorants and Canada Geese. No shorebirds in sight anywhere.
Ring Billed Gull
These were all “common” birds but especially in the bright morning light and the solitude of this beautiful place I was reminded of the simple pleasure of just birding – just enjoying what is so easily found and always appreciated – just being out in nature and away from “real world” cares.
Over the next couple of hours, this simple “take what is offered” approach continued and the species list grew – again mostly commonplace birds. Mallards and both Surf and White Winged Scoters, Common Loons, American Goldfinches, Rock Pigeons, House and Savannah Sparrows, Barn Swallows and Collared Doves. Hundreds of Cormorants – presumably mostly Double Crested although I did not search carefully for Pelagic or Brandt’s which may well have been in the mix.
Finally a shorebird – a Killdeer of course – first heard in flight and then found posing in front of the condominiums that are rising from expensive lots – planned many years ago but only now being economically viable I guess.
Suddenly a Merlin flew overhead chasing what I believe was a House Finch which somehow avoided capture. Too fast for a photo but somehow the camera in my brain picked out the black and gray tail bands more clearly than I had ever noted them before. One of those small but delightful moments while birding.
I would have to leave for Canada soon, but as the tide was at least now coming in I wanted to give the Hudwit another chance and headed over to the west side of the spit where the Black Bellied Plover flock that it accompanied chose to forage. They were there – Black Bellied Plovers!!! But alas only two instead of the thousand or more that had been seen at high tides on previous days. I hoped they were the early scouting party and the plenitude would soon join them, but such was not the case and these two just flew off and no others arrived as the tide remained quite low.
Black Bellied Plover
My disappointment (but not surprise) was somewhat assuaged by the arrival of first one and then two more Horned Larks – rare for the time and place and very confiding as they posed for photos for me and another birder I met at the spot who was also hoping for a Hudwit. The light was perfect and the three birds completely ignored our presence as they fed voraciously.
It was now just past 11:00 and I was scheduled to meet Melissa at Reifel Refuge at noon so it was time to go. A last stop along the road heading out gave me a look at the first Black Oystercatchers of the day and resting Caspian Terns but no more Plovers and definitely no Godwits. I would just have to find one in Canada I thought. It had been a fun morning though. Forty species already and there was a whole other country to bird. The line at the border crossing was relatively short – ten minutes to clear – and no wall to keep me out. (Sorry could not resist.)
Welcome to Canada
My last visit to Reifel Refuge had been with Pilchuck Audubon in 2015 when we had fabulous views of a Great Gray Owl that had been there for several weeks. The quest this time was a Sharp Tailed Sandpiper. Melissa and I explored all of the ponds. There were a number of shorebirds including Stilt and Pectoral Sandpipers, many Greater and Lesser Yellowlegs and lots of Dowitchers – but no Sharp Tailed. It had proven to be a one day wonder and this was not the right day. One photo of the Pec as it was about to take off gave a really good view of the dark feathers extending from its back down through its tail.
It was now a couple of hours before high tide – time to hit the spots where the Golden Plovers and the Hudsonian Godwit had been seen. As was the case at Semiahmoo a Marbled Godwit and a Willet had recently been seen with the large flock of Black Bellied Plovers that also had the Hudwit. Melissa was keenly interested in the Willet (it would be her first this year and is rare in B.C). so we were looking for the flock of Plovers. But it was not to be. No Plovers at all at Boundary Bay and none at Roberts Banks. Blackie’s Spit was now our last hope.
Blackie’s Spit is a cool spot, beautiful with views of distant mountains and the residential towers of Burnaby and good habitat for shorebirds. We finally found a (“the?”) flock of Black Bellied Plovers – hundreds of them. That was the good news. The bad news was that they were so distant that it was very difficult to scan for something different. We tried for 30 minutes. At one point I was 95% certain that when one bird lifted its head I could see a long bill and a grayish brown body that was somewhat larger than the adjoining plovers making it most likely the Hudsonian Godwit. But it dropped its head again and could not be relocated. But 95% is not 100% and 100% was needed to support the observation. Sigh… And then a surprise.
As author/keeper of the BC Rare Bird Alert (www.bcbirdalert.blogspot.com), Melissa learns of rare bird sightings almost as soon as they occur. She had just received word that a California Scrubjay had been seen 15 minutes earlier at – yes you guessed it – Blackie’s Spit – not far from where we were scoping the Black Bellied Plover throng. When we got to the spot, we found another birder who had been looking for the Scrubjay but had not found it. We joined the search and for maybe 10 minutes we had no luck. This is a very rare bird this far north and while I do not worry about a provincial or even Canada list, I certainly hoped Melissa would see it and I wouldn’t mind either. I suggested using playback and got approval. No immediate response but maybe five minutes later, we saw what could have been the bird flying behind some trees. More playback. No response. Maybe it had been our imagination. I headed down a path while they remained above and was lucky to see the Scrubjay with a large nut in its beak. It flew and Melissa and the other birder got quick views. Then I spotted a second Scrubjay – only one had been reported before – and this one proved more accommodating as it perched in the open in the sunlight – a great photo op.
California Scrubjay – First Record Shot with Nut and then a Lovely Pose
While this made the day for Melissa, for me it was “nice” but not what I had hoped for when I ventured north. We went back to the distant flock of Black Bellied Plovers and tried again. The light was now better but we could not relocate the bird I had seen previously. Ilya Povalyaev had joined us and joined the search. Nothing and then the flock flew off to the west and north and that was that. Or was it? Stay tuned.
With the flock gone, we turned our attention to the Scrubjay again and took Ilya to the spot. When we had departed before, both Scrubjays had flown West. Would we find it again. I played the call and quickly first one and then the second bird appeared. No poses this time, and again they flew off to the west just as they had before. Happy for Ilya but I had really wanted one of the special shorebirds and now time was running out. As I said, Melissa learns of good sightings almost as soon as they occur. She received word that the Hudsonian Godwit had been seen at Boundary Bay – exactly where we had been two hours previously. It was now 5:45 and the light would soon be gone. Time to follow Rule 1 – “Go Now” – back to Boundary Bay – 14 miles away. Several birders arrived at the “Scrubjay spot” just we were leaving – all friends of Melissa and Ilya – looking for the rarity there. I couldn’t wait to visit and raced off. Fortunately Melissa and Ilya cut their visit short and left shortly after I did to join me – thankfully so.
I had had the foresight to put the Boundary Bay (Mansion) location on my GPS so was able to get there. I made good (great?) time and was there just after six. There was still light but already beginning to fade – as I said earlier, summer is leaving us. Melissa and Ilya arrived shortly after I did and we first set up scopes at the 96th Avenue terminus. The number of Black Bellied Plovers was astonishing – easily 1000 plus. This was the same flock that had been seen at Semiahmoo across the bay. It almost definitely included the flock we had seen at Blackie’s Spit – plus many more. Would the Hudwit be with them? The Willet? Ilya spotted the Willet. We got looks in his scope and then found it in our own. Melissa was a very happy camper but that was not my quest. I thought I found the Hudwit – larger bird with long bill. But I had not realized that the Willet had flown and that is what I refound. Our search continued and the light continued to fade.
We found a Godwit – but it was the more common Marbled Godwit. Aaargh! But, again the sharp-eyed Ilya came through. Further to the East, he found the Hudsonian Godwit. I got it in my scope as well and now there was no doubt. Long bi-colored slightly upturned bill. Plain brownish gray and that definite white supercilium. Yay!!! We sped down to the end of the road in front of the Mansion (what was THAT doing there?!) and searched for the American Golden Plover that had also been noted in the message received by Melissa. It was probably there in the 1000+ Black Bellied Plovers but they were all too far out and the light was now pretty bad. But I had seen the Hudsonian Godwit – ABA bird 495 for the year – and I too was a happy camper.
To complete the story, we learned that about 90 minutes or so after I had left Semiahmoo earlier that day, the large flock of Black Bellied Plovers had arrived and that the flock included a Willet, a Marbled Godwit and a Hudsonian Godwit. It was almost 5 hours later that I saw this same flock at Boundary Bay – confirmation that, as suspected, all of the sightings in both places over the past several days had been of the same birds – availing themselves of feeding and resting places within just a few miles as the crow (or the Plover, Willet or Godwit) flies but many more miles as traveled by the birders. Our Boundary Bay birds had been too distant for photos so I include a photo of a Hudsonian Godwit from Semiahmoo that I took there in late September 2015 – a LOT closer in. It may even be the same bird.
Hudsonian Godwit (Semiahmoo September 29, 2015)
Melissa, Ilya and I had a nice dinner at “The Cabin” in Crescent Beach and I headed home. It was a very long day. It was a very good day. Great places, great birds and especially great people!!