Following a week in Hawaii the week of record snow in Washington had me going stir crazy. I so notified some birding friends and told them the remedy was heading off to the Coast for the first time in 2019. Anyone else interested? Frank Caruso needed some relief as well, and he joined me for some “good old Washington birding” on February 17.
With all of the snow the past week weather has certainly been constantly on our minds and it was interesting to process the weather data as we traveled first south and then west. Still lots of snow on the ground in Edmonds, less and less as we traveled south until we got near Olympia where it picked up again and increased significantly for the first 20 miles or so heading west when it then again decreased and then disappeared. However, the fog stayed with us most of the way and we wondered if we would be able to see any birds at all.
My Edmonds Snow at its Peak
When going to the Coast, the first decision is generally whether to go towards the Ocean Shores area or to the Westport area. Often I go first towards Ocean Shores stopping at the Hoquiam Sewage Treatment Ponds and then make the decision to continue West or to backtrack and head south to the Westport area. Many times that decision is determined by the tide schedule since heading towards Westport often includes a stop at Bottle Beach where it is best to arrive at least 2.5 hours before high tide. The night before I had mistakenly misread the tide tables and thought high tide was around noon. Nope it was around 10. If we forgot about the STP we could get to Bottle Beach maybe 2 hours before high tide – let’s go. Second mistake, we did not realize just how high high tide was going to be. The good news was that as we headed south, the fog cleared entirely and it was gorgeous sunshine. We actually remembered what the sun looked like.
We parked, hiked to the beach and found the waves crashing on the shore with essentially no beach and definitely no birds. It was still 2 hours before high tide and it was the highest either of us had ever seen it there. Uh-oh. Back to the parking area and now we were committed to head towards Westport. The plan was to hit the beach entrance at Bonge Avenue to see if we could find some shorebirds there before the tide got even worse and then head further south to Tokeland. Our tide woes continued. There was essentially no beach here either – and no birds. Pretty though if you liked heavy surf.
Now we wondered if we would find any uncovered beach or rocks at Tokeland. Tokeland is THE go to spot to find Willets in Washington. What started some years ago as more like one or two in the spring and later has now become up to a dozen or more all year long. Before hitting the turnoff to Tokeland we passed North Cove where there are “always” lots of gulls – often many hundreds. More super high water and not a single gull. And when we got to the Tokeland Marina there was no mud at all and the rocks on the small islands were mostly covered by water and birdless. BUT the good news was that looking back from the marina dock we found a group of 8 Willets in the grass just below the new Nelson Crab building. A new year bird for both of us. Later we went to the boat launch to improve our view and the original flock had been joined by 9 others. I think 17 may be the most I have seen there. Willets are pretty drab until they fly and flash that fabulous black and white wing pattern.
Willet Photos – Tokeland Marina
At Tokeland we also found some FOY Western Gulls, Western Grebes, Common and Pacific Loons among other birds – 24 species in all. The high tide probably deprived us of some other shorebird species, but the Willets and sunshine certainly had us feeling better. We headed back north with a stop at Graveyard Spit on Fisher Avenue. Much of the birdy habitat was covered, but pretty far out there was some sand and mud and here we found some birds – hundreds of Dunlin and many Sanderlings (first of year for both of us). We also had 2 surprising Common Mergansers and finally lots of gulls.
We continued north and again tried access to the beach – this time off Grayland Avenue. It was immediately clear that it pays to attend to the coastline geography as unlike before there was open beach and we could drive some of it. No go heading south to look for Snowy Plovers – one of our hoped for prizes for the day – and there were lots of people out along most of the way, so that may have made that quest impossible anyway. We immediately found a small group of 4 shorebirds along one of the pools even before getting to the open beach. Their yellow legs gleamed brightly in the sun – my first Least Sandpipers of the year. My barely ID quality photo is purposefully omitted to avoid embarrassment.
We spotted a large flock of shorebirds and headed off towards them but they all took flight. A moment later, we knew why. A gorgeous and extremely dark backed Peregrine Falcon landed not far ahead of us. I grabbed a photo and repositioned the car so Frank could get one as well. His camera makes a sound as it turns back on and it sure seemed that the Falcon heard it and took flight immediately
We caught up with the flock and found it to be primarily Dunlin with many fewer Sanderlings. This experience was repeated several times with a few other flocks. Completely absent were any “Peeps”, larger shorebirds or Plovers. We had expected to find some Semipalmated Plovers and maybe some Western Sandpipers – no go.
We continued north, and with the now receding but still high tide, we made it back to Bonge Avenue and left the beach. Now to Westport hoping that maybe we could find some “Rockpipers” along the rocks – especially a Rock Sandpiper. This was one of my key “targets” for the trip as it is a winter bird and will leave in the not too distant future. They are never a sure thing and I have generally had my best luck at the Point Brown jetty at Ocean Shores, but that would not be an option this day. As it turned out the water was so high and the waves so hard that we found no birds on the rocks at all and probably would not have at Point Brown either.
We were, however, able to get a view of part of what now seems to be a permanent flock of Marbled Godwits at one of the floating docks near the Coast Guard station. Around 100 birds. In the summer the flock in the Westport Marina can number well over 500 and for the past several years has often included a Bar Tailed Godwit. These birds often feed at Bottle Beach and were one of our hoped for species there, so this finding somewhat made up for that earlier disappointment.
This stop also gave us great views of several Western Gulls. So many of the gulls seen in our area are Western Gull/Glaucous Gull hybrids that we call “Olympic Gulls” that making an ID can be challenging. We felt pretty good with these and their darker mantles, clear white heads and striking black wing tips.
We also had much closer looks at some Western Grebes than we had at Tokeland. I had seen some in the distance and rain at Semiahmoo so was glad for the view and photo op here.
The day had certainly not gone as planned but we had done ok and were truly enjoying the sunshine. It was just after noon and we decided to reverse course and leave Westport. Even though the tide had receded it was still very high so we elected not to stop again at Bottle Beach and headed to the Hoquiam STP. If only it were possible to get there without going through Aberdeen and Hoquiam. Not the case. Pretty depressing. Water was high at the STP and again not a single shorebird but we had lots of ducks – 9 different species and also added Pied Billed Grebe to our day list. It’s one of those stops that often disappoints but can also have wonderful birds. It was approaching 2:00 p.m. In our original planning we thought about a stop in Tacoma to look for the Hermit Warbler that has been seen regularly at the University of Puget Sound Campus. We concluded that by the time we got there, it was not very likely that the bird would be active, so we opted for a stop at the Nisqually Refuge instead.
We know it is a popular place and it was a Sunday, but we had never seen it so crowded. Maybe everyone else was stir crazy from the snow as well. We found a single parking spot and then first checked the pond near the headquarters hoping for an American Bittern. No Bittern and not much else. We heard some American Wigeon off in the distance (surprisingly our first of the day) and also added a Ring Necked Duck to our day list. We moved on to a second pond and almost immediately saw a stalking Great Blue Heron lunge for some prey. Zap!!! Success – and it had a large frog for a prize. I caught much of the action in photos as did many others (it was a busy day). We watched for some time as it positioned the frog for the swallow but we left before it actually did so. On other occasions I have watched Great Blue Herons catch fish that I thought were much too large to be swallowed but after many moments when it had positioned it just right, down it went. This frog was still very much alive and wiggling so I expect it would have been a while.
Great Blue Heron with Frog
We walked the boardwalk trail and picked up some new passerines for the day but it seemed pretty quiet. Even more to my ears compared to Frank’s which are famous for their range and processing prowess. We finally found our first Black Capped Chickadees for the day and our only Wren – a Pacific Wren. Several Yellow Rumped Warblers were fly catching from branches over the water. Pretty easy to see how the species gets its name from one of my photos.
Yellow Rumped Warbler
Time to go. No Great Horned Owl this time and no American Bittern, but the Great Blue Heron/Frog battle was a reminder of how there is always something engaging and rewarding by just getting out. I dropped Frank off at his home and made a quick stop at the Edmonds Waterfront in failing light adding a couple of species for the day but failing to get a photo of the Eared Grebe that continues to be seen there.
Fortunately the end of Snowmaggedon gave us a break to do some birding. There had been some misses and no real rarities for the day. We had not tried at all to maximize species and in fact had lost many opportunities because of the high tides and impact on timing if nothing else. Yet, including some species heard only by those Caruso ears, we had about 70 species for the day. I have worked hard recently in a number of States – but with lots of local help – to get my 50 species in a day in those unfamiliar places as part of my 50/50/50 adventure. This day was a reminder of how bird rich we are in Washington and how knowing one’s turf sure makes it a lot easier. It was also a reminder to check tide tables and that there is life after snow!!