It is pretty hard to feel sad on a day when you see at least 25 Tufted Puffins, but there were moments yesterday when I did. Of course it is pretty hard to feel anything but sad when the Coronavirus still rages and Donald Trump is still President. I forgot about both of those disasters for a while yesterday as the San Juan Cruises “Puffin Tour” left Bellingham Harbor and headed South towards Smith Island. In years past I have usually looked for Tufted Puffins on an evening cruise out of Sequim headed for Destruction Island, but the numbers of puffins there has seemed to decrease each year and I wanted to try something new.
Besides there have been a number of reports of a Horned Puffin seen near Smith Island this year and apparently one has been found there on some trips in the last few years as well. Tufted Puffins breed on Smith Island and a few other islands in Washington and are often seen on pelagic trips, but Horned Puffins are very rare south of Alaska, so an opportunity to see one in Washington (I have seen one at Neah Bay in addition to several in Alaska) is taken seriously. Before signing on I confirmed that the cruise operator was taking COVID-19 seriously, and being comfortable with that, I drove up to Bellingham early on July 3rd stopping first at Eide Road to twitch the Black Necked Stilt that was found there the previous day by Pam Myers. I found it immediately upon arriving but also found gray skies and some rain, so was it a good omen or not? As rain increased as I approached Bellingham, I was leaning towards “Not”.
But our boat was large, comfortable and sheltered and the rain was diminishing so no worries. I will not go into all the details almost all of which were positive. Very smooth seas, almost no wind, cool but not cold and very light rain. Passengers ranged from serious birders to casual birders to not birders at all but up to see puffins and eagles and whatever else. It was a good omen that a Black Oystercatcher flew over us as we waited to board the vessel.
The voyage down to Smith Island was a little longer than I would have preferred and there were not all that many birds along the way: some Rhinoceros Auklets and Pigeon Guillemots, a few Marbled Murrelets, a single Common Murre and a few gulls. At some smaller islands and at Bird Rock we saw more Auklets and Murrelets and many cormorants (three species) and Glaucous Winged Gulls. There were also some Harlequin Ducks, a few Black Turnstones, several Bald Eagles and a few Black Oystercatchers. Many of the small islands serve as “haul outs” for Harbor Seals and we saw small pups at many spots.
Harbor Seal Mom and Pup
Finally, we arrived at our targeted destination – just as the sun somewhat broke through the clouds and the rain disappeared. With Minor Island and surrounding waters, Smith Island forms the 36,308 acre Smith and Minor Islands Aquatic Reserve. It is the largest such reserve owned by the Department of Natural Resources in Washington and also has the largest Bull Kelp bed in the state. The kelp bed is home to many fish and other marine wildlife that coupled with the right soil conditions on Smith Island that enables burrowing supports breeding by both Rhinoceros Auklets and Tufted Puffins. The Auklets were numerous and it did not take long to find our first Tufted Puffin.
We spent a good hour exploring the rich waters in the Reserve. We observed more than 100 Rhinoceros Auklets and maybe as many as 30 Tufted Puffins. Light was not great and we never got up close and personal but with the aid of a nice telephoto lens and lots of opportunities, Puffin pictures were not too bad. Unfortunately every time I saw one in flight, it was either very distant or flying away from me. We saw many Puffins diving and in flight but never observed any returning to burrows where assuredly there are young.
The house of the former lighthouse attendant on Smith Island has been abandoned but now provides a perching spot for Bald Eagles. In this photo the burrows for the Tufted Puffins and Rhinoceros Auklets are clearly visible. The softer soil layer is relatively thin, but the burrows can extend 8 or more feet back horizontally protection from predation of the eggs and chicks by the eagles and gulls. Puffins live for 25 years or more and males and females partner “for life”, but the naturalist onboard said that females have been observed mating with more than one male. We did not learn if the reverse was also true.
Burrows Below the Abandoned House
Unfortunately, although we searched diligently, the Horned Puffin was not found. Disappointing but we were very pleased with what we saw. I especially liked the several Tufted Puffins we saw with bill full of fish. There are rear facing “hooks” on the bills that enable them to hold several fish at once. They fill up and then take the fish to their chick in the burrow. They have only a single young in each brood, one reason that once a population starts to fall, the fall can be rapid. It just takes too long to replenish their numbers.
Tufted Puffin with Fish
On the return trip back to Bellingham, we spotted a single Sea Otter. There used to be a significant population in Puget Sound but then they almost entirely disappeared. It is believed they may be making a comeback. This was the first one seen by the captain and crew in four years.
Back to Bellingham and then 90 minutes home to Edmonds. The Tufted Puffin was a first record for the year and the Black Necked Stilt was a first ever for me in Snohomish County – species #255. This concludes the part of my birding glass being “half full”. Now for the”half empty”. We can start with the failure to find the Horned Puffin. Not only would it have been a very special state bird for 2020, it is also a beautiful bird – so double missed. I can only blame this on bad luck as we were certainly in the right place but just apparently at the wrong time.
Horned Puffin (from Alaska in 2016)
The rest of the emptiness is blamed on that enemy of us all, COVID-19. I have had several trips canceled by the virus. One to South Florida and Cuba, one to Texas and one to Southeastern Arizona. Missing Cuba with Cindy was a stinging blow in many ways, not the least of which was that we paid for the whole trip and have nothing to show for it except for a significant credit with Alaska Airlines and a “maybe later” from our tour operator. There also would have been some great birds there – especially the Bee Hummingbird and the Cuban Tody. Probably no lifers in Florida but a chance for a couple of new ABA life photos. Some life photos were possible in Texas as well but the real target was a lifer Colima Warbler.
Bee Hummingbird – Ebird Photo
Cuban Tody – Ebird Photo
Colima Warbler – Greg Lavaty
Arizona is a bit more complicated. Cindy and I were going to visit friends for a couple of days and then bird in Southeast Arizona with a well known guide. There was a chance for a couple of new ABA lifers. But that trip was lost. As airlines modified their approaches to deal with COVID-19, and as some really terrific birds showed up in Arizona, I looked into rescheduling at least my birding part of that trip. Some “expert” advice said it would be safe. Great birds, ABA lifers all, were being seen, including by friends who had made the trip: White Eared and Berylline Hummingbirds, Buff Collared Nightjar, Common Crane, Flame Colored Tanager, Crescent Chested Warbler and best of all an Eared Quetzal. If I spent 3 or 4 days in Arizona, I had a good chance of seeing at most of them – by far the single biggest one trip opportunity to add to my ABA Life List short of a trip to remote western Alaska.
But the powerful evil pairing of COVID-19 and Donald Trump made the trip just too dangerous. Due in large measure to the complete ineptitude and deceitfulness of Trump, his administration and his allies, many states either failed to put protective measures in place or reopened far too early and COVID-19 cases soared with Arizona being one of the worst offenders. Always a hotspot for birding, it was now a hotspot for the virus with record setting levels of new cases and hospitalizations daily. Just far too dangerous to fly into either Tucson or Phoenix and then find lodging where the birds are. Opportunity lost. Glass half empty. Vicarious enjoyment only. Here are photos of the “lost lifers”.
White Eared Hummingbirds – Photo by Tammy MacQuade
Berylline Hummingbird – Photo by Laura Keene
Buff Collared Nightjar – Ebird Photo
Common Crane – Photo by Carl Haynie
Flame Colored Tanager – Carlos Sanchez
Crescent Chested Warbler – Yve Morell
Eared Quetzal – Richard Fray
I am often brought almost to tears by the horror stories of those who have suffered from COVID-19 and of the far too many people have died. And almost daily I am nearly brought to tears by the endless cruelties, stupidities and transgressions of Donald Trump. Yes, I am saddened by the trips not taken and the birds not found and the friends not seen that have resulted from the disease and its incompetent handling by our disgraceful President and his sycophantic followers. But while that glass may be somewhat emptier in those losses, it is so much fuller than those of many others and good health in lovely Edmonds with my dear Cindy and with the many birds I still have been able to see in Washington sustain me. There are no tears for the losses. There are many smiles for all that I have.