Puffins and Pipers – August 2021

During the birding doldrums of July when birds are less active and relatively quiet, there was no question that the highlight was the previously reported pelagic trip on July 24th. As happens every year, with August, energy returns to the birding world and to birders as migration begins and shorebirds return to – well our shores – first slowly and then in numbers that will build throughout August and into September. With the exception of my big month of July, this year in general has been less active than any in the previous decade and I do have a wedding approaching (in now just 10 DAYS!!!). But you just have to get out in August. Here’s what I have been up to.

I started the month with a return to the coast preceded by a visit to a favored haunt of Hermit Warblers in the Capitol Forest south and west of Olympia. I was fortunate to find two of these little gems as there was no singing. Even more fortunately I did not get lost like I have on some other visits. It was then back to Westport where I had missed Marbled Godwits and Wandering Tattlers on my pre-pelagic visit in May. The pelagic trip the following week reported that the Marbled Godwits were back in the marina and that the flock included a Bar Tailed Godwit as it had in several previous years. I found the flock – many hundred Godwits – and one paler, grayer, smaller bird was visible buried in its midst. It was the rare Bar Tailed Godwit – no photo op but an easy ID. Later at the other end of the marina near the “groins” where I again did not find a Wandering Tattler, a small group of Godwits flew overhead – and the Bar Tailed was included. Finding a Bar Tailed Godwit makes up for missing a Wandering Tattler in Washington anytime!!

There were not as many birds on the open beach as there had been on my pre-pelagic visit in July, possibly a function of the tides, but finding three Snowy Plovers one of which was banded was great. Again none of the larger shorebirds were seen – only Western Sandpipers, Semipalmated Plovers and Sanderlings. As you can see it from the picture, it was quite gray – but at least no rain. Tides were not good for Bottle Beach, and Ocean Shores was just too much of an additional trip for the day, so after Westport I returned home with three new species for the year and still no Tattler.

Banded Snowy Plover

The following Sunday was a really fun day. Ed Pullen had organized a private trip to Smith Island with the promise of Puffins including possibly the Horned Puffin that had been seen intermittently among the Tufted Puffins. The weather forecast was iffy on Saturday, but as is often the case, the weather forecast was wrong and it was a picture perfect day. Our boat (usually used for whale watching trips) left the marina at Anacortes in the late afternoon, full of eager birders. Cindy was able to come along and except for not finding the Horned Puffin, we could not have asked for a better trip. Tufted Puffins nest on Smith Island together with many Rhinoceros Auklets, the nest burrows visible at the top of the cliffs in shallow layers of soil. It was hard to know exactly how many birds we saw because the boat crisscrossed the large area many times, but best estimates were about 2 dozen Tufted Puffins and between 500 and 1000 Rhinoceros Auklets. Other alcids were Pigeon Guillemots and Common Murres.

Tufted Puffin
Tufted Puffin
Rhinoceros Auklet
Common Murre – Seen in Several Plumages
Pigeon Guillemot

After a long visit to Smith Island we stopped at Williamson Rocks on our return. This gave us wonderful views of Pigeon Guillemots, Heerman’s Gulls, Black Oystercatchers and nesting Pelagic and Double Crested Cormorants. We also had a few Short Billed Gulls (formerly Mew Gulls) and many California Gulls which had been abundant around Smith Island.

Pigeon Guillemots
Heerman’s Gull
Pelagic Cormorant Nesting on Buoy
Double Crested Cormorant on Nest
Black Oystercatcher
Short Billed Gull (Formerly Mew Gull)

Good weather, good birds and good company and great scenery as well. Maybe the Horned Puffin will return for another try next year.

Abandoned House on Smith Island – See Burrows below Grass
Lighthouse Scene

Two days later on August 10th, I got the chance to atone for the Wandering Tattler misses as one returned to the beach at Alki in West Seattle where it had been seen last year as well. There were two birders there when I arrived who said they had had great looks moments before but it was now hiding on the other side of some large rocks. As I approached, it flew off – a countable but very unsatisfactory view. I scrambled over rocks and some seaweed to look for it around the pilings of a condo complex over the water where it had flown and then disappeared. It took some time, but eventually it came into view. Not great light but an interesting backdrop for a photo.

Wandering Tattler

Other birders arrived as I was leaving and the Tattler has remained in the area for the past ten days. A bird I could not chase was an adult Sharp Tailed Sandpiper that was found at Lind Coulee in Moses Lake Washington. I have seen several juveniles in Western Washington and hope that another will still show up (I have generally seen them in September), but I just could not get away for the three hour trip one way.

Sharp Tailed Sandpiper – Lind Coulee – Photo by Denny Granstand

I could not make it to Lind Coulee for the Sharp Tailed Sandpiper, but it is August and for me August is definitely the month for Stilt Sandpipers. I had missed one in the Spring but Greg Harrington found one at Wylie Slough and I had a chance to search for it on Saturday August 14th. It was constantly playing hide and seek with logs and reeds and it was not in the close pool where Greg had seen it, but with mega-magnification I was able to get a decent photo.

Stilt Sandpiper

In another photo I was able to capture something noted by David Sibley, that due to its longer legs and shorter bill, the Stilt Sandpiper has to bend more forward than Dowitchers to reach the same food. I checked my records and found that I have 24 Stilt Sandpiper reports on Ebird for Washington. Two are from July and 4 are from September. The other 18 are all August – definitely an early fall migrant.

Long Billed Dowitcher and Stilt Sandpiper

I had seen Greg Harrington’s name on a lot of Ebird reports and he had been compiling a long list of birds for Washington this year. I had never met him and really knew only that he was from Seattle. On Monday the 16th, that all changed. A Pacific Golden Plover had been reported by David Poortinga at Bos Lake on Whidbey Island. I had a free day and made the trek. On any chase (“twitch” as the Brits say), a good rule is to look for other birders when you arrive. Hopefully they have scopes, cameras or binoculars trained on a bird and if so there is a good chance that the bird is the one you are hoping to see. Bos Lake is a somewhat largish pond/lake that is immediately across a road and some homes from Puget Sound and is adjacent to a marshy reedy expanse. I don’t know if it is affected by tides or if it is salt water, fresh water or brackish. When I arrived I was not at all sure where to start looking for the Golden Plover but I saw some shorebirds and ducks out in the water and stopped at the southern end to look. It was only then that I saw another birder with a scope (not seemingly focused on anything in particular) a couple hundred yards from where I had parked. My quick view of the lake did not come up with any plovers so I figured I would check with the other birder.

It turned out to be Greg Harrington. He thought he had seen the Pacific Golden Plover earlier but was not seeing it then. He pointed to an area at least 75-100 yards away where a few Black Bellied Plovers were visible. The Golden Plover was not among them. Over the next 15 minutes or so we traded birding stories. I learned that he was pretty new to birding but had jumped in with both feet and had visited a number of great birding areas around the U.S. and was doing a somewhat late started Big Year for Washington with a goal of seeing 340 species in the State for 2021. It is intersections like this that are some of the best parts of birding. Sharing stories, learning about new places and new details about familiar birds. A young woman joined us. While not a birder, she was developing an interest in birds and had begun the learning process we all go through including the misidentifications and the development of knowledge and skills that are an unending and very rewarding process as we learn more and spend more time with books, in the field and with others. We were able to show her some of the birds through our scopes but still no Pacific Golden Plover. I have had many other such experiences over the years and there is nothing better, especially when you can see the roots of what might well become a passionate interest and the birth of a new birder.

Although we never saw it fly in, maybe 15 minutes after our young friend left, I noticed a plover that was smaller than the Black Bellied Plovers and finally got a good view to confirm that we had refound the Pacific Golden Plover. It was pretty far out and the light was pretty poor, but I was able to get some supporting photos. Of course it is always nice to find a targeted bird, but I was particularly pleased because this was species #330 for the year in Washington. I have done a number of Big Years in Washington over the past decade, but as I said earlier, this year was less active than almost any other in the past decade. Last year was somewhat similar with activity limited by COVID-19 and my developing relationship with Cindy Bailey and I had ended the year with 330 species, so this would at least match that Covid restricted number. Actually a few days later I found that in 2020 I had actually only seen 329 species because Northwestern Crow is no longer given species status and all Ebird counts have been adjusted accordingly.

Pacific Golden Plover – Bos Lake

The arrival of a Pacific Golden Plover is further evidentiary support of the beginnings of the Autumn Shorebird Migration. Other shorebirds were not abundant at Bos Lake, but we also had Semipalmated and Black Bellied Plovers, Least and Western Sandpipers, Greater and Lesser Yellowlegs and Killdeer. Other shorebird species seen earlier in the month brought the total to 19 species. There would be 3 more shorebird species seen over the next few days making it 22 species seen in August and 38 shorebird species in Washington for the year. Not too bad.

My last birding for the month was on August 19th when I added a Pectoral Sandpiper for the month and an American Golden Plover for the year, the latter being at Hayton Reserve and the former at Wylie Slough where Stilt Sandpipers were seen again in addition to the usual peeps, Greater and Lesser Yellowlegs and Killdeer. Yes, no more birding this month unless something REALLY REALLY good shows up and even then NOT if it is on the 28th or 29th, because Cindy Bailey and I are getting married on the 29th and there are pre-wedding events the day before. This is one time I cannot say “I’d rather be birding”.

Greater and Lesser Yellowlegs – Wylie Slough
Black Bellied Plovers – Bos Lake

POSTSCRIPT: August 23rd. I may have missed a photo of the Bar Tailed Godwit at Westport but this morning I was able to get a photo of the REALLT REALLY good Bar Tailed Godwit that Maxine Reid found at Tulalip Bay yesterday. I also had a FOY Red Knot and a pretty rare in Washington Ruddy Turnstone. It was a nice day indeed.

Bar Tailed Godwit

A New Marsh, Some Familiar Haunts and Back to the Coast and the Sea

I miss writing. My last blog post was June 16th chronicling the very cooperative Costa’s Hummingbird that visited Walter Szeliga’s yard in Ellensburg and stayed for almost two weeks. A wonderful bird and a very gracious host. Birding has been fairly limited since then attributable both to the slowness of birding in July and my concentration being elsewhere as my wedding to Cindy Bailey approaches later this month. At least I have my priorities right. But I found that I do have some trips to write up despite a relatively quiet two months since that last blog past with less momentous sightings and and not the best weather on one of them – they were good escapes from my “To Do List”.

I have been birding in Washington for almost 50 years and until this year I had never even heard of Veazie Marsh near Enumclaw in Southeast King County. On June 24th after seeing a pretty impressive list of good birds highlighted by a White Faced Ibis that returned after an absence of more than a week, I finally decided to make the trek. That was a good decision. The Ibis was not immediately present but both Blue Winged and Cinnamon Teals cooperated and I was able to get a photo of the American Bittern that flew in and disappeared for a moment in the thick grass. Always a good bird.

American Bittern

It wasn’t long afterwards that I finally spied the White Faced Ibis and despite the distance was able to get the prized photo. I had missed the White Faced Ibis at Ridgefield Refuge earlier so this was my first record of this species in Western Washington. Afterwards another birder told me of a great spot to find Virginia Rails and it was great advice as two came out for photo sessions.

White Faced Ibis
Virginia Rail

For the next month, birding was limited to my home turf at Point Edwards in Edmonds with the highlight being a First of Year Heerman’s Gull. I can see the Edmonds marina and fishing pier from my new condo and these gulls return to the marina every year. My first one was seen on June 30th. On July 9th I was able to get away for a couple of hours and saw very distant Baird’s and Semipalmated Sandpipers at Eide Road – no photos – and then for zillionth time saw the “rare” Black Phoebe which has been present for years at Wylie Road. Also a nice photo of a Yellow Warbler.

Black Phoebe
Yellow Warbler

In the Year (Plus) of Covid, the biggest loss was the loss of birding with friends. There had been unplanned intersections where I ran into friends out in the field but no collaborative trips. On July 22nd I finally had the chance to join friends Jon and Kathleen Houghton on a trip to Beckler Road specifically looking for a Sooty Grouse – a new 2021 species for all of us. I have had good luck with this species at this location in the past, and luck held again as we found a hen and 4 chicks walking up the gravel road and we also heard a male booming close by. This is the first year in many that I have not made the trek to Sun Mountain Lodge where Dusky Grouse are almost guaranteed and I had missed Sharp Tailed Grouse earlier, so this was a very welcomed “chicken”.

Sooty Grouse

And one of the best ways to bird with friends is to join them on a Pelagic trip with the fabulous team of Westport Seabirds. I had tried to join them on earlier trips but the boats were full so the first time I could go out was on July 24th. I always head down to the coast the day earlier and try to find shorebirds at favorite places. Late July is not the best time for this pursuit but it would have to do. I had not yet seen Short Billed Dowitchers, Marbled Godwits, Red Knots or Wandering Tattlers in 2021 and figured I would find at least two of these species on this trip. Wrong. Thousands of Semipalmated Plovers and Western Sandpipers on the open beach where there were also small numbers of Sanderlings (in breeding plumage), Least Sandpipers and a single Snowy Plover, but not a single large shorebird there or at Westport or at Bottle Beach where there were only a handful of shorebirds – total. There were the usual Willets at Tokeland where there was also a single Short Billed Dowitcher, my only shorebird FOY of the day – joined by my first Brown Pelican of the Year first seen at Tokeland and then by the dozens at Westport.

Snowy Plover
Sanderlings – Breeding Plumage
Brown Pelican

I knew the pelagic trip would bring many new species, but the great hope was for a close encounter with a Short Tailed Albatross. One had been seen recently and although I had seen one in Washington and even had a picture, it was a poor one and the sighting on the earlier trip was up close and very photo friendly. My hopes were high but when the marina was fully enveloped by fog, there was some doubt and this concern increased as the trip started very slowly with a bumpy passage over the bar and far fewer birds seen than usual as we headed west. At first it did not appear that there were any trawlers/fishing boats to chase but Captain Phil found first one and then many and they became our target. When we intersected them, things really picked. Even so at first despite many hundreds of birds, there was not great diversity – Sooty and Pink Footed Shearwaters, Fork Tailed Storm Petrel, a few Cassin’s Auklets, Black Footed Albatrosses, Northern Fulmars and a single Red Necked Phalarope. All were new for the year as was a juvenile Tufted Puffin but hopes were for much more. It would have been nice to have some sunshine as well. Not great for photos, but there was no rain and the seas were calmer on our return.

Black Footed Albatross
Cassin’s Auklet
Sooty Shearwater
Pink Footed Shearwater
Fork Tailed Storm Petrel
Northern Fulmar Dark Phase
Red Necked Phalarope
Tufted Puffin Juvenile

Sadly no Laysan or Short Tailed Albatross and there were only single sightings of Sabine’s Gull and Parasitic Jaeger – seen by only one or two people. The boat headed west to deeper water hoping for new species. Forty miles out after seeing almost no birds, we stopped and chummed to attract some new ones. Chumming can be super productive and exciting, but not this time. The conclusion was that all of the birds were back at the fishing boats so we turned east and returned to those bird magnets. And the birds were there, the ones we had seen earlier including more and now several more species. The best was a Flesh Footed Shearwater. One birder thought he may have seen one earlier and now we all got decent looks. We also had great looks at Short Tailed Shearwaters – often a difficult ID. A couple of Sabine’s Gulls flew close and we had two Arctic Terns – seen on very few trips. A brief distant look at a single Leach’s Storm Petrel but we had good looks at a Parasitic Jaeger and a Pomarine Jaeger and later a South Polar Skua – and another would be seen later.

The Boats We Look for with Birds in Tow
Flesh Footed Shearwater
Northern Fulmar Light Phase
Pomarine Jaeger
Sabine’s Gull
Parasitic Jaeger
Arctic Tern – Apologies for Poor Photo
Short Tailed Shearwater
South Polar Skua

Still no really really rare birds and not a hoped for Buller’s Shearwater or any Red Phalaropes but now an excellent pelagic list and a better than expected 16 new species for the year. But I had expected a chance for Wandering Tattler on the jetty rocks on our return trip and expected many Marbled Godwits on the barges as we returned to the marina. But we had spent longer than usual at the productive trawlers and thus did not go by the jetty and for who knows why there were NO godwits at the marina.

It has often felt like a slow and not very productive year but there have been more than the normal number of new state birds and my species count to date is not that far behind other years that ended with pretty good numbers. That will not be the case this year and the drive is not there and I am not planning to do many more trips. But I just finished one – a Puffin Cruise organized by Ed Pullen and that will get top billing on my next post.