Birding the Northwest (Part I): A beginning full of waterfowl

Highlights: Gyrfalcon battling with three Northern Harriers in Oregon, a pair of Emperor Geese and a single Yellow-billed Loon within two hours of each other, sky larking Sky Larks, a Northern Saw-whet Owl perched five feet away right at dusk, four male Greater Sage Grouse out on the road, and much more. Overall an incredible trip with some memorable landscapes.

Saturday 03/10/2012

The flight from Houston to Portland was the usual crammed, no food, tiny plastic cups of water affair. The plane touched down amidst dense cloud cover and I grabbed my luggage after an efficient disembarkation. Tim rolled up out front in no time. A quick stop at Subway and we were heading north along I5 towards Seattle, Vancouver Island, Boundary Bay and all its amazing birds. This was going to be a fast-paced trip, taking a serious shot at some localized and tough target birds. A sign pointing towards Rainbow Falls State park lured us off the highway and we quickly found a sizable flock of Trumpeter Swans feeding in a field and got our first glimpse at the bird-less temperate rain forest at the state park. Reaching the southern parts of Hood Canal before dusk we made the most of it and quickly found several ducks, with a group of Barrow’s Goldeneyes being the best among many Surf and White-winged Scoters. I got my first lifer here in the form of a flock of Northwestern Crows, yes they are smaller and sound different. After a quick dinner at the Geoduck we settled in to camp. It was a chilly and rainy night.

Trumpeter Swans, Washington Photo Stephan Lorenz

Barrow's Goldeneyes Hood Canal Washington, Photo Stephan Lorenz

Rainbow Falls State Park Washington, Photo Stephan Lorenz


Sunday 03/11/2012

We woke up soaked, but with high hopes and made our way to Sequim Bay (pronounced “Squim according to locals). we found John Wayne Marina and one of the first birds we got in the scope was the Yellow-billed Loon that proceeded to swim for great views right in front of us.

Yellow-billed Loon Washington, Photo Stephan Lorenz

Other great birds here included close views of Pigeon Guillemot, Rhinoceros Auklet, and many scoters. In the brush we found Golden-crowned Sparrows and the ubiquitous Song Sparrows. We continued towards Dungeness Spit NWR. A quick stop at a set of ponds boosted out waterfowl list with many of the common puddle ducks, including an out of place Canvasback. The roadside brush held many more sparrows and Spotted Towhees. At Dungeness Spit the forest was fairly quiet except for the Pacific Wrens and Chestnut-backed Chickadees.

Chestnut-backed Chickadee Dungeness Spit NWR Washington, Photo Stephan Lorenz

We walked along the beach for half a mile and added Red-necked Grebe and Red-throated Loon. The majority of waterfowl were very distant and we could barely make out a large group of Brant. We decided to drive around. A good choice as we got much better views of Brant, hundreds of Dunlin and Black-bellied Plovers. I picked out a Eurasian Wigeon among a distant group of American Wigeon, another lifer for Tim, who was racking them up. A Bald Eagle flushed a flock of Brant and I figured here was out chance to look for the Emperor Geese and there they were flying first in the middle and then losing ground. We got great views of these beautiful geese among the hundreds of Brant and then were able to study them briefly in the scope on the water, Tim scores again.

Brant Newport Washington, Photo Stephan Lorenz

After looking at water all morning we headed for the mountains. It was snowing fairly heavy when we arrived at the Visitor Center along Hurricane Ridge Road. We pulled off into a nearby parking lot and hiked into the forest. Massive moss draped trees dusted in snow lined the trail, despite our best efforts we couldn’t find anything besides flocks of Varied Thrushes. Back to the lowlands where we scoped the ducks from the Port Angeles Pier for an hour with plenty of Long-tailed Ducks and our first Harlequin Duck of the trip. A quick drive along Ediz Hook served up closer views of many ducks. After a fruitless listen and chase for Northern Saw-whet Owls (all was quiet) we put up camp at the Heart of the Hills campground.

Harlequin Ducks Newport Washington, Photo Stephan Lorenz


Monday 03/12/2012

We woke up early and the tent and surrounding were covered in some serious snow. It didn’t take us long to pack up in the frigid morning and we fortunately made it out of the mountains back to Port Angeles where we checked into the line for the ferry. A fierce wind was blowing in the bay and it was going to be a rough 90 minutes. We held up Ok during the beginning, seeing Common Murres, but not much else. Even the local were having trouble with the strong waves and more than one person fell to sea sickness. Tim managed by keeping his eyes locked on the horizon, I felt alright. At one point a huge wave shock the ship and washed over the bow, sending an unattached bench sliding across the floor.

We were both relieved when we reached the harbor and put some solid ground under our feet. On our way north from Victoria along 17 we pulled over and went for a short walk to recalibrate. It was raining heavily by the time we reached the bulb fields off 17 and we drove in circles hoping to spot a Sky Lark along the edges of a field. Tim got a surprise lifer in the form of an unexpected flock of California Quail. Two White-crowned Sparrow caused us to look, but no larks. On another round we caught the faint song of a Sky Lark and Tim spotted a hovering bird just as it dipped behind a house under constructions. Within half an hour we had walked into the field, rain or no rain, and up to three Sky Larks at a time hovered around us, the melodious song ringing out above the agricultural fields.

We waited out the rain with a lunch of fish and chips before birding the coast and visiting the Victoria Airport where we saw more Sky Lark performing their amazing flight display. The bird rose from the grass and drew a slow circle while singing, rising ans rising, until nearly three hundred feet above the rolling grass, where they hovered for minutes at a time before dropping dramatically back into the grass. Tim even managed to catch singing birds in the scope twice. We studied their plain plumage closely.

We spent the night close to the ferry, camping near McDonald Park.

Rainbow in eastern Washington, Photo Stephan Lorenz


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