September Pacific Northwest Sep 05—13, 2007

Posted by Bob Sundstrom

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Bob Sundstrom

Bob Sundstrom has led VENT tours since 1989 to many destinations throughout North America, as well as Hawaii, Mexico, Belize, Trinidad & Tobago, Japan, Turkey, Iceland,...

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Our 2007 September Pacific Northwest tour participants enjoyed nearly impeccable weather and a truly admirable list of birds, as well as great food and a wholly gratifying journey through the scenic Northwest. Early September in the Northwest lived up to its billing as a brilliant time to see migrating birds—on land, over the mountains, along the shorelines, and on the ocean.

Rare and regionally unique shorebirds are a major focus of this tour, and our results were among the best ever. One of the most admired birds of the trip was a juvenile Pacific Golden-Plover, which we were able to scope at close range as it stood atop a shard of driftwood on the tide flats. The golden tones of its feathers glowed in the late afternoon light, and its shorter primary projection (vs. American Golden-Plover, which we also saw) was clearly evident. The very next day, after a two-hour vigil on an incoming tide, we were rewarded with great views of a juvenile Sharp-tailed Sandpiper among a few dozen Pectorals. The Sharp-tailed Sandpiper was a much hoped for sighting of a North American rarity seen primarily just in this region—and a new bird for all! We were also fortunate to scope a vagrant Ruff, as well as watch a small flock of crisply plumaged juvenile Buff-breasted Sandpipers walk within 20 feet of our group. Other shorebirds seen included Black Oystercatcher, Wandering Tattler, Black Turnstone, Surfbird, Red Knot, and Baird's Sandpiper.

Seabirds are another central feature of the tour, which includes a full-day pelagic boat trip from Westport, Washington on the Pacific Coast. Despite a choppy outward voyage, the day's seabird sightings were exceptional, especially beyond the edge of the continental shelf. Small flocks of elegant Sabine's Gulls fluttered by, some close enough for good photo opportunities. Pale gray Fork-tailed Storm-Petrels fluttered just over the water's surface, and immense Black-footed Albatross came right to the boat, alongside Northern Fulmars. Shearwaters included Buller's, Pink-footed, and thousands of Sooties. All three jaeger species showed, as did South Polar Skua and Rhinoceros and Cassin's auklets. From land, we scoped a pair of endangered Marbled Murrelets, which shared the near shore waters with dozens of Red-necked Grebes still in breeding colors. At Westport Marina, a short stroll before dinner turned up a near breeding plumage Red-throated Loon virtually at our feet, and point-blank views of a garish male Surf Scoter. Perhaps the most astonishing seabird sighting of the tour was a Common Loon that flew over the Hurricane Ridge visitor center in Olympic National Park, at least a mile high and miles from any water!

Another anticipated bird on the tour is the Sky Lark, whose only North American population resides north of Victoria, British Columbia. We quickly located a concentration of about a dozen larks, where they shared a field with migrating American Pipits, and enjoyed excellent views of both species. A stroll alongside a fast-flowing river turned up an American Dipper on the stream and Black and Vaux's swifts overhead.

Sunny days of weather in the 70s helped make all our bird sightings pleasant, but some images still stand out more than others. Although we had good scope views of a tiny Northern Pygmy-Owl the first morning of the tour, our second sighting of the owl became one of the most indelible images of the tour: the less-than-7" owl perched at eye level, framed by the deep green of a subalpine fir, hooting, with its large, yellow eyes turned intently toward the spotting scope, which its image more than filled. Almost at the same spot, a pair of Red Crossbills perched at eye level in the treetops, so close we could see the resin of the fir cones they had been foraging on still glistening on their bills. And a short time later, we watched a hen Sooty Grouse with chicks in a roadside meadow, plucking the fruit of low-growing huckleberries. She was tame enough to pose for a lengthy photo session.

Having seen such an array of seabirds and shorebird rarities, it felt like a bonus on the last day of the tour to watch a dark Merlin, the "Black Merlin" of the Northwest, as it flew out from its perch to harass crows. While we watched, the Merlin swooped briskly along the shrubby edge of Boundary Bay and flushed an American Bittern. The Merlin veered off after a short chase, leaving the bittern standing in the open for us to admire at close range with binoculars and scopes.