Washington: September Migration, the Pacific Northwest Sep 03—11, 2008

Posted by Bob Sundstrom


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 September Pacific Northwest tour takes advantage of nature's timing, as early September concentrates bird migrants along the Northwest's forest edges, bays, coastal shorelines, and over the ocean itself. During our 2008 tour we enjoyed superb weather and an admirable list of birds, plus great food and a memorable journey through the scenic Northwest, as we birded the region from Willapa Bay in southwest Washington to Boundary Bay in southeast British Columbia.

The first morning was devoted entirely to birding inland, beginning along upper Scatter Creek south of Olympia, Washington. A diminutive Northern Pygmy-Owl perched for careful scope study, as did several Red-breasted Sapsuckers and a Pileated Woodpecker. Warblers, now nearing the end of their migrant passage, included Wilson's, Townsend's, and Black-throated Gray. A resident Hutton's Vireo sang and perched right in front of the group, as Western Tanagers and Evening Grosbeaks visited nearby trees. A picnic lunch in my yard allowed time to enjoy close visits from Steller's Jays and Western Scrub-Jays, Purple Finches, Rufous Hummingbirds, and Band-tailed Pigeons, among others.

On our second day, a private charter boat took us out for a full day in the pelagic zone, 30+ miles into the Pacific off Westport, Washington. Highlights were frequent: a South Polar Skua flew near the boat several times, as did all three jaeger species; one Long-tailed Jaeger drifted back and forth over the group, as if to show off his lengthy, pointed tail feathers to best advantage; Black-footed Albatross sat on the water right next to the boat; flocks of lovely Sabine's Gulls flew by; a Tufted Puffin bobbed on the surface near the boat; we had great studies of Fork-tailed Storm-Petrels skimming the wave tops; and we counted five species of shearwaters, including Buller's and a rare for the area Manx.

A couple of days later we drove up the Dosewallips River valley on the east side of the Olympic Mountains. While enjoying the lush fern and moss-covered forest along the river, we espied a pair of American Dippers atop rocks in the rushing stream. Not long after, we stopped to check out a cloud of swallows flying overhead. Among hundreds of Violet-green Swallows flew smaller numbers of both Black and Vaux's swifts, both birds we had really hoped to find.

One morning was perfect for a scenic walk along a subalpine trail at over 5,000 feet in Olympic National Park. Late season wildflowers added color as we found the first Golden-crowned Sparrows of the trip lurking in the low subalpine shrubs. Just as we left the trail, a mother Sooty Grouse stopped us in our tracks, as she called her nearly full-grown chicks across the roadway. While still high in the Olympics, a Northern Goshawk favored us with a series of views as it winged from one spire-like evergreen to another. The same afternoon, back at sea level, we watched Harlequin Ducks, Red-necked Grebes, Marbled Murrelets, Pigeon Guillemots, and Rhinoceros Auklets along the shore of the Strait of Juan de Fuca.

Day 7 out of 9 saw us ferrying across the Strait of Juan de Fuca, from Port Angeles, Washington to Victoria, British Columbia. The tour then continued north, through the charming city, to an area where brilliant rows of gladiolus stood where spring tulips would later be planted. A bit of searching turned up a small flock of Sky Larks, a much anticipated bird on the tour at the only area in North America that boasts a resident population of Sky Larks. A Lapland Longspur turned up in the same field, along with hundreds of American Pipits. Later that afternoon we left Vancouver Island for the B.C. mainland, passing among the evergreen-covered islands, watching for seabirds and the occasional Bald Eagle in the tall firs.

With a full day to bird near Boundary Bay south of Vancouver, B.C., we covered some of the best shorebirding spots in the Pacific Northwest. The fair weather hadn't been conducive to producing rarities, but we still recorded more than 20 species of shorebirds, including great views of Wandering Tattler and Black Turnstone, Red-necked Phalaropes close at hand twirling on ponds in the ocean-side dunes, hundreds of Marbled Godwits and beautiful juvenile Baird's Sandpipers at very close range, and great side by side comparisons of both yellowlegs and dowitcher species. And we weren't the only ones watching shorebirds. At one stop along Boundary Bay, a Peregrine Falcon perched right along the edge of the tideflats in a bare tree. As we watched the falcon, a Cooper's Hawk flew in and perched just above the Peregrine, both in the same binocular view. Earlier that day, we watched a "Black" Merlin whiz over a flock of sandpipers. That same morning added another highlight, as we had scoped a Barn Owl on its day roost in a historic barn not far from the bay—a wonderful view and a life bird for several in our group.