Washington: September Migration in the Pacific Northwest Sep 02—10, 2009

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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In early September, migrating birds concentrate along the Pacific Northwest's stream and forest edges, marine bays and coastal shorelines, and over the ocean itself. Our September Pacific Northwest tour is timed to best take advantage of these vast movements of birds, and in a natural setting that ranks among the most beautiful on the continent. Our 2009 tour produced many highlights, as we birded from Seattle to the Pacific Coast, and then north along the Olympic Peninsula before crossing the Strait of Juan de Fuca to Vancouver Island, and then on to the British Columbia mainland. The extensive loop through varied habitats over nine days turned up an admirable list of birds, which we combined with some fine dining and scenic splendor.

We enjoyed excellent weather and seas on our privately chartered pelagic trip which took us nearly 40 miles out into the Pacific, beyond the edge of the Continental Shelf. The ocean birding off Westport offered a remarkable series of highlights: we had close views of several powerful South Polar Skuas—two coasted right over our heads—and good studies of all three jaeger species. Dozens of Black-footed Albatrosses came in close to the boat, and on the return trip the cry went out that a Laysan Albatross had been spotted. The skipper closed in on the Laysan and everyone got a good look at a bird that is seen only a few times each year off Westport. Other seabirds seen on the pelagic trip included both Red and Red-necked phalaropes, Fork-tailed Storm-Petrel, Sabine's Gull, Tufted Puffin, Cassin's and Rhinoceros auklets, and thousands of Pink-footed and Sooty shearwaters.

Most days of the tour allowed for birding along tidal shorelines, and as a result we found 27 species of shorebirds. A tawny juvenal Pacific Golden-Plover turned up along Canada's Boundary Bay, alongside hundreds of Black-bellied Plovers—some still in fancy breeding plumage. We had exceptional views of all the seasonal "rockpipers": Wandering Tattler, Surfbird, and Black and Ruddy turnstones. At Cattle Point near Victoria, B.C., we watched Surfbirds and turnstones from a distance of thirty feet as they foraged over the bay-side rocks, and while Black Oystercatchers whistled in the background. While checking for shorebirds along the Port Angeles waterfront, we also had great views of Marbled Murrelet (endangered in the region), Red-necked Grebes in breeding plumage, and Harlequin Ducks.

Our tour took us into the Olympic Mountains too, where we searched for specialty birds. Sooty Grouse foraged near the roadside along the Dosewallips River and near Hurricane Ridge. Not far from the second group of grouse, we came upon a flock of Pine Grosbeaks—a first for the tour in its nine-year run. Red Crossbills posed for terrific views, and a family group of Varied Thrushes hopped along in front of the group during a stroll through a stand of old growth forest. At another spot, an American Dipper twosome chased one another along a mountain stream as a flock of Vaux's Swifts soared overhead.

Many migrant songbirds were still on the move. We found small flocks of warblers, including Wilson's, Black-throated Gray, Townsend's, Yellow, and Orange-crowned. A few Western Tanagers and Black-headed Grosbeaks were still preparing for the migration to Mexico, as were immature Rufous Hummingbirds. Other migrants included Willow Flycatcher, Warbling Vireo, and Swainson's Thrush.

Sky Larks, a much anticipated bird for the tour, were found readily in the crop lands north of Victoria—their only foothold in North America. And all five of the region's woodpeckers turned up, including Red-breasted Sapsucker, a Pacific specialty.

Among the most memorable sights of the tour were those of spectacle: thousands upon thousands of Northern Pintails, sharing the Boundary Bay tidal mud with Green-winged Teal and American Wigeons, as Peregrine Falcons sat close by; hundreds of Western Sandpipers and a few Sanderlings sharing a high tide roost on massive rocks just off the shoreline, all fluttering as one when large waves broke below them; thousands of Barn Swallows converging on fence lines during a rain shower; hundreds of Violet-green Swallows staging to migrate; and thousands of shearwaters cruising low over the waves en route to their nesting islands near New Zealand.