Washington: September Migration in the Pacific Northwest Sep 08—16, 2010

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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September concentrates migrating birds along Washington and southern British Columbia's forest edges, bays, coastal shorelines, and over the ocean itself. Our September Migration in the Pacific Northwest tour takes advantage of nature's timing to go in search of songbirds, shorebirds, and seabirds during their southward migration. We enjoyed superb weather, an admirable list of birds, great food, and a memorable journey through the scenic Northwest. 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—a loop that ran all the way from Willapa Bay in southwest Washington to Boundary Bay in southeast British Columbia.

The first morning of the tour was devoted entirely to birding inland, beginning along Scatter Creek south of Olympia, Washington. A tiny Northern Pygmy-Owl perched for careful scope study, as did a Red-breasted Sapsucker and Evening Grosbeaks. We started our birding that day in the yard of leader Bob Sundstrom, where Band-tailed Pigeons and Purple Finches visited the feeders, Rufous Hummingbirds buzzed the flowers, and a Black-throated Gray Warbler perched atop a garden sculpture. The first of fall Golden-crowned Sparrows shared the ground with Steller's Jays, Western Scrub-Jays, and Spotted Towhees. The same afternoon found us along the coast, where several hundred Marbled Godwits roosted on a jetty while a single Wandering Tattler bobbed on another section of shoreline rocks.

On the second day of the tour, a private charter boat took us for a full day in the pelagic zone, 37 miles into the Pacific off Westport, Washington. Highlights were frequent on a day of good sailing weather. A dark South Polar Skua banked close over the boat, flashing its bold white wing markings. Black-footed Albatross came close to the boat, on a day of four shearwater species: Sooty, Pink-footed, Buller's, and a rare for the region Manx Shearwater. There were small flocks of lovely Sabine's Gulls, Tufted Puffins, and Cassin's Auklets bobbing on the surface, and wonderful views of Fork-tailed Storm-Petrels skimming the wave tops. The day proved terrific for marine mammals too. Several of the 14 humpback whales spotted that day came close enough to the boat to nearly spray it with their spouts. And when the boat was idling beyond the edge of the continental shelf, we had an unforgettable encounter with dolphins. A group of northern right whale dolphins, all dark with no dorsal fins, came right at the boat. From a quarter-mile off we watched them porpoising across the surface, continually arcing low over the water. They came close enough for us to hear them splashing as they passed down the side of the boat, to continue on in the same manner, arcing and arcing on into the distance. An amazing experience.

By the following day we were focusing on shorebirds, which included a handsome Buff-breasted Sandpiper and Black Turnstones. The shorebird search turned up a Lapland Longspur and, nearby, a rare for the area King Eider swam alongside Surf and White-winged scoters. A day 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 came upon two American Dippers atop rocks in the rushing stream. Soon after, we stopped to check out a cloud of Vaux's Swifts, circling low over the low end of the valley. The same afternoon, as we drove slowly up a mountainside in the Olympic National Forest, we stopped abruptly for the first Sooty Grouse of the tour—we would see a dozen altogether. Back along the shoreline again, this time at Sequim Bay, a breeding plumage Pacific Loon swam close enough to shore to dazzle all onlookers.

The morning of Day 6 was perfect for a scenic walk along on a subalpine trail at over 5,000 feet in Olympic National Park. Late season wildflowers added color as we encountered small, curious flocks of Gray Jays, and watched a Sharp-shinned Hawk chase a Cooper's Hawk—as a Townsend's Solitaire chased after both. The same afternoon, back at sea level, we had close views of stunning male Harlequin Ducks, as well as Black Oystercatchers, Red-necked Grebes, Pigeon Guillemots, and Rhinoceros Auklets along the shore of the Strait of Juan de Fuca.

Day 7 saw us ferrying across the Strait of Juan de Fuca, from Port Angeles, Washington to scenic Victoria, British Columbia. The tour then continued north through Victoria to some rather unimpressive-looking agricultural fields—unimpressive to look at, but home to Sky Larks, at their only regular breeding area in North America. We soon found about a dozen Sky Larks, sharing the fields with American Pipits and Savannah Sparrows. Later that afternoon we left Vancouver Island for the B.C. mainland, ferrying among the evergreen-covered islands.

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. No rarities were lurking in the flocks of shorebirds we found, but we had good comparisons of both dowitchers and both yellowlegs, nice views of a rare for the area Stilt Sandpiper, and superb views of Peregrine Falcons perched and stooping on the shorebird flocks. Too soon we were crossing back south into the States, for a farewell dinner together and a chance to reflect on the birds and wildlife of September in the Pacific Northwest—one of the most distinctive and beautiful regions of North America, at an ideal season.