Washington: September Migration in the Pacific Northwest Sep 07—15, 2011

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 are headed south along the Pacific Northwest's stream and forest edges, marine bays and coastal shorelines, and over the ocean itself. Our September Migration in the Pacific Northwest tour is timed to take advantage of this migration. The 2011 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 splendid scenery.

On most days of the tour we had some time near tidal shorelines, leading to a whopping 29 species of shorebirds. Three of the world's four godwit species were on that list. We saw two rare Bar-tailed Godwits in a flock of hundreds of Marbled Godwits in Washington, and a rare for the area Hudsonian Godwit in British Columbia. Side by side on one tide flat were both Pacific and American golden-plovers, and both Red and Red-necked phalaropes were seen on the ocean during a pelagic trip. Black Turnstones foraged alongside Ruddy Turnstones, and a flock of Surfbirds was a definite hit with the group. Terrific views of Black Oystercatchers added a Northwest flavor to the shorebird sightings.

The first morning of the tour was devoted to birding inland, mostly along Scatter Creek south of Olympia, Washington. We started the day in the yard of leader Bob Sundstrom, where Purple Finches visited the feeders, Rufous Hummingbirds buzzed the flowers, Violet-green Swallows swarmed overhead, and Evening Grosbeaks perched across from the driveway. Nearby, we came across Black-throated Gray and MacGillivray's warblers, Red-breasted Sapsuckers, Chestnut-backed Chickadees, and Evening Grosbeaks. Making for the coast by midday, we were soon looking at hundreds of shorebirds.

On the second day of the tour, a private charter boat took us for a full day in the pelagic zone, 35+ miles into the Pacific off Westport, Washington. Not far offshore, the boat met with thousands of Sooty Shearwaters on the wing, a movement that seemed endless. The day's seabird highlights included several South Polar Skuas, close views of Black-footed Albatrosses, a few handsome Buller's Shearwaters, hundreds of Pink-footed Shearwaters, and two jaeger species. We had superb views of Fork-tailed Storm-Petrels, with some passing right by the stern, and the surprise of a few Leach's Storm-Petrels.

Another morning saw us driving up to 5,000+ feet elevation in Olympic National Park, where a Sooty Grouse entertained us along a trail through a subalpine meadow as she and two large chicks munched tender flowers and leaves. On the drive up, a Northern Pygmy-Owl flew in right next to the roadside, posing for minutes for great scope views and photos. The following day, we found Sky Larks near Victoria, British Columbia, the only regular North American population.

The final full day of the tour featured the tide flats of Boundary Bay, one of the key estuaries on the Pacific Coast. Thousands of Black-bellied Plovers flocked at the tide line, with other shorebirds mixed among them. Thousands of Northern Pintails rafted at the water's edge, or took flight when a predator appeared. As we watched, a Peregrine Falcon took a wigeon from the air and pinned it to the mud. Even before the falcon had fully dispatched the unfortunate duck, a second, larger Peregrine Falcon flew in and displaced the first from the kill—a female falcon driving off a male. Later the same day, we watched another Peregrine knock a Green-winged Teal from the air, and an aerial duel between a Peregrine and Northern Harrier. Not far from the tidal habitat, hedgerows and lines of small trees were alive with migrants: Lincoln's Sparrows down from mountain wetland nesting, Golden-crowned Sparrows and Fox Sparrows from farther north, hundreds of Savannah Sparrows on the move, flocks of Cedar Waxwings, Yellow and Orange-crowned warblers, and a single tardy Western Tanager.

The tour fully lived up to its name as an ongoing spectacle of migration.