Washington: September Migration in the Pacific Northwest Sep 05—13, 2012

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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The ongoing migration of September concentrates birds along Washington and southern British Columbia's mountain ridges, forest edges, coastal shorelines, and along the ocean's near waters. The September Migration in the Pacific Northwest tour takes full advantage of nature's timing to go in search of shorebirds, seabirds, and songbirds in the midst of southward migration. Our 2012 tour participants enjoyed superb weather, an admirable list of birds, plus 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 to inland birding, beginning along Scatter Creek south of Olympia, Washington. At our first stop in leader Bob Sundstrom's yard, two Red-breasted Sapsuckers were at work in a birch tree, and a singing Cassin's Vireo perched up for all to see. Band-tailed Pigeons perched in tree tops, and the feeders were busy with Purple Finches as Spotted Towhees fed on the ground. With the recent report of a Ruff near the coast, we soon departed toward Grays Harbor where, just after lunch, we enjoyed scope views of a handsome juvenile Ruff, among other shorebirds and waterfowl. Not long after along South Bay, the tide pushed in hundreds of shorebirds to our view, including Red Knots, some Black-bellied Plovers in full breeding plumage, and brightly marked Short-billed Dowitchers.

On the second day of the tour, a private charter boat took us for a full day in the pelagic zone more than 35 nautical miles into the Pacific, off Westport, Washington. The weather was sunny and the swells were low, a superb day to be on the water. The waters offshore were highly productive on this day, as they often are in September out of Westport. We saw more than 100 Black-footed Albatrosses, some right next to the stern and, at one spot near a commercial fishing boat, a beautiful Laysan Albatross—quite uncommon here—flew in for magnificent views. Another much anticipated seabird, South Polar Skua, turned up in abundance: 15 were counted for the day, some flying close to the boat for fine views. There were lots of lovely Sabine's Gulls, close sightings of Cassin's Auklets, and a Tufted Puffin that floated right alongside. Both Red and Red-necked phalaropes bobbed on the remarkably smooth ocean, and we had superb views of hundreds of dainty Fork-tailed Storm-Petrels. Among the many hundreds of Pink-footed and Sooty shearwaters were a Buller's and a Flesh-footed shearwater. Marine mammals put on a good show too, as humpback whales were sighted on and off all day, and a small group of killer whales were a major source of excitement.

The following day we focused on shorebirds at several coastal sites, finding a nice diversity of species from turnstones to godwits to thousands of peeps, and watched both a Peregrine Falcon and a "Black" Merlin blast through the flocks of sandpipers in quest of a meal. On Day #5 we headed north up the Olympic Peninsula and followed the Dosewallips River inland to the foot of the Olympic Mountains. While enjoying the lush fern- and moss-covered forest along the river, we came upon an American Dipper foraging and "dipping" atop rocks in the rushing stream. Soon after, we watched a Varied Thrush—another Northwestern specialty—hopping along the edge of the shady road. The same afternoon near Port Angeles, we watched Harlequin Ducks and a flock of Black Oystercatchers as a Bald Eagle glided in and flushed thousands of gulls from their roost on a floating platform of logs.

The next morning found us birding along a road that climbs into the Olympic Mountains. At our first stop, a small flock of Townsend's Warblers lit up the evergreens, as a Townsend's Solitaire flew in to a tree top. We searched lovely subalpine meadows until we had a wonderful study of a Sooty Grouse, a dark brown hen standing in a meadow of short huckleberries.

On Day 7 we ferried 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 a few Sky Larks, sharing the fields with American Pipits and Savannah Sparrows, and then headed to the Victoria waterfront for a look at Surfbirds and more Harlequin Ducks and oystercatchers. 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 this day in the flocks of shorebirds we found, but we had good comparisons of both dowitchers and both yellowlegs, and encountered a strong migration of songbirds—warblers, vireos, hummingbirds, thrushes—in a riparian zone. The next morning we were crossing back south into the States, making one strategic stop where hundreds of scoters and grebes and dozens of loons concentrated, and then on toward Seattle and the airport. It had been a superb tour—many wonderful examples of migration in action, many fine birds, wonderful meals, and great company—all set in one of the most distinctive and beautiful regions of North America, at an ideal season.