Washington: September Migration in the Pacific Northwest Sep 04—12, 2013

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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The last full day of the 2013 September Migration tour was coming to an end. The tour had gone very well, with many excellent birds seen. The weather had been amazingly nice too. We had taken a welcome afternoon break at the hotel, after a fine lunch at a riverside seafood place. Now, early evening, we were back birding from the dike along the edge of Boundary Bay, as the tide was rising and the sun was getting ready to set. One last look through the shorebirds, for a rarity as yet unseen.

We studied a group of juvenile Baird’s Sandpipers, lovely in their buff-fringed feathering, and sorted through Pectoral Sandpipers for that hoped for rarity—a juvenile Sharp-tailed Sandpiper. We had looked through many Pectorals that day and on previous days since the start of the tour, looking for that same-sized rare bird, but the one with the different markings, the one without the heavily streaked breast.

Jeff, one of our tour participants, called attention to a concentration of shorebirds farther down the dike. We walked another hundred yards to study those birds. Now Jeff called out a Buff-breasted Sandpiper—a rare bird here too—and one we had already been fortunate to see a week ago. The Buff-breasted flew off, but somehow the sense of a rare bird continued to hang in the air, as we once again sorted among yet another flock of Pectoral Sandpipers. Streaked breast, nope. Another streaked breast, another…and—Wow! There it was! A sandpiper with the proportions of a Pectoral, but with a clean, rosy-buff breast, a striking pale eyebrow, and a very snappy rusty cap—we had found our Sharp-tailed Sandpiper! The bird was obliging, allowing leisurely scope study from perhaps 75 feet away. And the sun was setting over our shoulders, a red orb sinking below broad expanses of farm fields, and casting a golden light on the rare bird in front of us.

The Sharp-tailed Sandpiper moment was a fitting near-ending (we had one morning left) to a fine tour. The tour covered a good bit of ground over 9 days: a loop south and west from Seattle to the Pacific Ocean, then back north to the Olympic Peninsula, then by ferry north to Victoria, British Columbia and then another ferry to just south of Vancouver, B.C. on the mainland and, finally, the last morning back south over land to Seattle. The tour takes advantage of September’s ongoing southbound migration of shorebirds, seabirds, and songbirds that concentrates birds along the region’s mountain ridges, forest edges, coastal shorelines, and over the ocean itself.

The region’s landforms make for a remarkable variety of birding opportunities: you can be birding at over 5,000 feet in the Olympic Mountains one moment, looking at Sooty Grouse and Varied Thrush, and an hour later find yourself along the marine shoreline of the Strait of Juan de Fuca, watching Harlequin Ducks share a floating raft of logs with Harbor Seals. The first full day of the tour we birded the Scatter Creek drainage of forest and farmland, where we saw such birds as MacGillivray’s and Black-throated Gray warblers, Red-breasted Sapsucker, Purple Finch, Hutton’s Vireo, and three jays—Gray, Steller’s, and Western Scrub. Just after lunch we watched a Pacific Wren singing in the fern-laden understory of the coastal spruce forest. And by mid-afternoon and now at the water’s edge, we looked over a flock of 500+ Marbled Godwits as hundreds of Brown Pelicans and Heermann’s Gulls roosted in the background.

One full day was devoted to a pelagic trip out of Westport, Washington, which ventured out 35 miles from shore. And it was a day when most of the participants were hoping to get a look at a number of seabirds they had never seen before. The boat trip, as usual, made for a very productive day on the ocean, with great views of Black-footed Albatrosses all but touching the boat, as well as good views of Fork-tailed Storm-Petrels, four different shearwaters, a single Tufted Puffin, multiple jaegers, South Polar Skua, Sabine’s Gull, and other birds, as well as a pair of rare-for-the-area Scripps’s Murrelets.

Over the course of the full tour we saw 28 shorebird species, including Black Oystercatcher, Black Turnstone, Surfbird, Wandering Tattler, and Red-necked Phalarope, as well as turning up the first Upland Sandpiper seen in the state in more than 10 years. Elegant Terns also were putting in a surprise appearance this far north, the first in nearly two decades.

We had good luck with Sky Larks too, at their only regular North American site north of Victoria, B.C., where a population holds on in the farmlands. And our search for another regional specialty, Sooty Grouse, took us along miles of back roads in the superbly scenic Olympic Mountains until Scott (one of the tour participants) spotted a hen and two large chicks. When all had seen the grouse nicely, we picnicked right where we were parked—at over 5,000 feet elevation with a spectacular view of the surrounding mountain slopes.