Monday, June 18, 2012

Saturday, May 5, 2012 Coast Migration part 1

Destination - the ocean beaches of Washington state. Reason - the height of the shorebird migration.
Late April and early May is the time many shore birds are coming from their southern winter homes to their Alaska summer homes and they stop along the way to fuel up for their journey. Rudy and I were going to get a piece of that action. We got up early and made our first stop at Bottle Beach State Park at 8am. Bottle Beach is between Westport and Aberdeen. When we got to the beach the tide was way out. Birdwatching is at it's worst when the tide is out because the birds are far out where the water is. We could see some birds but didn't have any idea what were there as they were too far away. However, close to shore we did see a small herd of semi-palmated plovers (#94) so that was good.

We decided to head down the road to Johns River, an estuary/woodland area back toward Aberdeen. We took the trail for a short ways and heard a new song coming from the trees. To our delight we spotted a brilliant yellow warbler (#95) singing away. He was like a drop of sunshine sitting on a branch. Just beyond that there was a place where the estuary went under the trail and just below us was about 20 least sandpipers (#96). Oh the were busy poking the mud for food. We went a bit further but didn't see anything else new. There were some marsh wrens and mallards and such but we had bigger goals set for ourselves so we turned back and headed for Hoquiam for the Gray's Harbor Shorebird Festival.

least sandpiper

The event was easy to find, at the high school, and there was a good turn out with booths, classes and tours. We looked around and grabbed some soup and a huge brownie for lunch and then boarded the shuttle that was provided to visit the Gray's Harbor NWR. We were timing it to be there 2 hours before high tide--the primo viewing time. We'd been to Gray's Harbor NWR before when we had come out to the beach for the snowy owls. We stopped by but never actually found the trail out to the tide flats. So this was a great opportunity to learn the layout of the refuge. It actually is next to the airport and has a wonderful trail and boardwalk out to the harbor. From the shuttle we were dropped off at the trailhead. The trail is lined with small trees such as willows and makes a nice haven for warblers and such. Closer to the shore there were areas that wrens find homey and sure enough their songs filled the air. Up to our right and out toward the flats was a small group of white-fronted geese (#97). That was kind of a surprise. The tide flats were just beyond and there flying in were hundreds of birds. Mostly western sandpipers (#98) but there were a few dunlins (#99) mixed in. It took us awhile to get out to the best viewing area for the shorebirds because we were stopping to watch for birds in the shrubs, grasses and the mudflats. We saw one in particular that we knew must be a warbler but we couldn't put a name to. We'd have to get out the bird book and figure it out later. When we did get to where most people were gathered for viewing, the birds had moved on. Being new to this we didn't exactly know how this whole thing works. Timing is everything. So the best viewing times are about 1-2 hours before and after high tide but not necessarily at high tide. At high tide the mud is covered by water and the birds have no foraging areas. The good thing was the birds were still around, we just had to go to another section of the trail. Sure enough there they were--thousands. Each of them trying to find the last bit of high ground and rest awhile before they would eat again. Looking out it looked like a bunch of small islands by the shore, until you got the binocs on the "islands" and saw it was solid birds--not land. The movements of the flocks were something to see. All of a sudden, as if on some hidden command, hundreds of birds would swarm at the same time. Sometimes flying in circles and landing back where they started. Other times flying off to try some new part of the basin.

There is an island way out in the harbor where we could see thousands of birds swarming like a giant cloud moving to and fro. It was amazing. It was like it was alive.The tide came in higher and the birds flew off for higher ground. It didn't help that a merlin (#100) flew over at the same time--birds of prey always upset shorebirds and it kind of put an end to the viewing time at that part of the boardwalk.

Rudy and I decided to go back to the place we'd been when we first got out to the mudflats and wait for the tide to go out to see if the birds would come back. Many of the birders had left, except for the volunteers with scopes, and we found a bench to sit and wait. We ate a snack and looked in the bird book for that warbler we had seen. It turned out it was an orange-crowned warbler (#101). After about a half hour - 45 minutes there were patches of mud starting to appear again. Then a few birds, then more, then - well you get the picture. This time we had a front row seat. Western sandpipers, dunlins, semi-palmated plovers--then a shout--"black-bellied plovers (#102) coming in on the right!" Sure enough, there they were along with short-billed dowitchers (#103) and in the sky caspian terns and their flying antics.Migration--you bet. What a wonderful time being there in the midst of such an event. We watched as long as we dared--we had about 45 minutes until the last shuttle so we needed to start heading back. It worked out well, we had plenty of time to scan the path on the way back. We saw a wonderful yellow-rumped warbler and another yellow warbler. Watched a song sparrow give us a show and a song from a branch of apple blossoms. Found a marsh wren perched and trilling in his reeds. We were high on the thrill of it all.

That night we stayed at Ocean Shores at the Best Western Lighthouse Inn. We went down to the beach before dinner and saw more birds poking their long beaks in the sand for dinner. New to this group were a number of marbled godwits (#104). They had really long bills and were sticking it in the sand so even their head went under. Must have been some good stuff there.

We ate at the restaurant at the hotel--not the best--but it was easy. That night was one of those times when the moon was as close as it gets and appears bigger than normal so we were anxious to get a glimpse of it rising. Luckily the hotel has a "lighthouse" viewing room with 360 degree view. Moonrise was just about the same time as sunset. We were able to watch the sunset from our room and then high tailed it up to the lookout. Sure enough it appeared big and yellow and gave us a nice show for the end of the day.

A video to show some of the masses of birds:

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