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Sea Changes: Birding Washington’s Coast Pt. 1

Unless you’ve encountered a truly large flock of migrating songbirds, it’s difficult to imagine the mass exodus of neotropical migrants vacillating between North and South. In reality we only get small views of their journeys, filtered by space and time, augmented by our imaginations and careful study. When you expose yourself to the sublime numbers of waterbirds, be they Western Sandpipers, Sooty Shearwaters, or White-winged Scoters, you witness the full intensity of bird migration. I’ve watched Broad-winged Hawks pick up as the day warmed in South Texas. I’ve seen hundreds of Western Tanagers flit through oases in the middle of the desert. Nothing leaves me more agog than the masses of birds I observe when I visit the Pacific Ocean.

For a birder, visiting the coast is an exercise in your ability to sieve through thousands of birds. A casual species found can make a trip, one missed can ruin it for some. Often you arrive at one location , stand and scan, and do so for hours. This may sound extremely tedious and it can be. From a naturalist’s perspective it’s a slightly a ridiculous practice in placing value on species that all have their link in an ecological chain. However, there’s more to it, and the more you do it, the more you appreciate the pedantic experience. The searcher becomes a shaman, muttering sacred incantations, fully immersed in the landscape. Inherently one appreciate the tides, the whirling throngs of birds, and the immediately ephemeral world of the coastline. You wouldn’t be standing there, calf deep and squinting at distant gray blobs for any other reason.

Adam and I got up fairly early to run down to the coast, have a full day of birding, crash in Olympic National Park, and get a half day scanning seabirds through passing along the craggy shore. Arriving at Bottle Beach, we discovered that the tide was still well out and decided to head down the coast while the advancing water pushed all the shorebirds closer to high tide mark. For those who don’t quite get this (you don’t all spend ludicrous amounts of your time thinking about the tide in relation to birds), shorebirds tend to stick nearer to the water’s edge and while every species has its different styles of foraging, closer water equals closer birds.

Leaving sunny Bottle Beach, with the massif of Mount Olympus visible to the North, we zipped south and immediately hit a fog bank. Stopping at several beaches near Grayland got us exactly zero birds. Despite this I was relishing the weather, the coastal quality of wind and imposing dreariness, the kind I’d happily walk through to mull life’s unanswerables. While this wasn’t conducive to birding, we did have a nice talk with a man and his dog, help a couple from New England get their camper van out of soft sand, and left feeling self-righteously human. Birders can be immensely nice people, but also can be cliquey when out birding, this was a nice aside from the shop talk in the field.

I won’t name names, but someone screwed up reading the tide schedule.

The mud flats looked all wrong when we reemerged from the fog at Bottle Beach. Why did the water seem to be farther away than when we started? Why were all the shorebirds almost a mile away now? Adam and I sat on a log, scratching our heads, staring at the tide table. Nothing on it suggested we’d arrived in time for high tide.

As a general rule, no one person should be in charge of scanning tide charts. Especially people who cannot count, add, or be relied upon to perform the adult heavy-lifting of reading the time. Namely every person who has screwed up reading the tides. Everyone. (To be fair, the tables are really endless lines of small numbers all squished together, recorded in too many numerals, and far too easy to skip a line).

We screwed up, didn’t get the better view desired. The side benefit was squelching about in the mud. We didn’t see a whole lot from the “listing” birder’s perspective just Western and Least Sandpipers, Semipalmated and Black-bellied Plovers, Northern Pintail, and Greater White-fronted Geese. In the duality of the naturalist that craves rare birds, I found great accomplishment in watching the eel grass beneath a thin sheet of water and tracing the prints of the shorebirds we now peered at on a sandbank across the channel. These birds had all done something we’d all consider remarkable for a human: traveled several thousand miles completely of their own power, with complex systems made up of essentially the same components, modified over time for their task, as humans. For every Outside Magazine article on some outlier who pogo-sticked across the Andes, there’s probably a million birds that do spectacular feats twice yearly. I love the idea of pushing my endurance, doing abnormal, wild things on the fringe of society, and then telling a story about it. I love day-dreaming about migration, my feet plunged into mud that might one day become mountain top shale, unfathomably more.

A good friend calls this strip of land, which will one day be swallowed by the sea along with every other distasteful seaside resort-town, Open Sores. Whatever your feelings about Ocean Shores, it’s irrefutably one of the best places in Washington to get to experience coastal birds. One moment you are circling through dizzying developments, on curving roadways that appear to have been drafted by a spinning top; the next you are pushing through a wall of willows to mudflats that bare no evidence of the nearby human settlement. .

Gray sea tones pillowed over the small ponds we came to visit, muting daylight but embellishing the green hues of squat coastal plants. Birds kept eluding us, whenever we’d shimmy for better vantage, slowly and quietly working closer, something would spook them. I blame the Northern Harriers, but I suppose it could have been us. The birds knew we were there the whole time, but would jump into the air when we were standing stock still.

Adam was after one bird, an American Golden Plover we kept getting getting inadequate looks at. In the distance it would appear, just long enough for us to equivocate about the tail to wing length. Then, as if by magic, it would be gone again.

Encircling the pond, we carefully slid through slimy, rust-colored muck, trying to avoid slipping. It was an excellent canvas for tracks and I always enjoy these impressions. In most cases, I care less about what they tell me, their shapes and sizes are striking. Such a simple impression that will soon disappear, but still a marker of some creature that could have been here mere moments before. The Racoon prints, they were probably from the previous night, but I imagined their ambling gait as they scurried to the willows, away from Adam’s and my approach.

A group of Pectoral Sandpipers flew in remarkably close to us. I give shorebirds all the credit in the world for the challenges they face, but if you are standing stock still, I feel like they’d walk between your legs mistaking you for part of the landscape. Adam and I murmured appreciation for the close viewing and I squatted for some mediocre photos of wet grass and nervous birds.

The American Golden Plover had been there all along. In the midst of foraging, the bird would suddenly hunker down and remain still. This appeared to be in relation to large birds overhead, a cryptic means to avoid predators. Plovers travel in groups, but they don’t frenetically tear about the shoreline in huge like peeps (a birder term for small shorebirds, typically of the genus Calidris). Instead, they patiently stand on mud flats or grass, waiting for the perfect moment to rush and grab a food item (this is accurately described as “run-stop-peck” in literature). They generally do this in a solitary fashion, a loosely associated flock at best. Hurling themselves into the air when any predator is overhead would turn into a death race based on speed, not safety in numbers. While Dennis Paulson’s Shorebirds of the Pacific Northwest calls them “the high speed champions among shorebirds,” crypsis is less energetically costly than sprinting contests. We were constantly reminded of each time the bird sat in the mud, nearly disappearing.

We weren’t confident about this bird’s identity. My experience in identification of American Golden Plovers vs. Pacific Golden Plovers was mostly book learned, the relative few I’ve encountered in the flesh were either very obvious or pointed out to me. We needed a photograph to confirm. I had a camera, but a meager 300mm reach. However, I also get enjoyment from crawling in the dirt (or goose shit as it turns out).

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My first Golden Plover, which I can’t confidently say was a Pacific or American (I was 10 years old and don’t trust my assessment), was from the Oregon Coast. This bird was on the ocean side of Bayocean Spit, ringing one side of Tillamook Bay. My parents graciously took me there to bird on semi-annual excursions to nearby Pacific City. My mother and I spotted this bird far ahead on the beach and lacking a scope, I chose to inch forward on my belly, using a large drift log to hide. When I got close enough, I peeked over the log and found myself immersed in a private encounter with this bird and a lone Dowitcher nearby. They seemed unaware of the nearby child, barely containing his excitement. I haven’t yet figured out how to describe the excitement of observing animals with no knowledge of your presence, but it’s much preferable to birds harried by your proximity. It feels real.

This was playing through my mind as I crept through goose shit to snap a diagnostic shot. The birds knew I was there, so it wasn’t the same, but I still got my daily snapshot of their world. I amused myself watching the bird lean forward in aggressive stance to chase off interloping Black-bellied Plovers and then suddenly press itself down, motionless as a gull flew over. Before long and for no apparent reason, every bird up scared up, noisily calling in alarm.

Cold and stiff, I got up to stretch and we headed off to the car, to our own human reality. There was more birding it to do. But, before we got there, we were reminded of the power of numbers. Just on the other side of the willows, I heard a rush and looked up to see see hundreds of sandpipers low overhead. I spurted something loud unseemly in my surprise and delight at their rushing wings. These were the moments we came for.

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4 Comments

  1. Pingback: A 2013 (Photographic) Year in Review | Wingtrip

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