Sunday, May 30, 2010

Alaska Holiday - Day 4, Bellingham

In preparation for the first stage of the holiday in Washington State, with help from Alison I'd looked at the area and surrounding region to locate good birding opportunities. Washington State is huge of course, and offers many diverse habitats - too many in fact for a short visit, so I decided to focus on something relatively local to Bellingham, the San Juan Islands. Further research led me to a book by Mark Lewis and Fred Sharpe, 'Birding in the San Juan Islands'. We decided getting a local birding guide would make sense as we could take advantage of the prevailing weather conditions and either get out on a boat or work our way around San Juan Island.

We contacted Sea Quest Kayak ( and booked our tour, which it turns out is led by one Mark Lewis, co-author of the book.

The day before we had some fun and games amongst ourselves deciding what exactly we wanted to do; Mark proved supportive and patient and advised we took the State ferry from Anacortes to Friday Harbor and to spend the day on San Juan Island, which we did, catching the 6am sailing for the 90-minute trip to the Island. Anacortes is an hour and a bit south of Bellingham so it turned out to be a very early start to the day.

Boarding the boat brought us very close to some nesting Pelagic Cormorants, who use the harbour as their base:

Being early morning, the mists were still clearing:

But the sun was breaking through the low cloud cover:

As we navigated first to Lopez Island before heading on to San Juan Island, a number of birds were disturbed by the passage of the boat, including Pigeon Guillemots:

A Pacific Loon:

and Rhinoceros Auklets:

The sun kept rising:

But was soon obscured by clouds, the early brightness being reduced as the trip progressed:

We picked Mark up at Friday Harbor and together with some coffee headed onto the Island, with Mark directing and me driving. Helen took this picture of us at our first stop of the morning, with Alison left, me right and Mark crouched down, all of looking for birds:

A major theme of the day, unfortunately, was the significant reduction in numbers of migrating and breeding birds that Mark has witnessed in the thirty years he's been living on the Islands. Virtually every species (except Brown-headed Cowbirds) having recorded reductions of 60% to 98% in numbers, with some local extinctions including Sky Larks. The picture Mark painted was a sad one indeed and whilst we did see a lot on our trip the numbers were well below expectations. At this rate of decline the San Juan Islands will see many more local extinctions and more species will move to the critically endangered/extinction threatened status nationally.

At the first stop we enjoyed seeing a Yellow Warbler:

together with a new species, Warbling Vireo:

a Killdeer flew in nosily as we climbed off the beach:

Next-up we went to a local marsh to look for Rails and/or Soras to no avail, but did enjoy watching this Common Yellowthroat singing:

Further around the island still, a small group of fox cubs was enjoying the Spring day:

As was this rabbit, until one of the cubs snuck up behind it and lunged at it, causing the rabbit to leap in the air, twist, land and run. Good job the adult foxes weren't around...

From the hillside we watched Northern Harriers browsing along the shoreline, heard but didn't see Vesper Sparrow and enjoyed the native wildflowers in the sunshine, in this case Californian Poppy:

We stopped off at one beach, a location typically covered in bird life in the past, now reduced to just a few individuals, including a Great Blue Heron:

and Black Oystercatchers:

A Glaucous-winged Gull ate a clam which it had dropped from a height on to the beach to break open the shell:

At another vantage point we watched juvenile Bald Eagles harassing a nesting colony of gulls, while Mark explained how adult Bald Eagles hunt and predate on the gulls. I'd often wondered if gulls had any significant predators, it turns out adult Bald Eagles are very good at capturing gulls...

As we headed further round the island, one such adult Bald Eagle posed long enough for a snap against the now significantly darker skies:

At a dock area, more industrial than Friday Harbor, we encountered a small group of Hooded Mergansers:

Another stop, this time encountering Rufous Hummingbirds and Red Crossbills:

Finally, before heading to catch the ferry, we stopped in at the University grounds, spotting this Colombian White-tailed Deer:

and a very brightly plumaged House Finch:

As well as the Warbling Vireo, we had seen other new species including the Pacific-slope Flycatcher together with previously seen species such Pacific Loon, Olive-sided Flycatcher, Brandt's Cormorant, Surf Scoter, Purple Finch, Belted Kingfisher and Swainson's Thrush. Mark proved a very knowledgeable and helpful guide and we headed back to the ferry satisfied with the day's birding, if somewhat disquieted by the significant reductions in bird numbers and diversity.

We got back to the ferry terminal one minute after the ferry had left - it was still less than fifty meters from the dock as we parked. The lady helpfully explained that the schedule we had was the Sunday schedule not the weekday schedule. So a two-hour wait for the next one then! Mark kindly invited us to do some birding around his house as it provided central island habitat and he has some feeders set-up, so we accepted.

As we got out of the car a Red-tailed Hawk was circling overhead:

On the feeders, first-up a Red-breasted Nuthatch:

American Goldfinch:

and Pine Siskins:

These little birds were confident enough to use the bird bath whilst we were stood next to it.
A Black-headed Grosbeak settled close-by but was nervous about flying to the feeder with us there:

I used the Audubon application on my iPhone to draw out the vocal but hidden California Quail. On hearing the challenge the bird flew to a close tree to try and spot the intruder bird, saw it was us and promptly flew off again, but we did get to add the new species to the list:

Having missed one boat we decided to be really prompt for the next one, so set off with an hour to spare to queue for the boat and then the drive home, having thoroughly enjoyed our day but needing to pack for stage two of the Alaska holiday...

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