Monday, August 8, 2011

August Birding in the Northwest Corner

August can be slow for birding, and it had been about a month since I'd been on a bona fide birding-only trip.  I needed out!  Most of the places I 'need' to go at this point are a bit of a haul, and I wanted company anyway, so I gave my friend Randy Bjorklund a call.  Where to go?  We were both intrigued by the idea of poking around looking for White-tailed Ptarmigan, but also wanted to visit some new places.  Added into the decision making was a Wood Sandpiper that had been visiting a flooded field in the Samish Flats in Skagit County.  We decided on a trip up to Whatcom County to take a look at the Mount Baker area, a few shorebird spots in Whatcom, and finally a search for the Wood Sandpiper.

Whatcom County - up Mount Baker
Randy and I left Federal Way around 7 AM, with a three hour drive ahead of us.  Heading up I5 was pretty uneventful, although it was odd when I got up around the Skagit/Whatcom county line here.  We had been talking for the last couple of hours, and I was suddenly worried that we had gone the wrong way!  "Are we on I-5?"  What caught me off guard is that I had skipped this stretch during my earlier trips to Whatcom County, taking Chuckanut drive instead.  This stretch of highway is interesting - it seems narrower, perhaps only because of Chuckanut Mountain pressing in on the west side of the road. 

Hmmm... anyway, we got off of I-5 eventually, having made it all the way up to Whatcom, and realized that we still had an hour left to drive!  It had not quite sunk in just how far it is to Mount Baker from there.  Driving through, we had discussed our Whatcom lists - he had seen 71 species in the county, and I had seen 70.  We both needed summer birds, and kind of hoped we could see enough to bring the lists to an even 100 by the end of the day. 

We made a few stops on our way up as we passed through the farmland on the north edge of the state.  I had no pigeons at all, so I was happy to see a flock of Rock Pigeons, and we both picked up Western Wood-Peewee and Red-eyed Vireo at another stop, feeling pretty fortunate to have birds singing so late in the season!

Randy shooting some tiger-lillies
We started to gain elevation, and started passing cyclists... lots and lots of cyclists!  Somehow I avoided killing myself and/or them on the way up Highway 542, and we found a good stop to pull over and really start the Mount Baker part of the trip.  At this pullout, we found tiger-lillies, and our first high-elevation bird of the day, a Clark's Nutcracker calling from down the hill.

Tarn near Heather Meadows - Mount Baker
 Farther up the hill, we stopped at Picture Lake for a bit, taking pictures, and listening.  It was exactly  what a person should expect from birding at higher elevations - not that many birds, but usually good ones.  We had Mountain Chickadees and Gray Jays at this stop, as well as a few Robins (our only thrushes of the day...), and Song Sparrows.  At one point, I thought I heard a Chipping Sparrow... but I let it go.  It was fairly distant, and it was just one bird after all!

ahh.... ski poles would have been nice
 We were kind of excited to get to the end of the road, and explore some trails, but disaster struck.  We found that not only were the trails covered with snow, but the road leading to the trailheads was not even snow free yet!  We hung out at the Heather Meadows Visitor Center for a while... hoping for a finch... any cool finch to fly by, but we soon realized that this was not going to be our day up on Baker!

Gray Jay coming in for a peanut
 We made a few stops on the way down, finding that we were able to poke around a little at slightly lower elevation.  We picked up a few Olive-sided Flycatchers on some of these little jaunts, as well as Dark-eyed Juncos, and another bird that got away...a little warbler that dashed across the road in front of us silently 2-3 times before disappearing down the hillside.  Before we left, we also ran into a flock of 10 or so Vaux's Swifts.

Views from Heather Meadows - Mount Baker
 Whatcom County - down to the water
Western Sandpipers - Blaine Marina

Checking with the GPS, it appeared that the Blaine waterfront (where I stopped on one of my very first trips of the year) was about an hour away.  We talked it over, and decided that heading straight there was a good idea - no need to stop for American Dipper at Whatcom Falls, or to follow up on a Bank Swallow report.  We were going straight for the shorebirds!

Bonaparte's Gull
Looking over recent reports, it looked like several species of shorebirds were possible here at the Blaine Marina.  We found about 30-40 peeps feeding in the mud.  Most were Western Sandpipers, but we were able to pick out a few Least Sandpipers as well.  Similarly there were quite a few Killdeer, with one Semipalmated Plover worked in. 

We looked in vain for the Black Oystercatchers that hang out here... will have to find out where they hang out before I make another trip up.  Oh well... just one bird!

Mount Baker from Lummi Flats
 From here, we made our way down to Lummi Flats.  In the winter, I had come through here to look for raptors and sparrows, but today, I was hoping we could get some shorebirds by driving in towards Lummi Bay.  We added quite a few species here: American Goldfinch, Barn, Cliff and Violet-green Swallows, Savannah Sparrows, Common Yellowthroat, Greater Yellowlegs, and Belted Kingfisher were among the ones that we saw during a fairly brief stay.  Trails along the water did not seem to be improving the view, so we took the road around to Sandy Point.

Sandy Point Marina - Whatcom County
Mount Baker in the distance
I will have to work harder to understand Sandy Point.  I see reports of birds from here, but as far as I can tell, the shoreline is almost completely inaccessible.  Randy and I drove around a bit looking for an opening to any public or semi-public waterfront, but found nothing.  A woman we asked as we drove suggested that it was "Really too windy here for birds."  We gathered that this would not be a fruitful stop today, and it was getting a little late (nearly 6), so we left the county to go look for a Wood Sandpiper.

On the way out, with the windows down, we were able to pick up a Brown-headed Cowbird before leaving Whatcom.  It was my 99th bird in the county, and probably the last for the year (we'll see...), and it may have been Randy's 99th? 100th? He was going to add them up later at home to find out.  A cold adult beverage is riding on the answer.

Skagit County - Samish Flats

Farmland - Skagit County

The hike to the Wood Sandpiper
 It turns out that some of the farmers in Skagit County have an agreement to take turns flooding their fields during shorebird migration, providing them with much needed habitat as they head thousands of miles south in the fall.  I don't know all of the ins and outs of it, but it appears to be working with some success already.

Randy on the hike

Flooded Field - Skagit County
A Wood Sandpiper was found late in the week in one of these fields.  It was supposed to be visible from the road, but much more easily from the other side of the field, which meant a bit of a hike - about 20 minutes each way.  Fortunately Randy had made the hike the previous day, (and had seen the bird!) so we didn't have to worry about getting lost!

Savannah Sparrow
Okay, so why the excitement?  This is a bird that has not officially been documented in the state.  There were a few claims of a sighting that didn't have enough detail to be confirmed.  With photograhs taken this time, and the skill of the observers finding it and seeing it subsequently, this one is prooooobbably going to be confirmed.  When we got to the pond, Randy and I set up scopes while Savannah Sparrows and Barn Swallows flew around us.

Red-necked Phalarope
 We were looking for a medium-sized shorebird, and pretty quickly found one.  While it wasn't the Wood Sandpiper, it was still an uncommon enough bird - a Red-necked Phalarope!  It was the first of the year for both Randy and myself, and it was fun to watch it.  Birds in this family have a strange habit of getting in shallow ponds and switching direction almost constantly, almost like a dog getting ready to lie down.

Getting a little late...
 We waited for 45 minutes, and the only other really interesting things bird-wise were a few Great Blue Herons flying in to inspect the water, and a growing number of small sandpipers that swirled around the pond without ever landing - eight at first, and as many as 50 total by the end of the evening.  Randy was willing to stick around a bit later, but I was driving back, and starting to feel a little sleepy as it passed 8 o'clock.  We packed it up, and made the hike back. 

The whole way back we were stopping constantly to take pictures.  The sun was doing amazing things on the cover crops in these fields.  I don't know how well the pictures here captured it, but this is one of the reasons I'm really enjoying birding so much, and enjoying the year.  Even when I'm missing birds that I'm trying to find, or if I end up with 99 birds here, or 100 birds there, the places that I 'have' to go are so beautiful!   It was nice to have this kind of unplanned trip (have I had any 'planned' trips to Skagit County?) to see a little bit more of this place.


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