Saturday, December 21, 2013

2013 in Review, Part III: Beginning the Year in Washington

One of the perks of working at a school is the time off that punctuates an otherwise busy lifestyle. While Fall Break, Thanksgiving, and other small holidays provide quick respites throughout the year, Christmas, Spring, and Summer Breaks are nice lengthy times for recuperation. They also cater to the habits of a birder quite well.

For Jen and me, Christmas and Summer afford us the luxury of getting to go back home to Washington state. Jen is from Whidbey Island, I'm from Spokane, and we always end up seeing both sides of the family when we're back. I typically manage to fit in a decent amount of birding while there.

We began 2013 on Whidbey Island and were there for a few days before heading back to Illinois. By the time we got to Sea-Tac on January 5, I already had 93 species for the year - a testament to just how incredible winter birding can be in the Northwest.

One of my favorite birding experiences of the whole year came on its second day. Black Oystercatchers have been one of my favorite birds for as far back as I can remember. Seeing them and Tufted Puffins on the Oregon coast as a little kid was no doubt one of the things that irrevocably cemented a passion for birding in my heart. It had also been quite a long time since I had seen one (at least 10 years). On January 2, we walked onto the ferry in Coupeville and took it to Port Townsend, one of our favorite little towns to enjoy on the west side, filled with fun shops, great eats, and a couple local art galleries. With the Cascades on one side and the Olympics on the other, this quick but scenic ferry trip provided a Mew Gull, all three cormorants, Black and White-winged Scoters, and four alcids - Pigeon Guillemot, Common Murre, Marbled Murrelet, and Ancient Murrelet.

A little weary of shopping by that point in the holiday season, I decided to forego some of the shops and headed straight to Point Hudson just a little outside of town. I was there greeted by some handsome male Harlequin Ducks, as well as the pleasant site of a small flock of Brant. While watching them with great delight, an even sweeter surprise flew in - A Black Oystercatcher! This was quite the thrill to begin the year, and actually turned out to not be the only Black Oystercatcher for 2013!

Black Oystercatcher and Brant
Point Hudson, Jefferson Co, WA
January 2, 2013

 Two years ago, when the Snowy Owl irruption was more evenly distributed than it is this year, Jen's dad and I made a trip up to Boundary Bay, BC over Christmas break to see the hordes that had gathered there (20 birds together!). He apparently enjoyed it enough to be willing to take me out again last year, this time on a more birding-oriented day trip. We took off early and headed north to Semiahmoo Spit, which, along with the nearby bays, was hopping with the specialties that make birding this place in the winter so magical. As we worked our way south over the next few hours, we picked up all three scoters, both goldeneyes, both wigeonPacific Loon, Harlequin and Long-tailed Ducks, hundreds of Brant - all in their finest plumage. Probably one of the nicest surprises of the day was the array of shorebirds, which included Greater Yellowlegs, Black-bellied Plover, hundreds of Dunlin, and my first Black Turnstones and Surfbirds in a long while. We made our way back to the Samish Flats by dusk, where the skies were peppered with 16 Short-eared Owls, 27 Bald Eagles, 25 Northern Harriers, and a handful of Red-tails and Rough-legs. The Brant were joined by 300 Snow Geese, and a flock of Trumpeter Swans escorted us out. What a day! Here are a few of the pics (the checklists linked to above have more, as does my Flickr site).

Black-bellied Plover and Dunlin
Semiahmoo Spit, Whatcom Co, WA
January 3, 2013
For my Illinois friends:

Barrow's Goldeneye
Semiahmoo Spit, Whatcom Co, WA
January 3, 2013

White-winged Scoter
Semiahmoo Spit, Whatcom Co, WA
January 3, 2013

Surf and White-winged Scoters
Semiahmoo Spit, Whatcom Co, WA
January 3, 2013

American and Eurasian Wigeon
Birch Bay, Whatcom Co, WA
January 3, 2013

White-winged Scoter
Birch Bay, Whatcom Co, WA
January 3, 2013

Crocket Lake is just down the road from Jen's parents' place, so we stop by there a few times over the course of any stay. There's usually a Short-eared Owl hanging around.

Short-eared Owl
Crocket Lake, Island Co, IL
January 4, 2013

The last birds I picked up for the state came on the ferry from Whidbey back to Mukilteo, when a flock of Bonaparte's Gulls flew by and a lone Rhinoceros Auklet bobbed in the water at a distance. And just like that I was already flirting with triple digits as we made our way back to the mountain-less Midwest. I definitely would not be at 366 for the year today without that incredible beginning!

Reliving the year through these posts has me so excited to do it all over again next year! Part IV will detail our summer trip back to Washington, and tell how I got to 216 in the state for the year. Check back soon!