We had a beautiful sunny day for special bird trip to go see the elusive Tufted Puffins of the San Juan Islands.There is only one nesting colony left in the San Juan Archipelago, although there use to be several. Remote Smith Island, several miles south of San Juan Island has an ever increasing population of tufted puffins. Tufted Puffins are long lived birds: up to 25 years, and they return to the same spot to nest year after year. The monogamous pair raise one chick together. Once that chick has fledged, their job is done. They might linger for awhile while the food supply lasts. They eat small fish. Then they take flight and head out to the open ocean, sometimes 100s of miles offshore.
We had lunch at Smith Island (on the boat) and observed 30+ Tufted Puffins. We also spotted a Long Tail Jaeger, which was a first for many people, and an Ancient Murrelet. Ancient Murrelets are here in the late fall and winter, but not widespread.
Stopping at Bird Rocks, a National Wildlife Refuge, we saw many Brandt Cormorants, black turnstones and surfbirds. A last stop at Chuckanut Rocks revealed a flock of Harlequin Ducks, and Surf Scoters.
On our final Bird Cruise for the season we went to Smith Island. Smith Island is the only place left in the San Juan Islands where the elusive Tufted Puffins nest and raise their young. It is a remote island and offers the birds an isolated nesting spot. Tufted Puffins usually have the same mate every year and return to the same nesting burrow. Here in the sandstone bluffs of Smith Island they raise their one chick in deep burrows. Both parents take care of the chick and spend their days carrying fish back to the burrow. Within a few short weeks, the chick will leave the nest and start foraging for itself. The thick kelp beds here provide habitat for the small fish eaten by the puffins. By late summer, the puffins will head out to the open ocean where they will spend their winter.
In previous years, Smith Island has always been a place to go and maybe see a couple of puffins. With this nesting colony becoming firmly established, we see puffins on every trip. There were also many other species of birds seen on this trip. There are certain islands where we always see the colorful Harlequin Ducks and Black Oystercatchers. Rhinocerous Auklets, Pigeon Guillemots, Common Murres, and Marbled Murrelets are other Auk species that we see.
(Photo Credit to Jim Bachman). Jim has been coming out with us on nearly every bird cruise for the last three years. (When Jim is on the boat, I don’t even take my camera out of its case) He has always generously shared his beautiful photos with us.)
The day was just right for bird watching. Calm seas and sunshine. We went up Hale Passage and crossed Rosario Strait to Sucia Island. Slowly cruising around the Finger Islands through Echo Bay, we saw a Pigeon Guillemot nesting colony here. On the eastern side of the bay, there was a large congregation of Harlequin Ducks. It was one of the largest flocks that many of us had ever seen. Heading north and rounding the northern tip of Patos Island gave us a great view of Mt. Baker with the lighthouse in the foreground. There were many harbor porpoise and harbor seals feeding in the tide rips. One of the harbor porpoise had a very small calf with her. Harbor porpoise are very boat shy, and they do not come close. However, we had a small pod come right next to the boat. We returned home on a different route and saw many different species of birds to add to our list. The nesting colonies that we observed were Pigeon Guillemots, Double Crested and Pelagic Cormorants, and Glaucous Wing Gulls. There was a pair of Black Oystercatchers at the same nesting spot that we observed last year; they tend to not nest in colonies. Last season we were able to watch the chicks from incubation to almost fledging. We saw two Peregrine Falcon nests and a Bald Eagle’s nest. One of the parents was feeding the chicks. One of our passengers was able to add five birds to her Life List.
We participated in the 13th Annual Wings Over Water Northwest Birding Festival in Blaine this year. The festival was originally known as the Brant Festival. Brants are a true “sea goose” and are found in large populations here in the winter. They nest and breed up in the Arctic. Drayton Harbor and Semiahmoo Bay are designated as an Important Birding Area (IBA) along the Pacific Flyway. The incredible varieties of migratory birds here in the winter make an exceptional birding adventure.
We had two trips that were two hours each on the waters of Semiahmoo Bay. These are the species we sighted:
Grebes: Horned, Western, Red Necked and Eared
Scoters: White Wing, Surf, and Black
Long Tail Ducks
Cormorants: Double Crested, Pelagic and Brandts.
Goldeneyes: Common and Barrows
Loons: Red Throated, Common and Pacific
Gulls: Glaucous Wing, Mew, California, Bonaparte and some hybrids.
Our bird cruise last Saturday was clear weather and calm seas. We headed across Bellingham Bay to Viti Rocks, one of 84 National Wildlife Refuges in the San Juan Islands. Glaucous Wing Gulls, Pigeon Guillemots and all three species of Cormorants: Brandt’s, Pelagic and Double Crested. Some of the Pelagic and Double Crested were still nesting. The Brandt’s Cormorants nest on the outer coast, and return to the islands after their chicks have fledged. There were numerous Harbor Seals hauled out on the rocks, and a few Harbor Porpoise were seen surfacing the waters.
Our next stop was another NWR: Bird Rocks. Here we saw more gulls, seals, cormorants and Black Turnstones. There was also a Black Oystercatcher. Our destination was the south end of Lopez Island to see the Auks, also referred to as Alcids. They are in the Family of Alcidae. They are similar to penguins, their counterparts of the southern oceans, but are not related. Yet they have shared characteristics that include wings adapted for underwater propulsion, very dense waterproof plumage and are adapted for diving. One of the main differences is that Auks can fly in the air and underwater. Penguins are flightless in air. Auks fly close to the sea surface with continuous wingbeats and can reach speeds of 35 to 50 miles per hour. Auks forage at sea, sometimes miles from land, yet they must come to land to breed and nest. We sighted Marbled Murrelets, Pigeon Guillemots, Common Murres and Rhinoceros Auklets.
However, our great treat and surprise were two Tufted Puffins. All of these birds are part of the Auk family. So we were able to sight all of the auks that inhabit our waters, with the exception of the Ancient Murrelet. The Ancient Murrelets will arrive later in the summer or early fall and are rarely sighted in the summer. We went into a small cove on Lopez Island to see a Bald Eagle’s nest that we have now been watching for a couple of years. Here there were quite a few Belted Kingfishers and Northern Rough-winged Swallows.
Our return course took us up San Juan Channel and through Obstruction Pass. The scenery on this route is a great way to see all of the major islands in the San Juan Archipelago. On Whale Rocks there were many Steller Sea Lions basking in the sun. These endangered sea lions can reach a weight of 2,000 pounds and 12 feet in length. Â We finished our trip going through Chuckanut Bay, where there were numerous Harlequin Ducks, Gulls, Cormorants and Black Turnstones.
Our third bird cruise of the season was to go and see the Tufted Puffins on Smith Island. Smith Island is a 15 acre rocky island that is slowly eroding away because it is in the middle of the Strait of Juan de Fuca. In the winter, the winds and waves can come in from the open Pacific Ocean. A 100 years ago, Smith Island was 100 acres. It is used by the US Coast Guard, with various equipment and navigational aids. It used to have a lighthouse, but that long ago fell off its bluff and into the ocean. No one lives on the island anymore. Smith Island has the only nesting colony left in the San Juan Islands for the elusive Tufted Puffin. Occasional sightings are known of this bird there in the summer, so we set out to see if they might be there. To our surprise we had seven puffins that we sighted. On the island were numerous eagles and nesting pair up in a tower. There were also harbor seals with their pups, one of which was nursing. There were numerous Rhinoceros Auklets in the area in their full breeding plumage. On the way home we heard that our resident J pod Orcas were in the area (killer whales). So we had an great time watching them slowly swim in a resting mode.
Special thanks to Jim Bachman, who took all of the great photos above.
Our next bird cruise will be on Saturday August 2nd.
We had bird cruises this month on both Saturday and Sunday. Our Saturday trip was full, so we added a Sunday Cruise. On both days our trips were similar with bird sightings and our route remained identical. We traveled across Bellingham Bay and then turned north into Hale Passage between Lummi Island and the Lummi Nation Reservation. Our destination was for Sucia Island. Sucia is a beautiful state park full of Madrona trees and numerous Pigeon Guillemots. On the way out we observed many harbor porpoise. These are one of the smallest cetaceans in the world and are found in all the temperate northern waters of the world. They travel in small pods, and at this time of year mothers can be seen with their small calves.
Our winter resident birds have all traveled north now, but there were still a couple of surf scoters seen and a common loon was spotted. When we arrived at Sucia, we tied up to a mooring buoy in Echo Bay and turned the engines off to have a wonderful lasagna lunch. The sun was shining and we wanted to have a chance to hear any song birds that might be in the vicinity. We were rewarded with the sweet sounds of a white crowned sparrow and some wrens. We easily saw 100+ Pigeon Guillemots in the bay, and many harbor seals swimming about and hauled out on the rocky shores warming themselves.
After lunch, we headed up to Patos Island. It is another state park and has a beautiful lighthouse on its western point. On Sunday we were rewarded with a sighting of river otters on the east side of Sucia. Contrary to their name, they use marine waters for foraging and create dens along the rocky shores of the islands.
Our trip home we came down the west side of Lummi Island. On Saturday, along the shores of the island there was some kind of deceased marine mammal in the water next to the shoreline. Here we stopped and looked at 13 Bald Eagles taking their turns feeding on the mammal. The mature eagles were chasing off the juveniles who had fledged last year or the year before and were clearly the dominant ones. We also found an eagle’s nest up in the trees.
We cruised through Chuckanut Bay and saw the beautiful Harlequin Ducks, as well as many nesting Pelagic Cormorants and Pigeon Guillemots.
Our species list follows. The exception is that we saw the Common Loon on Sunday and not Saturday. We also did not get to see the Green Heron on Sunday. It is usually spotted at our dock, as there is a nesting pair behind the wastewater treatment plant a little inland from our pier.
Next month we will be travelling to Smith Island, one of the only places left in the San Juan Islands where Tufted Puffins nest.
Canada Goose (with their goslings)
Great Blue Heron
White Crowned Sparrow
What a beautiful day we had two weeks ago out on the Salish Sea. Our travels started out on the South side of Bellingham out of Fairhaven. We crossed Bellingham Bay heading south. Here we encountered dozens of Bonaparteâ€™s gulls in their full breeding plumage. They are winter residents here and are probably now headed to the Arctic and parts of Northern Canada where they will breed and raise their chicks. Of course there were numerous Glaucous Wing Gulls, which are the only gulls who reside here year round. Â There were also many Common Loons , Surf Scoters and Long-tailed Ducks (formerly known as Oldsquaw). Â These birds spend their winters along our coastal regions, but will be heading to northern inland lakes to breed and nest. Some will migrate as far north as the Arctic.
As we headed towards the mudflats of Padilla Bay we saw huge flocks of Brant Geese flying in formations. These are primarily a sea goose and feed on aquatic plants of shallow bays and estuaries.Â The large eelgrass beds here provide food for them for their long journey to the Arctic.
The mudflats at the entrance to the Swinomish Channel afforded us views of hundreds of Great Blue Herons. There is a rookery nearby. Great Blue Herons are solitary creatures, yet congregate in large colonies when it is nesting time.
We had a delightful cruise through the Swinomish Channel and past the small town of La Conner. Since the weather permitted, we were able to go under the Deception Pass Bridge and cross Rosario Strait over to Lopez Island. There is an eagleâ€™s nest on the south end of Lopez that we observed last year on our bird cruises. There was a pair of Bald Eagles there, so they have returned to nest and raise their young at this nesting site. Bald Eagle pairs will return to the same nesting site year after year. Â Eagles will reside year round here, but many of them will migrate in the fall to the Nooksack and Skagit Rivers Â to feed on salmon.Â Some will migrate as far north as the Chilkat River in Southeast Alaska.
The Alcids, such as Marbled Murrelets, Rhinoceros Auklets and Pigeon GuillemotsÂ will never be seen on land. They live their life on the water and come to land only to nest for a few short weeks in the spring in remote areas.
Being out on the water, we saw numerous harbor porpoise. They are the smallest porpoise and inhabit our coastal regions. They are quite numerous here and swim in small pods. They are one of the smallest cetaceans in the world and are found throughout the northern hemisphere in temperate waters.
On the rocky islets throughout the Salish Sea are places where harbor seals haul out.Â There were large congregations of them lounging on the rocks warming up in the sun as we passed by. They are pretty indifferent to boat traffic and we were able to get some good views. Pupping season will start next month and we will be able to see the small pups with their moms.
Next month we will be heading to Sucia and Patos Islands where there are nesting sites for the Pigeon Guillemots. We will also see the other members of the Alcid family, as well as many of these other birds on the species list. There will also be new additions as birds migrate here to spend the summer.
Our next trip is June 7th. We have also added an extra trip on June 8th, since our Saturday trip was sold out. Â Come out with us and help us expand our species list for the summer! The more eyes the better!
Following is a species list of the birds we were able to see on this first bird cruise of the year.
Our bird cruise is getting birdier!Â As eggs hatch and juveniles fledge, the populations of our typical Salish Sea breeding birds are soaring.Â Glacuous-winged Gull chicks, for example,Â are now numerous at several of the sites we visit – the Glaucous-winged Gull is the only gull that breeds in our area (althoughÂ several otherÂ Gull species are also present although not breeding locally).Â The rotund little chick in the photo is from one of the rooftop nests near the Bellingham Cruise Terminal.Â The first Pigeon Guillemot Juveniles are appearing on the water as well, although most are still being fed in their burrows by adults carrying silvery fish in their bills.
In addition to the appearance of all these hatchlings, our avian diversity is further augmented now by the return of several shorebird species from their far northern nesting grounds.Â Surfbirds were found for the second week in a row, and the first Black Turnstones we’ve seen since May – and no less than 35 of them between two sites.Â At Bird Rocks, there was also at least one Ruddy Turnstone.Â Â The aforementioned are rock-loving shorebirds, and we visit a number of sites with appropriate habitat for these “rockpipers”.Â Wandering Tattler is another “rockpiper” that can be hoped for, particularly in August.Â Spotted Sandpiper isÂ sometimesÂ noted in the Swinomish Channel, andÂ small flocks of Western Sandpipers can be seen in some areas.Â Also returning from the north – an Adult Parasitic JaegerÂ zipping across Bellingham Bay.Â Soon to come: Red-necked Phalaropes and more!
The dapper Heermann’s Gulls are back, too.Â Unlike most migratory birds, the Heermann’s Gulls breeds far to the south, in the Sea of Cortez, and disperses northward post-breeding.Â In the Salish Sea, the Heermann’s Gulls appear in July and remain until late October or early November – a schedule which they do not precisely share with any other species. After seeing our first of the year a few weeks ago, we are already encountering more than a hundred, and can now expect to keep doing so.Â Heermann’s Gull is one of the two local gulls of which I am most fond (the other is the Bonaparte’s).Â Their red-orange bills and distinct ashy plumage with tail band makes them easier than some gulls to ID, and I also appreciate their oppositional lifestyle.Â California Gulls are also present along our route in robust numbers.
We stopped at Deepwater Bay, Cypress Island where there is a fish farm. (Atlantic Salmon). Often we see Harlequin Ducks here as they like to hang around the fish nets. Looking up, an unusual sight caught our eye. There was a juvenile Peregrine Falcon harassing an Osprey. The falcon has far more speed and agility than an Osprey. It was quite an aerial display and continued for several minutes. The falcon had the upper edge! The Osprey appeared to just want to get away.
Another unusual sighting today was a huge pod of Harbor Porpoise. We encountered a large number of these small porpoise as we were crossing Rosario Strait. Normally we wouldnâ€™t stop for these little cetaceans, as they are rather boat shy. But today we stopped to look at the huge numbers of porpoise, and instead of diving, they continued their surface activity. They were obviously intent on feeding and didnâ€™t care that our boat was there. In every direction there were Harbor Porpoise to be seen. These are the smallest cetacean, weighing in about 175 pounds and a length of five to six feet.Â We normally only see two to six together, but today there were well over a hundred. There were a couple of females with tiny calves swimming alongside.Â The calves stay close to mom and do not venture away until they are a few months old. Â We turned our engine off and drifted and observed for about fifteen minutes. None of us had seen a sight like this in the Salish Sea in decades.