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.
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.