Bird Watching Cruise Report – May 11, 2013

Another beautiful Saturday cruising through the scenic San Juan Islands, looking for birds, rewarded us with a number of interesting avian encounters.  While most of the wintering waterfowl have now moved north to their breeding grounds, thousands of Brant were still present in Padilla Bay; an important wintering area for them, where the sheltered, shallow waters provide them with productive eelgrass grazing.  Other birds present now in large numbers included hundreds each of our two common breeding Alcids: the Pigeon Guillemot and the Rhinocerous Auklets, along with half a dozen pairs of their tiny cousin, the Marlbed Murrelet.  These birds are now all wearing summer plumage.  The Guillemots are tuxedoed in crisp black and white, and flash vivid pink feet and legs.  The Auklets are sporting white “whiskers,” and we got many good looks at the rubbery protrusion atop their bills for which they are named.  The Murrelets have traded their black-and-white winter attire for a subtley-patterned brown.   We also saw one single Common Murre (most are now nesting on sea stacks off the outer coast), foreshadowing their expected infiltration of our area as summer progresses – eventually becoming one of the most numerous birds out in the deeper channels.

Another bird with striking breeding plumage is the Brandt’s Cormorant; we were treated to close looks at a perched individual who must have wandered in from the outer coast, where most Brandt’s Cormorants are nesting on sea stacks at this time.  Pelagic Cormorants, on the other hand, breed locally throughout the Salish Sea, and we enjoyed an up-close look at a nesting colony on a jagged and inacessible cliff.  The Pelagic Cormorant also looks its best at this time of year, with bright red faces, large white flank patches, and glossy, dark iridescent greet plumage.  They build their nests on extraordinarily narrow ledges on the cliff face.

Shorebirds have also mostly gone north, but a surprise find was a Black-bellied Plover in full breeding plumage on Viti Rocks.  It’s speckled back blended in perfectly with the barnacle-covered rocks.  A few remnant Dunlin flew by the boat at one point, and a Spotted Sandpiper put in a brief appearance as we passed through the Swinomish Channel.  Three Surbirds were near Chuckanut Rocks, where more than forty were sighted the previous week.  But Black Oystercatchers remain, as they nest locally throughout the islands, mostly on small, predator free islands and offshore rocks (predator free – except from the Eagles).  We found at least two active nest sites, attended by pairs of these noisy, eye-catching birds with tons of personality.

At least twenty Bald Eagles put in appearances for us, including on and around three active nests, one of which has been added to year after year and has become quite a behemoth.  An Osprey spotted near the Swinomish Channel was a nice find, as Ospreys are much less numerous around the Salish Sea than one might expect for a cosmopolitan fish-hawk.  The Bald Eagle definitely dominates in our area.  Another predatory bird we encountered was a nice adult Parasitic Jaeger, a gull relative who makes a living by stealing the fish caught by hardworking Gulls and Terns.  We all “oohed and ahhed” as it mercilessly harassed a young Glaucous-winged Gull.  Jaegers pass through our area much less commonly in the spring than the fall, so it was a nice bit of a bonus!  Every outing is a little different, with the exact mix of species changing as the season progresses, but there are always be something memorable to see.

(pictures and blog by Victor Burgett)

Parasitic Jaeger Harassing A Glaucous Wing Gull
Pigeon Guillemotts
Brandt’s Cormorant
Harbor Seals
Rhinocerous Auklet
Harbor Seals

Common Loon: 8

Red-throated Loon: 1

Brandt’s Cormorant: 3

Pelagic Cormorant: 200

Double-crested Cormorant: 15

Brant: 2000+

Canada Goose: 15

Mallard: 1

Northern Pintail: 30

Harlequin Duck: 6

Surf Scoter: 800+

Long-tailed Duck: 2

Common Merganser: 1

Greater Scaup: 4

Surfbird: 3

Dunlin: 30

Spotted Sandpiper: 1

Black Oystercatcher: 8

Black-bellied Plover: 1

Killdeer: 1

Caspian Tern: 15

Glacuous-winged Gull: Many

California Gull: 6

Parasitic Jaeger: 1

Marbled Murrelet: 15

Rhinocerous Auklet: 300+

Pigeon Guillemot: 400+

Great Blue Heron: 50

Bald Eagle: 20

Osprey: 1

Rock Pigeon: 20

Belted Kingfisher: 4

Barn Swallow: 5

Cliff Swallow: Many around colony

Northern Rough-winged Swallow: 12

Violet-green Swallow: 50

Northern Flicker: 1

Crow Spp. : 20-30

American Robin: 1

Orange-crowned Warbler: 1

Starling: 30

White-crowned Sparrow: Several Heard

Song Sparrow: Many Heard

House Finch: 3

House Sparrow: 2