Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Seattle: Day 1 - Exploring the Puget Sound and Lake Washington

I recently headed to Seattle to attend a job interview and was able to schedule a weekend of local birding in the area to ensure I arrived at the interview relaxed and in top form. Seattle is one of my favourite cities to visit but I had never looked at it from a birder's eye and I was excited to explore the local birdlife. In a fabulous stroke of fortune, while doing some research for the trip, I stumbled across a trip being organised by the local Audubon group that would visit a number of spots on both the Puget Sound and Lake Washington. Visiting a wide range of local habitats with knowledgeable local birders seemed like an excellent way to maximise my chances of seeing a bunch of great birds, not to mention meet a some similarly inclined folk. The trip organiser, Mark Johnston, was encouragingly excited to show off his local wildlife to someone from out of town; someone for whom their common birds would be exciting and in many cases birds I had never seen before. He was also extremely generous with his time, providing me with heaps of information to allow to prepare and research for the trip as well as organising me a lift to the trip pickup spot. 

The plan was simple, we would meet at 8am and spent 6-7 hrs visiting a variety of fresh and salt water habitats. As you can see on the map below, the Puget Sound area is an area of complex geography containing a wealth of habitats and this is directly reflected in the local biodiversity, even in winter. 

View Seattle Audubon Birding Trip in a larger map

I woke early and headed outside to wait for my lift. I was amazed at the sheer quantity of birdsong filling the area compared to Michigan right now. The birds here were already well warmed up and preparing for spring with gusto. I started picking out a number of birds, all familiar: American Robins, House finches, and Black-capped chickadees, who sang with a notably slower tempo than in the mid-west. It was a real pleasure to just stand and luxuriate in in the rich birdsong which felt almost as warming as the rapidly rising sun over the distant Cascade Mountains.

After a while, I heard a loud metallic call I didn't recognise and immediately started trying to track the bird down, after all the chances of an unfamiliar bird song being a new bird seemed likely. It didn't take long to find the bird, but to my surprise it was coming from a very familiar bird. A Northern Flicker, was hammering on a metal stove pipe, and achieving a considerable amplification of his territorial message as a result. I was to find out later that the local flicker population take advantage of this trick frequently, and the sound of beak of metal is one of the first harbingers of spring here. Although the Northern Flicker is a bird I see frequently back in Michigan, the birds found here are visually quite different. They are known as the "red-shafted" variety because of the red tint to the shafts of the feathers on the underside of the wings and tail. The birds in the east are "yellow-shafted", and in between, across the Great Plains and the Rocky Mountains, is a wide range where you find birds with intermediate to the two populations. The red-shafted variety are notably darker overall (as are many coastal populations of birds), both on the face and underparts, as well as having red instead of black malar (think handlebar moustache) marks on the males. They seemed incredibly abundant for an urban habitat, and I thoroughly enjoyed observing them while I waited. 

Eventually I was picked up, we meet up with the others and headed out to our first stop, Edmonds Waterfront, a spot on the coast a few miles north of Seattle where we hoped to pick up a number of coastal birds. My list of target birds for the area was pretty large and I was pretty excited to get started once we pulled up. In fact, my first life bird was seen from the car. Mark had assured me that if he couldn't find me a Glaucous-winged Gull, he'd happily shoot himself in the head, and his confidence was not misplaced. The Glaucous-winged Gull was easily the most common bird we saw all day, and probably for the entirely of my trip to the area. A large gull, it is easily picked out by the fact that the tips of it's wings are not black, but the same shade of grey as rest of the wing and mantle. The mantle is darker than in the similar Glaucous Gull, which also has notable white (not grey) tips to it's wings. The Glaucous-winged also has a thick yellow bill with a red spot at the pronounced gonys angle, along with pink legs and dark eyes.

Glaucous-winged Gull
Glaucous-winged Gull
There were heaps of birds out on the water and sightings of new species were being shouted out from all directions. The first bird I got good views of was the Surf Scoter. A bird I had only seen once before, and I'd only seen the relatively dull plumaged female. Here, the bizarrely misshapen and clown coloured males were everywhere, affording some fantastic views. This was a bird I had really hoped I'd get better looks at, and we were off to a great start.

Next up was a Pelagic Cormorant. One of two species of cormorant (other than the ubiquitous Double-crested Cormorant I typically see in Michigan) that I was hoping to see this weekend. Small headed, with a thin black bill, this bird is easily separated from the larger yellow billed Double-crested Cormorant. The glossy feathers had a greenish, purple oily tinge to them under certain lights.

Moving on to the next bird of interest I was able to get some great views of a bird I had so fair failed to locate back in Michigan, the Western Grebe. A big, long necked grebe, with a white throat starkly contrasting with a stripe of darker feathers on the back of the neck extending over the crown. In breeding plumage Western Grebes, the dark feathers of the crown extend down over the eyes like a cowboy hat pulled down, which is exactly how I remember to distinguish them from the extremely similar Clarke's Grebe.

Western Grebes
I had noticed a number of smaller gulls flying around and closer examination revealed, among other things, notably large white mirrors (as they are called) on the black tips of their wings and clean, unmarked, yellow bills. These were Mew Gulls, a bird I had not seen in the US before. Again, this was turning out to be a great spot to get some great views and plenty of time to absorb the shape, plumage patterning and behaviour of another gull species.

Mew Gull
Next up was a bird I had particularly hoped to see, the Pigeon Guillemot. These elegant black and white birds look almost penguin like. When they upturn and prepare to dive you are greeted with a flash of their improbably bright red legs before they disappear. It was fascinating to watch them dive, if you were lucky enough to see them underwater you could see that they were actually using their wings to fly through the waterMany of the birds were still in their more subdued winter plumage, and those that had already moulted into their breeding plumage drew your attention like Brad Pitt at a high-school dance.

Pigeon Guillemot
The following bird got me excited for a moment, thinking it was a new bird for me, but actually turned out to be a Double-crested Cormorant. It turns out that they sometimes have a strong orange tinge to their gular pouch which I had not observed before, perhaps it is a western trends only, it certainly seemed exotic to me.

Double-crested Cormorant.
Meanwhile, the group, equipped with high-end optics were thoroughly scanning the horizon, leaving no bird left unspotted (one hopes). Everybody was so generous with their equipment and made a huge effort to help me find as many of my target birds as possible. It was a real pleasure to be birding with them. Other birds that we saw, that I didn't manage to get photos of included Red-necked Grebe, Rhinoceros auklet, Brant Geese, Black scoter, and the Washington State trash bird of course, the Bald eagle.

Horned grebes offered much closer viewing than I am used to experiencing and even though this is a bird I've seen plenty of times before I really enjoyed getting to see them so close and in such detail.

Horned Grebe
As you can see the female Surf Scoter is really much more plain looking that the gaudy male, but that beak is still fairly bizarre looking.

Another bird that I had been really hoping to see was the Barrow's Goldeneye, and yet again I was not disappointed. The birding was almost too easy to be really satisfying ... almost. This bird is a female, the forehead is almost vertical giving the head an almost Darth Vader helmet kind of look and making these birds surprisingly easy to pick out from the similar Common Goldeneye. The female's bill is yellow/orange in colour which contrasts nicely with the dark grey bill of the female Common Goldeneye. This is really a northwest speciality and a charming one at that.

Eventually, sated with my 8 new life birds, we reluctantly moved on to our next stop, Juanita Bay Park, on Lake Washington. Immediately upon arrival we were assaulted with a cacophony of birdsong. In fact from the car park I saw another life bird, the Bewick's wren, after a member of the group recognised the song. Looking around we Golden-crowned and Ruby-crowned Kinglets, American Robins, Varied Thrush, Anna's hummingbirds, Red-breasted Nuthatches, and others. As we started walking towards the wetland area of the park I spotted another life bird for me, a troupe of Bushtits. I had heard friends that live out west wax lyrical on the pleasures of watching these fluffy bundles of energy, and it didn't take long to see way. They kind of reminded me of hyperactive Tribbles for any Star Trek fans out there.

The wetlands here were a attractive, well maintained habitat. In no time at all we had seen Trumpeter swans, Double-crested Cormorants, Song Sparrow, Belted Kingfisher, Green-winged Teal, Pied-billed Grebe, Wilson's Snipe, Gadwall, Wood Duck, Ring-billed Duck, Mallard, Great-blue Heron, Bald Eagle, Ring-billed Gull, and Common Merganser.

The Green-winged Teal gave me their usual bottom's up greeting any time I pointed a camera in their general direction.

Green-winged Teal
These Double-crested Cormorants had clearly just been watching the Karate Kid and were practicing their crane kicks.

A surprising number of Brown Creeper were seen in the park, some of them affording extremely close views of them as they foraged.

Brown Creeper
Moving on we stopped at Newcastle Beach Park to eat lunch. Incredible numbers of American Robin's were singing loudly from the surrounding trees. A closer look revealed a few Yellow-rumped Warblers flitting about too. The wind had reason considerably at this point making a prolonged stop here less attractive. Not much could be seen out on the lake so after a brief, fairly unproductive, ramble through a small patch of woods we prepared to move on. At the last moment, we decided to make one last look for birds in a stretch of trees just behind the parking area. I'm glad we did because I was able to spot yet another new bird I had been hoping to see, the Chestnut-backed Chickadee. An absolutely Gorgeous relative to the more wide-ranging Black-capped Chickadee.

Chestnut-backed Chickadee
Our next stop was the Cedar River mouth, near Renton. A place that is known to be a good spot for a variety of gull species and many other water birds and shore birds. On arrival we could see there were plenty of gulls to scan through. I was hoping we might see Thayer's Gull, California Gull and Western Gull among other possibilities. We were able, after extensive discussion of field marks, able to pick out a single Thayer's gull. A process of logical deduction and elimination of other possibilities that I thoroughly enjoyed. It can be a tough ID, especially if you haven't lots of experience viewing the bird. This bird had a pale grey mantle, dark tips to the wings. The legs were a bubblegum pink in colour and most tellingly the bill was thin, with no gonys angle, and yellow with a red spot. Gull identification is a bewildering challenge at times but I'm really starting to enjoy the complexities, regardless if it is going to take years to truly master them.

Glaucous-winged Gulls were, as previously mentioned, the most common gull by a wide margin. I liked the general impression their muted colours gave, like they'd been painted in watercolour.

Glaucous-winged Gull
Double-crested Cormorants were once again observed practicing their kung-fu moves. This flying drop kick took it's victim entirely by surprise.

Double-crested Cormorant
At one point, all the gulls took to the air, en masse, filling the air with a whirling, visually confusing, chaos of feathers and noise.

It took a moment in all the confusion to pick out the motivation for all the sudden frenetic activity, but eventually the instigators came into view. Some Bald Eagles were heading for the river mouth scouting for food.

Watching the eagles as they came into land I was impressed with a sense of their sheer power. They looked regal and quite massive up close in a way that isn't always as obvious when spotted flying high up.

As we left the river mouth, in part to allow some people to get out of the constant wind and warm up, we spotted this disturbing mascot in the Boeing Plant adjacent to us. It looks like a mounted Coyote carcass, although it's hard to imagine that passing basic health and safety requirements.

Arriving at our final spot for the day, Des Moines Marina, the winds had increased to what felt like gale force. We fought our way out onto the pier and enjoyed our last birds of the day. The wave action made it hard to get good looks for many of the birds out on the water and we ended focusing our attention on the birds that were close in to the pier. To my delight, a number of male Barrow's Goldeneye were there, showing off their fabulous plumage to great effect. Note the "vader helmet" headshape, a white crescent (compared to a rounder spot in the Common Goldeneye), and the bold black back contrasting with bold white bars within it.

A number of birds, most of them Cormorants, were perched up on the break wall, stoically ignoring the battering they were getting from the powerful waves breaking on the ... break wall (how did it get that name I wonder?).

More male Surf Scoters were bobbing around the base of the pier. I'm not sure I'd ever get used to seeing these funny looking ducks, they are fascinating.

Not long after we arrived we were hit by the rain we had been promised, but had not seen, all day up until now. The rain hit hard and heavy, and at times was blown almost horizontal by the strong winds. Nevertheless, our stalwart band braved it out, as we eked out the last few minutes of our day's birding.

The effort was, at least for me, worth the discomfort. I got some great close up views of Pelagic Cormorants, both in flight and on the water. Note that glossy green oily look to the bird, it really stands out when you see them in the flesh.

Pelagic Cormorant
The poor overlooked Common Goldeneye was quite ignored for much of the day in favour of his, at least from my point of view, more glamorous cousin the Barrow's Goldeneye. Note the the shape of the head, and of the spot in front of the eye, as well as the markings on the back of the bird.

Finally, the rain increased to the point where watching the birds was near impossible and unpleasant if you don't have the natural waterproofing of an Englishman. Waving a sad farewell to the birds and one distant seal that kept popping up to survey us, I headed back to the cars.

Back in the parking lot a collection of gulls were close enough to allow some detailed examinations. Again, most of them were Glaucous-winged Gulls of various ages.

However, Seattle falls directly in the middle of a zone where the Glaucous-winged Gull and the Western Gull interbreed at significant numbers. Where that happens you get birds that to various degrees are intermediate between the two species. The following bird is a good example of intermediate hybrid. The primaries are darker than that the rest of the flight feathers ruling out a pure Glaucous-winged Gull, but not as dark as you would expect for a Western Gull. The bill seems too stout for a hybrid with a Herring Gull. All things considered, this is probably a 3rd cycle Glaucous-winged x Western Gull hybrid.

Glaucous-winged x Western Hybrid
Here is a good example of a pure Glaucous-winged Gull for comparison.

Moving on, I took a short time to observe some of the other plumage phases around me. This following Glaucous-winged Gull has a solid black bill, finely patterned upper-parts and a chocolatey brown overall coloration. This is probably a first-cycle bird still mostly in juvenile plumage.

and with those final sexy pair of legs, I bid you goodnight