PacNW 2016: Episode VI: Deception and Reunion

For the third morning in a row, I met Tina at the door of my AirBnB, but this time was a bit different, as I was leaving for good. By dumb luck, Tom and John (and Buster) were already up and about in the garden, so I was able to introduce them to Tina and bid them adieu before I loaded my luggage into the Forester's back and myself into its passenger seat, whose contours were by now beginning to retain the shape of my backside.

The vibe this morning, however, was very different from the past few days. I'd accomplished both my Fifty-Fifty goals for the trip, so there was no performance anxiety, and Tina and I had become completely comfortable with each other as driving and birding companions. We talked about birds, sure, but we also talked about everything from politics to medicine to music to conventions, not to mention telling how-we-met stories about our spouses and mutual acquaintances (mostly Ursula and Kevin). This, in short, was not what the last few days had been. I was not a hunt for life birds. It was a sightseeing trip.

That birds would be among the most important sights was never in doubt, mind you. Tina had chosen this particular itinerary not merely because of the spectacular scenery Deception Pass State Park promised, but because she believed it would offer much better looks at several of the birds we'd seen at a distance in Oregon. Harlequin Ducks were a likely possibility, as well as Rhinoceros Auklets, and the possibility of several different loons loomed large as well. All in all, it seemed like a pretty good way to spend a Sunday: a ninety-minute drive, a look around the forests and shores of northern Puget Sound, a quick drive back, and a post-con reunion with Kelly at the hotel in Issaquah.

In fact, the only fly in the ointment was what we heard when we reached the park entrance, rolled down the windows, and began hearing a long, complex trilling song from the cover on either side of the road. This was the sound of the Pacific Wren, formerly conspecific with the Winter Wren, but split off from it in 2010. Neither Tina nor I had any trouble detecting or identifying the song, which is basically the same as the Winter's, but despite repeated stops, the birds stayed completely out of sight. Tina had been hoping to spot one since our trip to Discovery Park, but now that we were here in its prime habitat, they seemed to be deliberately tantalizing us.

That frustration was soon eclipsed by our arrival at Rosario Beach, whose scenery is like some kind of Platonic ideal of the Pacific Northwest:

In addition to scenery and camping/nicking spots, the Rosario Beach part of Deception Pass SP offers a bit of First Nations-style artwork (which itself offers a convenient perch if you're a White-crowned Sparrow hoping to attract a mate):


The beach itself curves out into a high, forested headland looming over the smaller Urchin Rocks to the north. The water showed gulls, goldeneyes, one Red-breasted Merganser (my first in years) and a fair number of Pigeon Guillemots, but we decided that getting a little elevation and pitting Tina's spotting scope to work might give us a bit more to see. 

Sure enough, there on the Urchins, only a few dozen yards away, were several surprisingly well-camouflaged Harlequin Ducks. Somehow their colors were brighter here, but their patterning was much more cryptic than the handful we'd seen at Haystack Rock. Luckily, a pair of them hopped into the water to give us a somewhat clearer picture. (You may want to click on the photo to get a closer look at them.)

No sooner had I stowed my camera than a pair of chunky birds with sooty backs and white bellies swam by, diving every couple of seconds to move forward underwater. The scope simply wasn't useful for tracking them, so I went with binoculars, knowing that this wasn't a familiar bird and wanting to get all the field marks I could before they disappeared around the point. Tina never did get a good look, but what we saw spelled something entirely new to me: the Marbled Murrelet, still in its winter plumage. I'd known about this peculiar tree-nesting seabird since reading (and blurbing) Maria Mudd Ruth's Rare Bird, but I certainly hadn't expected to get one here.

Our spot on the headland yielded several other goodies, including the promised Rhinoceros Auklet, whose football-shaped body and white neck stripes were indeed much more visible here, and a distant dark waterfowl revealed the pale face and throat of a Pacific Loon (an identification helped immensely by comparison with a nearby Common Loon). Still, I wanted to see more of Rosario Head, so we circled back down to the south shore of the headland, hiked up through the forest, and emerged on a grassy clifftop looking out westward toward Vancouver Island and the Strait of Juan de Fuca.

In addition to my first good look at kelp in the wild, this vantage gave me a fuller appreciation that we were standing a good hundred feet above the Sound:

DSC03307.JPGAnd when we were done scanning the largely empty waves, we turned back toward the mainland and got one of the best looks of the weekend: a gorgeous male Anna's Hummingbird perched squarely in the sun, its rosy gorget reflecting the light brilliantly:

Returning to the car, I spotted a stray Pine Siskin, but the Pacific Wren continued to elude us. Tina made several more stops as we pulled around to a parking lot on Bowman Bay, but though the wren songs never stopped, the wrens never appeared. Eventually we pulled into the lot and scanned the beach, which was largely empty, though we did see an unusual kettle of raptors circling high above us: one Bald Eagle one Turkey Vulture, one Red-tailed Hawk, and a fourth bird so small and distant that we had trouble identifying it as a Sharp-shinned Hawk. It was not a combination of species I've ever seen at once, that's for sure.

I was amused, however, to discover the truth of what birding buddy Nick Morgan once observed about birders. "If you're looking for a rare bird," he quipped, "just look for where all the Subarus have pulled over."

DSC03315.JPGOnce again held largely birdless, we climbed back into the Forester (2nd from left above) and turned south across Deception Pass itself. The pass gets its name from its narrowness, which led the area's early explorers under George Vancouver to miss it completely; working from the south end of Whidbey Island, they never found the strait on the north end that separated it from the mainland. That strait is now crossed by a two-part bridge high above the waters:

DSC03321.JPGAs you can see from the above shot, the park lies on both sides of the bridge, occupying about six and a half square miles at the north end of Whidbey Island. Whidbey itself is an improbably shaped landmass, long and narrow with an irregular blobby shape at each end; basically, it looks kind of like a vermicious knid stretching itself from one place to another. The park is a big draw for people, combining forest trails, the beaches of the strait and the sound, and even a small freshwater lake. We took our first stop along the road to the North Beach parking area, listening and looking vainly into the forest once again for the elusive Pacific Wren. Though evergreens, ferns, and fungi of every shape and size were visible, the wrens were not. On the way down to North Beach, however, we were treated to looks at a Chestnut-backed Chickadee (which I hadn't seen in years), a Brown Creeper (probably the fourth or fifth I'd seen in Washington), and even a fast-moving Townsend's Chipmunk:

DSC03318.JPGOf wrens, alas, there was no sign. We scanned the waters of the Pass, returned to the car, and pulled around to the West Beach lot, where we pulled out the scope and began looking at the distant waterfowl. We observed several other Marbled Murrelets, giving Tina the look she hadn't been able to get earlier (no, it wasn't a lifer for her, but still). There were also a variety of loons out in the calmness of the sound, but the increasingly bright sun made it harder and harder to see field marks at a distance. We were eventually able to identify one faraway bird as a Red-throated Loon--my second lifer loon of the day), but we could tell that the outing was drawing to a close. Wrenless still, we reluctantly packed up the scope, clambered back into the car, and headed back.

Our return inland took us into the Skagit Valley, where traffic from down in Seattle was suddenly far, far heavier than we could explain... well, at least until Tina remembered that April is the month of the Skagit Valley Tulip Festival. Since we were trying to get to Issaquah for the end of the con, we opted not to stop, but I did get a photo of the reach-the-camera-up-through-the-passenger-side-window variety to at least capture the huge swaths of color on the ground:

As we sped down I-5 and approached the city (and the I-90 intersection), Tina and I chatted about everything we'd seen, but we spent a good deal of time discussing what we had not seen: the Pacific Wren. It was a somewhat ridiculous fixation. We'd seen probably a hundred species over the weekend; 49 of them were birds I hadn't seen in 2016, and many of those were species I hadn't set eyes on in years; I'd logged life birds in two of the states for my Fifty-Fifty Project; and the list of lifers to which Tina had guided me was enormous:

1 Glaucous-winged Gull
2 "Audubon's"/Yellow-rumped Warbler
3 "Pacific"/Orange-crowned Warbler
4 Cassin's Finch
5 Sage Thrasher
6 Brewer's Sparrow
7 Northern Shrike
8 White-throated Swift
9 Lewis's Woodpecker
10 White-headed Woodpecker
11 Golden-crowned Sparrow
12 Harlequin Duck
13 Rhinoceros Auklet
14 Cackling Goose
15 Black Turnstone
16 Marbled Murrelet
17 Pacific Loon
18 Red-throated Loon

This had been, by any standard, a fantastically successful and enjoyable birding experience. Hell, ignore the birds and it was still wonderful: I'd seen landscapes I'd never dreamed of and stood in parts of the world I'd never set foot in. I'd tasted new foods, traveled new roads, and never once lacked for good conversation. I'd gone from the high desert to the mouth of the Columbia, from the sandy shores of Oregon to the inlets and islands of Puget Sound, over the heights of the Cascades and through the forests of the seaside. Over four days, I'd traveled some 1500 miles.

And Tina had driven Every. Single. One.

So yes, the two of us were being silly when we theorized the existence of a new subspecies: the Trolling Wren, characterized by its loud, taunting song and unwillingness to break cover. But when Tina dropped me off at the hotel in Issaquah, I was completely serious about my gratitude. I knew now that she was not merely a fantastic guide, a birding machine, and a driver worthy of my highest respect, but also a friend. And that's pretty much the best thing you can find out in the field, no matter what state you're in.


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This page contains a single entry by Peter Cashwell published on June 4, 2016 9:09 AM.

PacNW 2016: Episode VI: Stone and Sea was the previous entry in this blog.

PacNW 2016: Episode VII: Arts and Leisure is the next entry in this blog.

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