Evening Grosbeak by Jackie Bowman
Birding Olympic Peninsula, by land and sea

(published 8-15-12)

Roll your eyes and turn the page if you must, it’s time for the annual “what I did on my summer vacation” column! It’s in my DNA: I travel, I watch birds, I take notes.

This time, the Pacific Northwest, in late June and early July. Some pre-trip research suggested it was not the “birdiest” time of the year to visit the region but visiting some new avian scenery is always fun. Plus, our timing was great: we missed the first major heat wave of the summer and a three-day power outage in Glen Ellyn.

On family vacations the challenge for me, besides finding the local birds, is practicing my hobby without interfering with scheduled activities. On this trip, fortunately, birding was compatible with almost everything we had planned.

First up was a one-day sea kayaking adventure. After landing in Seattle we drove to Anacortes and boarded a Washington State Ferry bound for Friday Harbor on San Juan Island. I knew the ferry would be a good birding opportunity and it started before we even pushed off. Pelagic cormorants and pigeon guillemots were hanging around the docks, along with some mystery gulls to be identified later.

After leaving port the real fun began. Groups of little seabirds were flying just above the water surface or resting in the distance. When the ferry got within 50 yards of the floating birds they vanished, diving below the surface. This seriously tested my ID skills and also my patience. Luckily, a few birds proved less skittish and afforded a brief but closer look. They were rhinoceros auklets, a species named for the little “horn” that projects from the base of its bill during breeding season. My life list was already growing.

The main point of the kayak trip was to observe orca whales in the Strait of Juan de Fuca. We succeeded mightily, spotting many whales out in the deeper water. As we paddled, some noisy black oystercatchers went wheeling by at close range. Another lifer!

Our visit to the San Juans was too short but leaving was easier knowing that our next stop was Lake Quinault Lodge in Olympic National Park. What a special place. My wife and I had been there once before, in 1993, and it seemed exactly the same. But one difference is that I wasn’t a birder back then. During the next three days I’d experience rainforest birding for the first time and do my best to see all that I missed 19 years ago.

Upon arrival I immediately noticed the lodge’s bird feeders, a very good sign! Within minutes I was watching black-headed grosbeaks and Steller’s jays enjoying the sunflower seeds. Rufous hummingbirds were visiting multiple nectar feeders hanging directly outside the Roosevelt Room’s windows. We’d be dining there later, just as FDR did in 1938.

Most of the feeder birds at Quinault were exciting because I’d seen them just a few times before during trips out west. The activity under the feeders was interesting, too. Mingling with those handsome Steller’s jays were western race dark-eyed juncos and fox sparrows. These birds have a very different look than their counterparts in DuPage.

In the lobby, a laminated one-page bird guide was available to help guests identify the common species around the lodge. Two of the 15 birds featured were evening grosbeak and varied thrush—both on my Most Wanted list for the trip.

The hiking trails at Lake Quinault wind through old-growth temperate rainforest studded with massive cedars, hemlocks and spruces. On one walk we encountered a mixed flock of chestnut-backed chickadees and brown creepers, followed by a singing winter wren. The wren alone was worth the three mile hike—what a voice for such a tiny bird!
Swainson’s thrushes contributed a nice musical element as well, in the woods and around the lodge. What a contrast they were to the raucous common ravens that made a living disturbing the peace.

Band-tailed pigeon and Pacific-slope flycatcher joined my life list, and I was happy to spot a pair of common loons patrolling Lake Quinault. Nesting violet-green swallows at the lodge were another bonus. From a balcony I watched them zoom by at eye-level just a few feet away.

Throughout the trip and especially at Quinault I kept my eyes peeled for a varied thrush, a robin-like species that likes to stay hidden. No luck. But my disappointment was easily offset on our last night at the lodge. Walking over to dinner, I noticed a chunky bird at one of the feeders, showing a lot of yellow and white. Could it be? Yes! A male evening grosbeak! This was a species I’d known all my life but had never seen. A female was on the feeder, too. I’ll admit, at dinner it took me a while to calm down.

After Quinault we drove west to the beaches along the Pacific Coast and then up to the Port Angeles area. We reentered Olympic National Park at the north entrance and climbed up to Hurricane Ridge, 5,200 feet above sea level. It was fun throwing a few snowballs on the Fourth of July and watching gray jays, horned larks and more of those odd-looking juncos.

The next morning I searched hard for a California quail at Dungeness National Wildlife Refuge near Sequim. Never found one, but I did see a spotted towhee, a refuge specialty. A “postcard moment” was delivered by an adult bald eagle, cruising along the famous Dungeness Spit.

My trip total was about 60 species, and those were just the birds! It was a fascinating week, filled with amazing scenery and wildlife of all kinds. Six weeks later, I’m still thinking about that pair of evening grosbeaks, the orcas and the astounding biodiversity of the Olympic Peninsula.

I’m going back, and hopefully soon. My notebook still has plenty of space.

Copyright 2012 by Jeff Reiter. All rights reserved.