or, A summer solstice boating excursion

                  or, You can’t always get what you want, 

                                  but if you try sometime…..

June 20, 2021

Salish Sea, PacificNorthwest

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Black oystercatchers

I’d been watching the site of an oystercatcher nest from where I stop most days on my walkies at a shoreline overlook. I’d seen one oystercatcher or another fly to a particular rock from this beach where they forage for invertebrates amongst the boulders. I’d also seen oystercatchers out on that rock screaming at aerial predators like redtails and ravens passing overhead. Wouldn’t it be cool to see baby oystercatchers growing up, thought I, but that rock is steeply sheer on this side, with its more suitable flat shelf on the far side out of my view. In the olden days I’d just jump into my kayak and paddle around to the other side, keeping a respectful distance of course —  but I can’t kayak these days. So what’s a curious birdwatcher to do? We decided to drive around the block (the peninsula) in our 25-foot boat to get a look at the other side.

That’s what we did on the Solstice this year. It only takes ten minutes to walk to the shoreline overlook from our house but it’s an hour’s cruise in our boat Elansa from the nearby dock where she’s tied up. She’s not a speedboat; we prefer pootling along in a leisurely manner anyway at 6 or 7 knots, her top speed (and that takes very little fuel: haven’t filled up the tank in over a year). We hadn’t been out for a while so there were a few tasks to get Elansa ready to go.

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like putting the new license tabs on, which expire June 30 in Washington 

Off we went on this sunny day, out of the bay. On rounding the first headland we got a view southward across the Strait of Juan de Fuca to the snow-covered Olympic mountains. Our snowpack in western Washington was way above average on this day due to a wet winter. Since that day we’ve had a torrid record-breaking heat wave and a third of that snowpack is gone now. The mountains look different these days, a few weeks later.

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Rounding the peninsula, heading into the Strait

Out in deep water we saw a few alcids. Most aquatic birds are off nesting right now, either elsewhere in the state or in the far north, so diversity and abundance were low. There were Pigeon guillemots close to the steep rocky shore, and a few auklets and murrelets in deeper water, but we didn’t see any murres or puffins. Most alcids are concentrated over shallow offshore banks these days, which is a bit far for us to go. None of the alcids nest in San Juan county anymore either, so they only come this way for fishing.

Rhinoceros auklets are in full breeding plumage, which includes a horn. In winter they lose all their color and their bill thins down. It becomes a matter of distinguishing them by overall profile, thick neck etc.

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Rhinoceros auklets in the chop

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Rhinoceros auklets: winter and summer

Pigeon guillemots are the most abundant alcids around here in general at all seasons. In summer they take on a handsome black plumage with white wing patches. Their red legs persist all year.

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Pigeon guillemots. 6/20/21

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Wing patches

Marbled Murrelets are much more common in winter. In summer they nest in old dense forests across the Strait. Their plumage at this time of year is mostly brown, to blend in with trees. In winter they have a black and white pattern. Might these be non-nesters? It’s a long way to the forests of the Olympic peninsula or Vancouver island.

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Marbled Murrelets. 6/20/21

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Winter: Marbled Murrelets and Pigeon Guillemots

We skirted the southern shoreline of the peninsula heading east. It’s steep rocky cliffs along here, dropping down into deep water.

As we started our turn northward into the bay, I caught sight of movement on a rock offshore. 

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We’re looking southeast in this view, with the Cascade mountains in the distance. You might be able to see a dot sticking up from the top of the rock.

Closer, it’s two birds, a big one and a little one. Oystercatchers!

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Extreme zoom

How cool! There’s more than one oystercatcher nest we figured. Oystercatchers are not numerous. The population can really benefit from more nests and chicks.

With that, we swung around the headland and headed north into the bay to check out the southeast side of the rock where I’d seen all the oystercatcher activity.

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The rock is between us and the main island beyond, where I watch the goings-on out in this bay. It’s weird to see it from this direction.

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This is the “far side” of the rock I’d been watching. Extreme zoom.

There are many likely nesting spots on the far side of the rock, flat ledges well above high tide. But we went by a bit closer and checked it carefully — there was no sign of any birds at all. What the heck?

Something had happened in couple of weeks since I last saw oystercatcher activity there.

According to Birds of North America, Black Oystercatchers lay eggs in early May, hatching in June. The young can’t fly until they are 6 weeks old, sometime in late July/early August. So if there was a nest here, it must have failed.

Is it possible there was predation by a terrestrial predator? I’ve seen mink on this beach and they swim well. The rock is 700 feet from shore (0.13 miles or 0.2 km). I know there have been aerial predators flying low over the rocks, including eagles, redtails, ravens, gulls. There are also kayakers paddling around in this bay frequently in summer. Might the birds have been disturbed by people?

Or was I completely mistaken, and the nest the birds were flying out to was the one out in the Strait, a mile away (1.75km) from the beach? I can’t see that rock from where I watch on shore. Was there something else going on at the rock to cause distress to the oystercatchers hanging out there? A mystery.

Sources say oystercatchers will fly a mile away for food, so the beach isn’t too far for the parents nesting on the far rock. There’s also closer shoreline than inside the bay to hunt limpets and clams, as you can see from this Google earth map:

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N=no nest on rock.   Y=nest on rock

Well, it was a surprise and disappointment not to find oystercatchers nesting in my local bay BUT a surprise and a delight to see a chick elsewhere, tended by a parent. During the nestling stage, one parent always stays with the chick while the other hunts. 

So we returned the way we came, happy with our quest.

I will admit that I’d had a tiny hope we might cross paths with Horned puffins. I’ve only seen them once in all my years here, and it was right there along the same southern shoreline of the peninsula we drove around on this day. No puffins this time though sigh

It was in July 2015 we saw them, grooming just offshore the cliff, in deep water. So I’ll close today with some pictures from that encounter, it being the same area as we traveled on our recent trip. Who knows, maybe we’ll cross paths again. Puffins only nest these days on Protection Island, off Port Townsend, about 15 miles south. Few puffins in the Salish Sea anymore. These may have up here been fishing.

Puffins are dreamy!

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Puffins and gulls 

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Any surprises in your birdwatching recently?

The Dawn Chorus is now open for your birdy news of the week.

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