Bike Touring San Juan Islands- Lopez Island

This summer I finally conquered a trip that had been on my bucket list for a decade: Bike Touring San Juan Islands. Sounds exotic, right?

Ferry Time

It was actually way easier and more familiar than I thought it would be. Though traveling by ferry was different, the ferry schedule was easy to follow. Like a bus on water, the trips between islands are short (about an hour), on schedule, and free after the first ticket purchase (a very reasonable $13.25/person + $2/bike). The most difficult part was awkwardly tying the loaded bikes in the slanted and sometimes crowded cargo area.

Go by Ferry

Tomas and I planned two nights on each island Lopez, San Juan, Orcas, and Shaw.

Lopez starts steep, but then levels out into one of the most bike-friendly of islands. Spencer Spit State Park with excellent bike-camping sites is only 4.5 miles from the ferry dock. And Lopez Village, full of supplies, beer, and ice-cream is 3 miles west of the park.

Spencer Spit State Park

Spencer Spit also has one of the best public beaches on the islands. And beaches bring birds. Gulls of course.

California Gull

California Gull – dark eye, long strait narrow bill with red/black gonys spot

Mew Gull - dark eye, small round "pigeon" head with petit bill

Mew Gull – small round “pigeon” head, yellow legs, petite bill

But there were a couple of small surprises. Like Least Sandpipers. They have greenish-yellow legs (poor light in this photo), and small slightly drooping bills.

Least Sandpiper

And they are usually seen in smaller numbers as compared to other peeps, like Western Sandpipers. Which were also present in larger flock style.

Western Sandpiper

They settled briefly and I could see the differences from the least. Westerns have black legs and a somewhat stouter slightly longer drooping bill.

Western Sandpiper

Practicing peeps. I need to remember to look at the legs. About this point it started raining. But before it started pouring I saw a pretty little Savannah Sparrow in the driftwood.

Savannah Sparrow

And its giant adopted relative, Brown-headed Cowbird.

Cowbird and savannah

Then it poured and I saw two Caspian Terns, but I didn’t stay long to watch them before running for cover from the rain. And that is when I met the wettest chickadee ever.

Chestnut-backed Chickadee

It cracked me up.

Chestnut-backed Chickadee

So much so that I laughed out loud on the trail and a little girl came up to ask what I was looking at. I pointed out the chickadee and asked, “Do you see him?” She laughed and said, “Yes, or her.” Good point.

Chestnut-backed Chickadee

Also in the flock were Golden-crowned and Ruby-crowned Kinglets, an Orange-crowned and Yellow Warbler, Bewick’s Wren, and Brown Creeper. None of which I got great photos of. So here’s a picture of bunnies by the bike lane.

Bunnies

So many rabbits on Lopez Island.

Rabbit sea

They’re cute, but the introduced European Rabbits wreck havoc on native grassland habitat for meadowlarks, voles, and butterflies. Especially on small island ecosystems. They’ve been a major problem on San Juan Island too, but controlling them is controversial because they are “charismatic cuddly fauna.” From this 2012 article:

“For years, nearly 500 toothy, grass-guzzling, invasive rabbits transformed San Juan Island’s American Camp prairie into what the National Park Service dubbed ‘a moonscape. But the agency two years ago backed off plans to shoot and trap the animals after a public outcry. The Park Service is conducting a more detailed environmental analysis.”

I wonder if we’ll ever learn. Here’s Rabbit Tales, an interesting read on the history of rabbits on San Juan Island.

Tomas and I made it to Shark Reef Sanctuary, a short hike along the coast, hoping for a whale or good pelagic bird sighting, but there were only harbor seals, an angry bee, and a nice view of our next island destination.

Shark Reef Sanctuary

Leaving Lopez the next day, I stopped at several ponds and waterways on the way and found Green-winged Teal, Belted Kingfisher, Northern Pintail, Yellow-rumped Warbler, American Goldfinch, Lincoln’s, Song, and Golden-crowned Sparrow, Common Yellowthroat, and a Black-headed Grosbeak which was the most unexpected sighting.

Black-headed Grosbeak

Lopez was a great start to our island adventure! I couldn’t wait to explore San Juan Island next.

Birding Lopez

Tweets and chirps,

Audrey

Happy New Year!

I managed to squeeze in a few more birds at the end of 2015. On Christmas Day I went to Jackson Bottom Wetlands Preserve. I hadn’t visited since June and what a difference record winter rains make.

Before

Before

After

After

The trails were completely flooded with water, but looking around the upland part of the park I still saw many birds: Fox Sparrows, Golden-crowned Sparrows, Dark-eyed Juncos, and Spotted Towhees. On a tree nearby I also saw Red-shouldered Hawk!

Red-shouldered Hawk

Say, whaaa? Curious because I didn’t think Oregon was included in their typical range. Bib of dark streaks, rufous underparts, black and white bands on tails. I’ll take it!

Red-shouldered Hawk

Red-shouldered Hawk

It eventually ended up in the same tree as this unhappy Red-tailed Hawk.

Red-tailed Hawk

Looking up in fury

The stare-down proved too much for the Red-shouldered Hawk and it flew away (giving a glance of its rufous underwing coverts) while it called “kee-aah, kee-aah, kee-aah!” in disgust.

I returned to the bird feeders by the main building and got an up-close and personal visit from an Anna’s Hummingbird. This flashy fella and I became besties.

Anna's Hummingbird

Anna's Hummingbird

Okay, maybe not. Back to the trees I saw a Northern Shrike! Nice! Or, rather, not nice. This predatory songbird “feeds on small birds, mammals, and insects, sometimes impaling them on spines or barbed wire fences.” Yikes.

Northern Shrike

I had hoped to see White-throated Sparrows but insted came up with Golden-crowned Sparrows that sort of look like tan-striped White-Throated Sparrows. It needs yellow lores, stronger facial marks, and a mottled breast. Nice try.

Golden-crowned Sparrow

I left and went to Fernhill Wetlands since it is close by. I had not been before and I’ll have to try again once the water recedes.

Flooded

The road was closed as was the gate to the park. But I was able to admire Ruddy Ducks, Northern Pintail, Ring-necked Ducks, and Scaup in the nearby flooded farmlands. And, wait, what is that larger bird-blob in the middle?

Mixed waterbirds

Canvasback! A new species. What a great silhouette.

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I walked along nearby roads, still not finding White-throated Sparrows, but I did find a handsome Lincoln’s Sparrow. This and the Canvasback made the trip worth it.

Lincoln's Sparrow

The next morning I set off for Vancouver Lake in Washington. This turned out to be a disappointing spot not for lack of birds, but because the air was ripe with gunfire.

Hunters

Hunters. Even though I was in a “safe” hunting-off limits section of land, it was close enough to hear plenty of shooting. I have to say, I was unnerved listening to gunfire while birding. I’ve heard it before, but never this close, loud, or rapid. I stayed just long enough to see a few birds before I couldn’t take it anymore.

Cooper's Hawk

Cooper’s Hawk

Brown Creeper

Brown Creeper

Belted Kingfisher

Belted Kingfisher

And another Red-shouldered Hawk!

Invasion of the Red-shouldered Hawks

Invasion of the Red-shouldered Hawks

I saw one new species at Vancouver Lake, Eared Grebes. (Common Merganser on the left for scale).

Eared Grebe

The last day of the long weekend I considered going to Sauvie Island to look for White-Throated Sparrows again, but I couldn’t take the idea of listening to more shooting. So I headed the complete opposite direction towards Franz Lake in the Columbia River Gorge. This was a good choice.

A herd of elk along the way!

Elk

And swans. Peaceful, graceful, lovely swans.

Trumpeter Swan

I read Tundra swans like to winter at the lake and I rounded out my year learning the difference between Trumpeter and Tundra Swans.

Trumpeter Swans have a larger bill with red on the lower mandible.

Trumpeter Swan

While Tundra Swans have a small yellow “teardrop” on the lore.

Tundra Swan

Subtle differences. Below is Tundra on the left, Trumpeter on the right.

Tundra and Trumpeter

The swans were a perfect way to close out 2015.

Time to do it all over again!!!

Tweets, chirps, and cheers to 2016!

Audrey

Shillapoo-Ridgefield Trip

What. A. Day. Many highs and lows.

Highs: President’s day! A day off to go birding! It’s 60 degrees and sunny in Portland!

I decided to check out Shillapoo Wildlife Area in Washington because it’s a 2370-acre wildlife area and because it has a funny sounding name. “Silly-poo.”

I took off early for the long drive and arrived at the parking area to discover…oops, I need a Discover Pass to park. Low.

IMG_0771

Washington State Parks allow some free days on holidays, but President’s Day isn’t one of them. I sat in my car and debated. I got out of my car walked a little bit, felt guilty and quickly exited to hunt down a pass. I want to support the parks system, plus I want to avoid getting fined.

Since my pass-purchase-detour took me farther north, and Ridgefield Wildlife Refuge a well-known birding hotpot, was only 20 minutes even more north, I decided to go there instead. Pass in hand, I arrived to find this park doesn’t require a Discover Pass, only $3 admission, but today- free for President’s Day. Go figure. It pays to do park-fee homework before heading out.

I have mixed feelings about my Ridgefield experience. I’d only visited once before about 8 years ago, and I was reminded this time that the park requires visitors to stay in their vehicles along the 4.2 mile gravel loop from October 1 to April 30. Which is understandable to protect the migrating birds.

Next time, I’ll probably wait to visit when the park is open to foot traffic as walking is part of the fun of birding for me and there are some great trails in the area. Plus, it can be awkward driving on the roads navigating and stopping, sticking your head and camera out the windows, feeling pressure to move forward so others can drive around you to see the same birds. It felt more like a Disney ride than a nature outing.

Despite this, I still saw some cool birds:

Upon leaving Ridgefield, the sun was high in the sky well past the golden hour for birding in my mind. At 1pm the bright sun creates a back-lit sky and it’s often only possible to see silhouettes of birds, challenging for ID purposes, impossible for quality photos. But still, I’d been cooped up in the car all morning and craved a walk. And the afternoon is a good time to see raptors soaring in the sky hunting prey. So I returned to Shillapoo, since I had gone through the trouble to acquire the pass after all.

This time I confidently exited my vehicle, knowing I was legally parked. Just as I suspected though, late in the day many birds were hunkered down conserving energy and the skies were pretty quiet. I did hear the call of a bald eagle though, and saw adult and juvenile pair up in the trees.

BAEA

An appropriate sighting on President’s Day.

As the lighting conditions worsened I decided to leave and was feeling kind of bummed, since I hadn’t been able to spend time at Shillapoo in optimal conditions. Silly, I know but I had made the lengthy drive there twice. But as I was leaving something caught my eye… that’s funny, that log looks like it has cat ears…I took a closer look in the binoculars, omg the cat ears moved – THAT’S AN OWL.

IMG_0791

I circled around to get a better look, and found what I think is the same Great Horned Owl perched higher in the branches. It’s possible this was a second owl because I didn’t see any movement of flight from the first, but the log perch was obscured by bushes from all other angles so it’s probably the same individual just relocated.

I watched until the owl flew higher and further obscured by branches.

Now I’d seen some really cool species that day even a few new ones, but that owl made my day. It definitely made it worth visiting Shillapoo twice, and I’ll definitely make many a return visit to this wildlife area.

Thanks for reading,

Audrey