December Pelagic and Astoria

Less than a week after my plane landed back in Portland I signed myself up for a 7-hour pelagic trip. Because a winter boat ride in the Pacific Ocean sounds like a good idea, right? Of course it does for the chance for winter seabirds like Short-tailed Shearwater, Ancient Murrelet, Laysan Albatross, Parakeet Auklet, and rare Mottled Petrel.

Since I’d just been on the October pelagic trip, the conditions were fresh in my mind. Honestly, I wouldn’t have dared, but the weather forecast looked surprisingly hopeful, my doctor gave me a Rx refill, and 7-hours sounded mild compared to the 12-hours I was used to. I was on board. And as it turns out, this was a good combination because for the first time, no seasickness!!

Smooth sailing

The best bird of the trip was a Short-tailed Albatross!

This chocolate-brown bird with the bubblegum-pink bill is a juvenile of the species, as they mature their feathers turn white with black edging. It has a wingspan of over 7ft and is the largest seabird in the North Pacific.

It’s also a great reason to go out on a boat in December.

Northern Fulmar for scale

Once hunted nearly to extinction (and even declared extinct in 1949), they are now listed as endangered throughout their range. It was juvenile birds, like this one that brought the species back.

Albatross spend most of their maturing years out at sea, and take many years to return to their breeding colonies. After they were thought to be extinct, some birds returned to Torishima Island and the first egg was laid by returning birds in 1954. Slowly they’ve come back and are now threatened by storms, volcanoes, long-line fishing, pollution, and oil spills. We were incredibly lucky to see one.

Other highlights included the always-popular Black-footed Albatross (they look similar to short-tailed but with a dark bill).

I noticed one was banded!

EA23 was banded in 2009 at Tern Island, Hawaii (look at this photo circle!!). So cool!

Albatross fan club

And a very distant sighting of Laysan Albatross!

So distant and blurry, here’s a one from Hawaii to remember how awesome they are.

It was a three albatross day! That’s a pretty good day.

We also saw a juvenile Black-legged Kittiwake.

And a second kittiwake, an adult showing the unmarked yellow bill.

There were Cassin’s Auklets, Ancient Murrelets, and a pair of Parakeet Auklets (seen by few), that I completely missed. Next time I might try my luck the bow of the ship for a better chance to see the smaller birds. We’ll see if I’m that brave.

I did get Rhinocerous Auklet, Pink-footed Shearwater, and a Humpback Whale, that was less jumpy than last time.

Back on land, after having survived another pelagic trip, I felt energized and inspired to continue birding at the coast. I took a chance and drove to Astoria where White-winged Crossbills had been sighted. Apparently every decade or so there is an irruption of this boreal forest finch. Chasing crossbills isn’t the easiest gamble, but there’d been multiple sightings.

I drove three and a half hours north and made it to Astoria by 7pm. In the morning I checked out of the mostly adequate Motel 6 and drove farther north to Cape Disappointment in Washington. I thought maybe I could find crossbills in both states (so greedy!).

Is it light enough to look for birds?

A couple of flocks flew by overhead, but no confirmed white-wings. Pine Siskin wanted me to think they were White-winged Crossbills.

I got a tip too look for Trumpeter Swans in a nearby pond.

Can’t a girl look at swans without getting stared at?

Success! I think? Let’s take a closer look at that bill. All black, no yellow lore.

Besides the lack of yellow lore, the characteristic that stands out to me distinguishing it from Tundra is the broad black connection between the eye and the mask. Not an easy ID! I still find this document handy, and I found this website helpful too.

After Cape Disappointment lived up to its name, I decided to look at Fort Stevens State Park in Oregon for White-winged Crossbills. This time I had better luck! There were yellow ones.

And red ones, both attracted to spruce cone seeds.

And as per usual, hanging out at the tippy tops of trees and hard to see. Reading up on crossbills, apparently there are ten (!) types (distinguished by calls) that can be interpreted as ten different species. I’m not ready for that. Maybe by the next decade.

Until then, there’s shorebirds to look at like the Rock Sandpiper still hanging out at Seaside Cove.

Leave it to birds to always keep things interesting. The coast does not disappoint either!

Looking forward to the next oceanic adventure.

Happy holidays!

Tweets and chirps,

Audrey

Bike Touring San Juan Island

Lopez Island was a good warm-up for San Juan, because our next camping destination, San Juan County Park, is a very hilly 10 miles from the ferry drop-off at Friday Harbor. There was also heavier traffic, but the strawberry house along the way made up for any hardship.

Strawberry House

We eventually made it to the campground and set up.

Hiker Biker

The views are incredible. The shared campsites on the other hand are pretty tight with zero privacy and no hammock trees. Two things I normally look for in a campsite.

But the whales made up for any discomfort.

Orcas

Orcas

That was amazing. We watched at least four Orca pods breach, splash, and swim by just as the sun set. I could have gone home happy then. But it was only day 3.

There were other perks at the park, including a small island reserve just off-shore with Black Oystercatchers.

Black Oystercatcher

And the noisy Pileated Woodpecker in the old apple tree.

Pileated Woodpecker

While on this island, we also made a point to bike to Lime Kiln State Park because it is “considered one of the best places in the world to view whales from a land-based facility.” Even though that meant riding 6 more miles of hills.

We found a lighthouse and White-crowned Sparrows, but no whales this time.

Lighthouse

White-crowned Sparrow

I refused to bike back over the hills, so instead we went 11 miles farther south toward San Juan Island National Historical Park and South Beach.

Leaving Lime Kiln

It was a pretty pleasant bike ride.

Road to South Beach

Plus, we saw more whales from South Beach, and a lovely trio of Harlequin Duck.

Harlequin Duck

At this point, I figured we may as well bike another 8 miles to Friday Harbor. Easy peasy. Because then in Friday Harbor, we can take the bus (!) with our bikes back to Roche Harbor, check out the Sculpture Park and come full circle. Gotta love public transit.

Bus

Roche Harbor has great shops and ice cream, but the best thing about this fancy marina destination is the public showers. No joke. Private, clean (cost a handful of quarters). And after 3 days of bike-camping we really needed one. It was rejuvenating as we mentally prepared to bike the 7.5 miles back to San Juan County Park.

On the way out we visited the sculpture park where I learned something new about Hooded Mergansers.

Hooded Merganser

Immature males have all black bills and bold yellow eyes.

Hooded Merganser

Female on the right below for comparison (yellow bill, dark eyes).

Hooded Merganser

It gave me food for thought as we meandered our way back to the campground. No whale sightings that final night, but I did get a terribly backlit view of a bird I’d hoped to see at some point on the trip, a Rhinoceros Auklet! Trust me.

Rhinoceros Auklet

Later that night the skies opened up and it poured rain through morning. With no bus until noon and an early ferry to catch, we hesitantly packed up a wet camp then slogged through the 10 miles back to Friday Harbor.

We had another island to get to and hopefully more birds to see on Orcas Island!

Tweets and chirps,

Audrey