Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Pacific Northwest Day 14 - One More And The Wrap-Up

Sunday, August 14, 2011

After packing and whatnot, Rebecca’s neighborhood was a great place to kill 30 minutes before the lunchtime flight home to Detroit.  All the usual suspects were there. The Fox Sparrow. The Stellar’s Jay.  Those damned crows.  One bird looked like a Carolina Wren! Of course, it’s not.  Bewick’s Wren. Nice. It was the last new bird for the trip.  (By the way, as I understand it,  it is pronounced "Buick" (like the car), not "bee-wick.")

The flight home was as uneventful as one would hope.

So, here is the rundown.

New Birds – 13 (White-headed Woodpecker, Gray Partidge, Tri-colored Blackbird, Cassin's Vireo, Black Turnstone, Sooty Grouse, Northern Fulmar, Fork-tailed Storm Petrel (#650!),
Buller's Shearwater, Pink-footed Shearwater, South Polar Skua, Black-footed Albatross, Surfbird)
Total Trip Birds: 163
Life Birds – 655
ABA Birds - 655 (The two areas match as I have not yet birded outside of North America)
Big Miss - Red-breasted Sapsucker
Total Birds: Washington - 142
Total Birds: Oregon – 53
Total Birds: Idaho - 43
Total Ticks – 4,512 (sum of all ABA checklists)
Lower 48 Ticks – 3,965
Lower 48 Birds – 633

Total States Visited – 3
Total States Lifetime - 44
Total National Parks Visited - 5
Total National Parks lifetime - dunno

New Beers – 45

The map below shows the states I have visited. I know for fact I was in Georgia and South Carolina as a kid.  I was not birding at the time, so it does not count.

The map below shows all the states from which I have had a beer. Keep in mind, I do not have to visit the state to mark this map. That should explain alot...

A gigantic “Thanks” goes to my sister, Rebecca. The spare bedroom. All of your assistance on everything and, of course, the plane ticket.  A very generous gift, indeed.  You have always been generous when I visit.   I have visited you throughout your career in Alaska (twice), Texas, Arizona, northern California, and now Washington. Keep in mind, I have not birded southern California.  There are good birds there I have not yet seen.  Are there any military bases in the area looking for a good nurse? What about bases or hospitals in Costa Rica? Ecuador?  I hope you like the pictures from the horse show. There are more to come.

My next vacation? Who knows.  I know I need to get to Louisiana (or Bruce will kill me!), Alabama, Georgia, South Carolina, Nevada and Hawaii (likely the last one).  We’ll see what happens next….

Monday, August 29, 2011

Pacific Northwest Day 13 - Vomit-Free Riot

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Pelagic birding is a trip, literally and figuratively.  It goes like this – get a boat, pile it up with birders, and head on out to sea.  How far in the ocean you go depends on your location, but we’re talkin’ miles here.  When you get a far enough out, you have opened a new door of birding.  Basically, you are getting a chance to see birds that rarely come close to shore, nest in the southern hemisphere, or breed in remote regions of North America.

Yes, that’s right. I can see birds that nest in, for example, New Zealand, just a few miles off the shores of Washington. When they migrate at the end of the breeding season, they fly north (while “our birds” may fly south).   At the same time, I can see birds that nest in the arctic regions of North America but migrate south along the oceans as opposed to heading south through the guts of the continent.

So, as odd as it sounds, you get on that boat and  you look for southern birds heading north, northern birds heading south, and any vomit heading in any direction.

I should mention that part. The ocean, as I’m sure you know, might get rough. People are not always ready for the chop.  You need to do what you need to do to hold off seasickness.  Pills. Patches. Blunt force trauma. Do what must be done. 

Unknown to me when I made the reservation, the waters off of coastal Washington might be a little bit more rough than other pelagics.  In any case, I use the Scopalimine patch.  It served me well in North Carolina on 2006 with 10 feet seas on a 3 foot boat (okay, the boat was much bigger, but the waves were quite big, too.).  A 60% fatality rate (ie: blowing chunks off the stern at least once on the trip) and I was immune. Hah!

So, by 5:30am, birders were piling on the boat and we were shoving off by 6:00am for a 10 hour toooouuuuur……a 10-hour tooooouuuuuur…..

The weather started getting rough. The tiny ship was tossed.  No. Not really. But we did have some waves. The Monte Carlo is over 50 feet long, so 8-10 foot swells makes for some interesting birding.  Feet spread wide and one hand holding on the door frame, I managed. 

It was suggested to “practice” on Sooty Shearwaters.  Their shape, flight style and overall “feel” would become a benchmark. We saw thousands (honestly) so the practice came quick. Pretty soon, the Northern Fulmars were easy to separate.   One shot within 50 feet of the boat putting on a quite a show.  Life bird #649! Gray ones.  White ones. Moderately gray ones. They were more or less abundant during the bulk of the trip. (Be sure to click on all of the bird photos. They look much better that way.)

My heart sunk when the first Fork-tailed Storm-Petrel doodled by.  Only the size of a cardinal but with longer wings, it would have been my #650th bird had I seen it well. Some birders have standards that are tight. Others have standards that are kinda loose.  Others just flat-out lie, I’m sure, and don’t see a damned thing.  For me, I needed a better look and that first one did not cut it.  It was my pseudo-650th species.

It didn’t matter a few seconds later.  Another FORK-TAILED STORM PETREL fluttered past the boat at close range.  Finally.  Life bird #650. ABA Area #650.  A HUGE North American Milestone. After tromping around Alaska’s tundra, sweating to death at Boot Springs in Big Bend National Park, asphyxiating at Rocky Mountain National Park, avoiding vomit tornadoes in Nova Scotia (buy my a beer and I’ll tell you that story), birding in 44 states, across my home state, out of state, down state, up state, and in various states of mind, I did it!  (The photo below is "a" Fork-tailed Storm Petrel, but not "the" bird that was my official #650.)

It is absolutely worth noting that one does not get to 650 North American birds without help. Rare Bird Alerts, bird finding books, and the like are all cool but birding associates and buddies make it much more enjoyable.  I can't even begin to name all the folks that helped me get here or those that I have enjoyed my days with,  but they know who they are!  

(Okay.  I certainly will mention one. Don Sherwood. Thanks, man! You called me on a craptacular March morning in 1994 for a little stroll to see a Gyrfalcon.  You discussed with me the legitimacy of whether or not my lifebird Horned Lark could be counted as it was being plucked by my lifebird Merlin (sure, dead birds don't count...but was truly, ultimately dead when I saw it?). A few years behind us. Many more ahead!)

The fun did not end there. After about an hour into the trip, the seas smoothed out to almost glass as far as I’m concerned. Birds were zipping in and out on the calmest seas in recent memory.  Bill, one of the official spotters, was on his 98th trip. He said he had never seen the waters so smooth.  Walking across the boat was as easy as walking across my kitchen.  The captain said he would officially record it as “three foot swells”.  Three foot swells. Zippity-do-dah.  I had the patch.   Better living through chemistry.  Cloudy skies helped to minimize the glare, too. 
#651 came by before too longBuller’s Shearwater (photo below) nests on only a few islands off of New Zealand. Fascinating? Maybe. But that makes it very susceptible to trouble with such a limited breeding range.  The picture below is one of eight seen that day. To this day, I can still hear Bill screaming over the diesel engines “Buller's Shearwater!  Buller's Shearwater!  Buller's Shearwater!” These were the first of the season. They become much more common later in the year. Total bonus bird by my standards.  

Pink-footed Shearwater (#652) is found breeding in and near Chili.  Like the Buller’s, it is at risk for trouble on the breeding grounds. In some cases, eggs from colonies are snitched by the locals and are considered a delicacy. It is easy to separate from the Buller’s. While both have a white belly, the Pink-footed is a uniform color on top while the Buller’s has an “M” pattern that is completely mesmerizing.

SOUTH POLAR SKUA (SCOO-uh) is a barrel-chested monster.   While they look like they could eat small children, they eat mostly fish and such that they steal from other seabirds.  I am not certain, but I believe this was the bird highlighted in the March of the Penguins as the evil nest robber. It was life bird #653. I saw two.  Six total were seen.

As odd as it seems, the oceans are not uniform. Plant life, animal life, salinity, and temperature (to name just a few) are factors that change as you cover real estate. A standard pelagic plan is to find the larger fishing boats and see what is lurking nearby. They act like magnets and attract the birds, which in turn attract the birders.  In this case, the larger, darker birds were a key bird for the trip. 

 #654, BLACK-FOOTED ALBATROSS.    Wow.  With a wingspan like that of a Bald Eagle, but much more delicate in nature, they were simply awesome.  At times, the boat would approach fishing vessels. Interested in us, the albatross would leave that boat and investigate ours.  Add some chunks of suet and you have birds literally feet from you.  They nest in Hawaii.   An Albatross, by the way, was considered a bird of good omen by ancient mariners.  Check out this song to find out what will happen if you shoot one.  I don't recommend you do it. 

A few Sabine’s Gulls were seen.  This is one of the examples of a bird that is recorded out at sea as it moves south from its Arctic breeding grounds.  I am convinced it is one of the best looking North American gulls.  People would certainly hesitate to call this a “sky rat” if they saw it at a Taco Bell parking lot!

Other goodies included Leach’s Storm-Petrel (a great bird for the trip, but not a life bird), Red-necked Phalarope, Red Phalarope, ArcticTern, Pomarine Jaeger, Parasitic Jaeger, Long-tailed Jaeger, Common Murre (photographed below), Cassin’s Auklet, Rhinoceros Auklet, and Tufted Puffin.

Oh, but it doesn’t stop there.    You can’t help but to be awed by a Humpback Whale, even if all you see is the blow followed by the dorsal fin.  

I can say for certain that this boat trip was new experience for some birders.  I know in one case, this was the first trip across the Rockies and the first trip on the ocean. Damn near every bird was new.  How cool is that?  I remember those days!. A “baptism by fire” would have just sucked.  Smooth waters. Great birds.  Damn good day.

To the best of my knowledge, only one person got sick. After chatting with his buddy, it was learned that the cursed had suffered a head injury a few years ago and has had trouble with his balance ever since.  Apparently, he gets sick on every trip!  Guaranteed motion sickness does not stop this man from doing what he loves! 

I suspect you are familiar with the three monkeys with the “hear no evil”, “see no evil”, “speak no evil” gestures. That was him.  Sitting on the little step, at one point, his ears where covered.  A few minutes later, it was “see no evil” combined with a near-fetal position. By the time he got to “speak no evil”, it was time to get out of his way. Projectile vomiting was imminent.

Amazing enough, at one point, he just got up and was back to normal.  It was like the seasick switch was simply turned off!   He was immediately better.  I figure he missed about 2 hours of the trip.  A total trooper, that man. 

As the boat returned to the marina, an effort was made to secure birds along the jetty.  A cormorant hat-trick was easily scored: Double-crested (sarcastic “yay”), Pelagic, and Brandt’s.  A Black Turnstone was hiding among the rocks well enough that, sadly, not everyone saw it. I did.  But, the best of the rock birds for me was the (drum roll please) SURFBIRD. Three of ‘em.  Life bird #655.

At the dock by 3:30, a quick bite of ice cream in town hit the spot.  I got some wacked-out flavor. Egg nog, I think?  A few hours later, I was the grill master at Rebecca’s house.  Steak and beer.  The Wildcat IPA from the Snoqualaimie Brewing Company was quite good.  A 22oz bottle.  I wish I had the chance to have it on site straight out of the tap. I’m suspect it would have been near perfect.  Four out of five.  The Citra Blonde Summer Brew from the Widmer Brothers, on the other hand was pretty poor. Taste was minimal. Pretty lifeless stuff.

Pacific Northwest Day 12 - Rain, Rain, Come My Way

Friday, August 12, 2011

A casual breakfast of eggs with shrimp, crab, and salmon at the Salal CafĂ© in Port Townsend was the perfect way to start the day.  Dipping again on the Turnstones at the marina was not nice, but couldn’t be helped.  Negotiating fog as thick as soup, a course was set for Westport via Forks.

Seeing the Olympics shrouded in fog re-enforced how lucky I have been on this trip. Rainier? Crystal clear.  Olympic National Park? Crystal clear for the most part. Who can complain?

The road takes you in and out of the perimeter of the National Park. Before long, you pass through the town of Forks. Pretty bland in most respects, this town of 3,500 people has seen a 600% boom in tourism with the release of the Twilight movies.  The vampires, in this series anyway, can venture into daylight, but their skin will sparkle like glitter.  So, the books are set in the one of cloudiest places in the country.  Makes good sense, right?

I also got a kick out of the tours you can take throughout the town. I can see the people taking it now -  "Ohhhhh, here is the high school. Ooooohhh, there is the doctor’s office where the lead vampire works..."   (It is not a blood bank, by the way.)  None of these places, in case your interested, resemble the scenes in the movie simply because the movie is not filmed here. 

If you travel here and camp, don’t forget to secure your firewood south of town. Some huckster was selling bundles of official Twilight Firewood at $4 each. He must have been to the Klondike Gold Rush National Park and learned a thing or two about marketing.

( I just re-read the previous paragraphs about Forks and Twilight. Let me clear. I did not take a tour. I am not a fan (although I have seen the movies). The shortest path from Port Townsend to Westport is via Forks. )

Down and around from Forks was the entrance road to the Hoh Rainforest.  Still a part of the National Park, this place is tremendously wet.  Seattle, while famous for its rain, doesn’t get that much.  It averages about 35 inches a year. New York City gets more! So does Atlanta! And Houston, too! It is urban legend that Seattle gets rain all the time. What they get are the clouds.  Lots and lots and lots of clouds.  All this happens simply because they are on the east side of the Olympic Mountains – the rainshadow side.

The Hoh Rainforest, however, is a few miles off the ocean and west of the mountains. As the saturated air hits the mountains and rises, it all dumps into the rainforest.  160 inches annually (plus or minus a dozen). That is a tremendous amount of rain.  By most accounts, if it is not raining, it will be cloudy.

So, with rain gear at the ready (including camera condoms), the sky opened up.  I don’t mean it rained.  The clouds broke. By the time we reached the Visitor’s Center, the sky was blue and the sun was shinin’. One of the rainiest places in the country and there was not a raindrop to be had.  Unbelievable. Sure, the summer is considered dry, but come on! Sunshine? This is the Hoh Rainforest!

I was really looking forward to some photography. If you have ever seen photos of the place (here, here, and here, for example), it is lush, green and dim.  It seems like the kind of place where you expect dinosaurs or something.  Not today.  I should have brought sunscreen.

All that complaining aside, it was an enjoyable place.  If you like ferns, you’ll love it.  If you like Sitka Spruce trees hundreds of years old and billions of feet tall, you will have trouble leaving.  (Those my binoculars wadded up on the tree's root in the picture below.) If you are in northwest Washington, try and get here if you can.

A few minutes were also spent dinkin' around in the Pacific Ocean at Ruby Beach.  It is that simple. Whether it is your first trip or your umpteenth trip to an ocean, dink away. All the cool people do it.

In Westport by late dinnertime, the hotel was secured (reservations are nice!), food was ordered (Dungeness Crab Cakes at the HalfMoon Bar and Grill) and beer was consumed.  The Longboard Lager (#1,078) is brewed in Hawaii. That added Hawaii to my list of beer states even though I have not yet been there.  All in all, they can keep the stuff.  While not bad, I was not horribly impressed….

While evening photography on the beach may have been nice, I was very tired and it was, believe it not, quite cold.  That was quite a breeze coming off the ocean. Great. Waves.  Final preparations were made for Saturday’s ridiculously early departure for the pelagic trip.

Pacific Northwest Day 11 - Olympic National Park

Thursday, August 11, 2011

As planned, Fort Worden was left in the dark.  Places to go. Things to do. Birds to see.

As the sun was rising, we were entering Olympic NationalPark.  Established as a National Park in 1938 and now with 95% of the land designated as Wilderness, this place is cool (neat), cool (chilly), cloudy (most of the time), and worth a visit.

After having breakfast in the parking lot of the Hurricane Visitor Center (5,200 feet above sea level) and enjoying the American Pipits landing on my car, a short walk on a nearby trail offered some great views.  After dipping on the Sooty Grouse (and the Mountain Goats seen by another fellow only minutes before), we headed off to the Hurricane Ridge Trail Head.

Like the Cassin’s Vireo, the Sooty Grouse now exists in the minds of birders more or less because scientists decided the Blue Grouse in the Rocky Mountains is too different from the Blue Grouse in the Pacific Northwest.  So, the Blue was split into the Dusky and Sooty.  I have had multiple Duskys in my day, but Sooty would be new. Hurricane Ridge is considered a super place to find them.

A 1.7 mile hike (one way) to the top, the views are breathtaking.  The Strait of Juan de Fuca opens below you to the north (image below). The Olympic Mountains are to the south (second photo).  Violet-green Swallows zip over your head.  Ravens escort you across the sub-alpine fir meadows.  Flowers are abuzz with insects looking for freebies.

The chill from the altitude combined with the sun (yes, the SUN!) coming in and out of the clouds made for some interesting hiking. There is no shade along the trail. You walk and get warm, but you are dressed in layers, right?  You shed a layer but stop to take a picture.  The sun slips behind a cloud.  You get chilled. Back on goes on the jacket.  You get warm. Strip. Chill, but walk to warm up. The sun comes back out. Really warm  now.  Warm. Chilled.  Hot.  Cold.   Three hours of that got kinda old….

Then there are the marmots.  No, not just any marmot.  Olympic Marmots.  In short, they are only found here.  No place else in the world has them.  When the glaciers were moving in and out of the region many moons ago, they did not crest the mountains; they went around them.  In a sense, the mountains became an oasis for wildlife surrounded by a sea of ice. Over time, life here evolved into unique species.  (Sorry, Michelle Bachman.  Get your facts straight.)  While marmots can be found throughout the western half of the United States in appropriate habitat, the Olympic Marmot is found only in Olympic National Park.  You have not lived until you have seen a chubby, golden rodent spread-eagled on a snowfield. 

Flowers (like the Avalanche Lily below).  Swallows. Fresh air.  Stunning world views.  I could on and on.  But, no Sooty Grouse.  

The Gray Jays on the back deck of the visitor center overlooking the Olympic Mountains were utilizing their standard protocols.  “If people are present, said people will not read the sign that says “Don’t feed the wildlife.”.  I, the vastly intelligent Gray Jay, know they will feed me any way. Hmmmm, what shall it be today?  Cheetoes or potato chips…”

I think I should also mention a simple physics issue you might want to think about when you travel.  If you open mustard in Gig Harbor (440 feet above sea level) and you don’t open it again until you are one mile above sea level, beware. The pressure inside can be immense when compared to the outside.  Just thought you should know.  (This, by the way, is exactly the kind of episode I can use in my defense when accused of packing like a girl. I always over-pack. I would pack 4 sets of pants for a 2-day trip. You never know when a physics of mustard accident will work against you.  For the record, not a drop landed on me. But, in the event that is did, I was prepared with clean pants (1, 572 pair packed for 14 days. I hired a Sherpa to carry them all.)) 

Descending the mountain was a breeze, but disappointing. It is hard to leave a place like that.  I took a quick trip through the campground.  It was noted that campsites were open all over the place (re-enforcing the regret of camping at Camp Worden).  Second, the birding was slow, but nice. The coolest bird there was clearly the Pacific Wren momma stuffing food in the screaming kid (kid-bird, not kid-human child. That is a Gary Larson comic). 

By dinnertime, we were pulling into the Peaks Brew Pub in Port Angeles. Let me be clear and honest.  This place is a disaster from a food standpoint. The menu is the sub-standard “bar food.”  The rock-bottom minimum. Nachos and chili. Frozen veggie burgers.  The basics of the basics, if that is possible.  I am not taking anything away from them. I am just telling it like it is.  When I first opened the menu, I was prepared to leave. It was that poor.

All that said, go there if you like beer!!!! They had a number of beers from other locations, plus some they brew on site.  As explained by the bartender/cook, they are expanding the beer brewing operation.  Good call on their part, if you ask me. The Mount Pleasant Porter, Trainwrecked IPA, and Wandefuca Gold Pale Ale (#1,074-1,076) were all pretty good. The Porter, especially, was outstanding. Those chocolate tones really stood out!

Hands down, one of the best beers for the trip, based on style interpretation and name originality, was the Dungeness Spit (#1,077).  I’m sure some of you know I like craft beer as much as I like crafty beer names.  A spit is a sandy point of land. The Dungeness Spit is right up the street.  Spit? Spit? Get it?  If you go to Port Angeles, consider this place. The beer won’t disappoint. 

With Sooty Grouse a bust on Hurricane Ridge, Grouse Plan B was initiated. Deer Park Road.  East of the main entrance, this road takes you to a campground at subalpine levels (Hurricane Ridge gets you to the same altitude/habitat, but you hike it).  The open stretches of the road were fun but tight. Not two lanes wide, caution had to be taken on each switchback (1.4 million by my count) as there is not much room for two vehicles.  Oh, but if your car goes careening over the edge, you shouldn’t die, as all the trees will arrest your fall.

Keep in mind that that only works if there are trees. Before long, the trees thinned out and the road, while no thinner, was significantly more intimidating.  The tree-less habitat on the switchbacks made for some harrowing driving for this flatlander.  I found it much more relaxing to simply close my eyes on each curve. Oh wait. I was driving. Nevermind.

Around the bend and voila – widlflowers and meadows.  This is the same sort of habitat that one would expect a Sooty Grouse on Hurricane Ridge.  Up the hill yet a bit more and “Pow!”, there she was not 5 feet out the driver’s window!

I fully expected her to be a Republican - more or less oblivious to the world around her.  In my past experiences with Dusky Grouse, they simply don’t care you exist. Within a second or two, they forget you are there and go about their business, even if only feet from you.  I snapped some bad photos out of excitement (wrong camera settings) but, once I got my head in the game, I realized I needed to move to change the light.  I walked maybe 50 feet, turned and realized she had completely evaporated.  Poof.  Houdini would have been proud.  Shooed along by a downbound car, my car needed to move (I was taking up the whole road).  Nevertheless, the Sooty Grouse (life bird #648) was at spitting distance. 

Excited but tired, it was easily 25 minutes down the mountain and another 40 back to the tent in Port Townsend….