Thirty-eight days of winter break. Nine hundred and twelve hours of free time. What to do? Some of my most memorable hours this break were spent two thousand miles away, in and around the Puget Sound. Allow me to expound. The Puget Sound is a glacially carved system of fjords, with a shoreline totaling over 1,300 miles, from Deception Pass in the north to Olympia in the south. It is married to the Pacific by the Strait of Juan de Fuca, and to the strait by Admiralty Inlet and Deception Pass. Fed by glacial runoff from The Olympics to the west and the Cascades to the east, the Sound drinks an average of 41,000 cubic feet of water per second, and spits out 2% of that water through the narrow Deception Pass at up to ten knots during peak tidal flow. But enough of the numbers–the region's beauty and intricacy is scarcely reflected by such trivialities.
After ferrying to Bainbridge Island from Seattle, and settling in at my grandparents' house at Port Madison, I managed to get a little birding in before the sun retired. Down at the water, there were Barrow's goldeneye, among their more familiar brethren, along with dozens of American wigeon, mew and glaucous-winged gulls. There was the smell of saltwater, the sound of gulls, wheeling above in full soar, and the sight of lazily nodding boats, lined unevenly and crowded along a weather beaten wharf, the reflections of tall, white masts breaking the tranquility of the evergreen water. Big, dark, Pacific song sparrows "chucked" from the brush along the beach, passed by a flock of six, drab bushtits. Spotted towhees, Steller's jays, and chestnut-backed chickadees combed the neighborhood. I passed a neatly mowed lawn with about a dozen kinglets of both species and a Townsend's warbler foraging in it, allowing me to approach within a few feet.
Glaucous-winged Gull eating a Pisaster starfish
Over dinner that night, I received some invaluable suggestions for the coming days from Neil Johannsen, former directer of Alaska Parks, and his wife Hilary Hilscher, who is working on the Great Washington State Birding Trail with the Washington Audubon. Armed with an array of hotspots to visit, we set out early the next morning on a ferry from Kingston to Edmonds, back toward the mainland. We would head north towards the Skagit Valley, a delta of the Skagit River that hosts many thousands of migrating waterfowl.
An overview of our route
We explored the lower Skagit Valley, driving long roads skirted by expansive, muddy fields–fields that would, in a few months, hold the millions of tulips that make the Skagit famous. But today, as winter reigned, however balmy, a low-hanging carpet of dark clouds stretched seamlessly across the barren mud to the horizon, where only the feet of distant, blue mountains were visible. Expansive land bound sharply by steeply rising peaks, all shrouded in dynamic, ominous skies defined the Skagit during much of our brief stay. The nearly constant overcast skies held a powerful beauty in their own right, but also made the sun's numbered appearances quite dramatic.
That afternoon and evening were spent at two locations north of where we would be staying in the little town of La Conner. First, we walked into a muddy field which was part of the Samish Unit. Here, as the afternoon wore on, we watched the skies fill with ten short-eared owls, at least as many northern harriers, three bald eagles, and a rough-legged hawk. The owls were amazing to watch, with their elegant, bouncing flight, their long, squared heads craning side to side in search of unfortunate rodents. The harriers and owls mingled freely on this afternoon, seemingly unaware of their vast genetic differences and ecological responsibilities to compete for a niche. Perhaps there was simply too much prey in this field to prompt a feud, or perhaps their particular cuisine preferences were conveniently misaligned. The rough-legged hawk that thought it wise to watch from a distant perch, however, did not seem to be benefitting from the others' peaceable arrangement; he was repeatedly dive-bombed by a pair of both the owls and the harriers. This was surprising, as the harriers and owls feed in a much more similar fashion to one another than either does to the hawk, and subsequently, should be more concerned with one another's presence and competition, and I can't imagine the lazy buteo posing any other sort of threat to the others. But of course, it's the wonder of unpredictability that keeps it all interesting.
We retraced our path south as the light started to fade, hoping to scope the Padilla Bay for waterfowl before sunset. We stopped briefly at Bayview State Park, where a group of some 3,500 wigeon finally included my lifer Eurasian! There were surely more, but distance, wind, and a broken tripod head sapped my will to sift through them further. Another mile or so down the road, we pulled off at the Padilla Bay Trail. Here, the still, darkening water was crawling with waterfowl. I gradually scanned from left to right. There were thousands upon thousands of pintails at first, interspersed with mallards and wigeon. About halfway through the wide arc across the bay, the flock composition shifted toward wigeon, and soon, their green and white heads and brown flanks blended together into a continuous mass, stretching back to the top of my scope field in dense blankets of feather. I counted around 55,000 ducks in the bay before the light was too meager to distinguish one from one hundred.
We spent the night in the quaint Hotel Planter, built in 1907– that's old wood. It stayed up for the short while we were under the roof (and still stands, to my knowledge). We headed out early the next morning, and stopped for breakfast (a belgian waffle with half a cubic foot of strawberries and whipped cream, of course) before re-reouting down Fidalgo Island toward Deception Pass. We were planning to revisit Padilla Bay, but it was still dark and raining at that time, so another while in the car was appreciated by all.
We arrived at Deception Pass at slack tide, so there weren't any whitewater riptides. But there were 111 red-throated loons, which made up for the lack of 10-knot currents. We continued down Whidbey Island toward Coupeville, Ebey's Landing, Fort Casey, and eventually the ferry that would take us across Admiralty Inlet to Port Townsend, at the northeast corner of the Olympic Peninsula.
Penn Cove, viewed from Coupeville
We made a stop at Ebey's Landing to take in the view, across Admiralty Inlet to the Olympic Mountains and out to the Strait of Juan de Fuca to the northwest. As I scanned the surf, picking out the three scoter species, a common loon, red-necked and horned grebes, and "Olympic" gulls, fascinating concoctions of genes from various large gull species in the area, the omnipresent clouds parted, opening a glorious window to the Cascade Mountains in the west.
While waiting for the ferry in Keystone, I went over to the guardrail to scope Crockett Lake, where I found a good variety of waterfowl and a nice northern shrike sitting atop a low bush along the water's edge. After we boarded the ferry and waited for our departure, I was able to watch a female Harlequin duck from the bow, and a kingfisher perched on one of the pylons right outside our window; a nice view of a usually skittish bird. Along the way, common murres swam leisurely out of the boat's path, heads held high, and from the bow, leaning into a strong headwind and having my hair permanently Elvissed by the gale force, I watched as streams of tiny black and white footballs of feather whirred by on pointed wings– at least 160 marbled murrelets. And again, we were blessed with spectacular views of the Cascades en route to Port Townsend.
At Port Townsend, home of the Wooden Boat Festival, and rightly inundated with beautiful sailboats, I had some time before a fantastic salmon sandwich lunch to photograph Harlequin Ducks and Mew Gulls on Hudson Point.
After lunch, we took a quick jaunt north, through the retired army base at Fort Worden, and into the Fort Worden State Park, at Point Wilson. Here, the windswept beach grass, craggy, storm-beaten spruces, and the dark blue line of coast which imposed a horizon on the gray monochrome of sea and sky, comprised the perfect, austere environment for a lighthouse. And there it was, watching over the very mouth of the Sound.