A Pair of Coastal Gems

Beaks and Bills

by Joe Meche

For the first time in many years, we made a departure from our traditional spring getaway. Due to prior reservations, weather cancellations, and rebooking, we opted to head for the coast for a change of pace. We hoped to intercept some of the northbound migrants, and early May seemed like a good time to catch thousands of shorebirds on both the southwest Washington and northwest Oregon coasts. If nothing else, the weather forecast called for sunshine and cool, ocean breezes every day.

Bald Eagle Photo

photo: Joe Meche
Bald eagle with common murre in its talons.

On our first day, the traffic proved to be tolerable along the infamous (to me) I-5 corridor. It’s important to utilize the express and HOV lanes when traversing this stretch of highway, regardless of the destination and direction you’re heading. On the first and last days, our timing was perfect! It’s still a joy to take the first exit that leads away from the chaos. As I’ve intimated before in this column, I’m very happy that I don’t have to do it five days a week.

After our exit at Olympia, we set our sights on one of my favorite places for birds … Tokeland and the Tokeland marina. In the past, in both spring and fall, this small marina on the north side of Willapa Bay has proven to be a real hotspot for birds. Alas, it was not to be on this trip. Aside from a handful of semi-palmated plovers, a lone whimbrel and one ruddy turnstone there was little to be seen other than the usual assortment of brown pelicans and a distant flock of migratory American white pelicans. A trip up the road to Westport made me wonder where all the birds were. However, the order of fish and chips at Bennett’s Fish Shack was a pleasant consolation before heading back to the historic Tokeland Hotel for three nights.

In yet another unique story of the history of Washington state, George and Charlotte Brown settled among the Shoalwater Tribe, led by Chief Toke, in 1858. They homesteaded 1,400 acres where they raised livestock, grew crops, and traded with the natives. One of their daughters married a young carpenter named William Kindred, and, in 1880, they built the current hotel as both a home and a haven for travelers on the shore of Willapa Bay. The Tokeland Hotel was opened in 1885 and is the oldest hotel in Washington. It was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1978.

You can feel the history of the place as soon as you pull into the graveled parking lot, and this hidden gem grabs you as soon as you walk through the door. The entire first floor is dedicated to the Wandering Goose restaurant, as well as a most comfortable parlor, where we indulged our passion for Scrabble on two occasions. The atmosphere is one of the most relaxed I’ve encountered anywhere. The doors are usually open and the well-behaved dogs and resident cats amble through and add to the home-like charm. Many guests took advantage of the “pet friendly” policy, and, in three days, I don’t recall hearing any barking. Policy states that if your dog is a problem, you will be asked to leave. Works for me.

Throughout the hotel, both upstairs and down, are artifacts and antiques, couches with pillows and blankets, and an old fireplace that is tended to around the clock. Guests are encouraged to make themselves at home and to roam around freely. The downstairs doors are not locked and there are no TVs in any of the rooms. The quiet and calm might be like it was a hundred years ago. The rooms are small but accommodating enough and the only bathrooms are up and down the hall on both ends of the building.

I had passed by the hotel on previous birding trips to the marina but had never stopped. Prior to our May trip, I had taken the time to do a bit of research to learn about the place we were to inhabit for the first part of our getaway. I was intrigued to read that two of the rooms in the building were “haunted.” As it turned out, our room was one of the two. We slept soundly and didn’t entertain any ghosts that I recall … just a few of the house cats prowling around and sleeping in odd nooks and crannies. It’s a charming inn like few others you’ll see anywhere, with a staff that’s as cordial as any I’ve encountered. The hotel is on a dead end road in one of the more remote places you can drive to, and the overall ambience cannot be put into words.

If the hotel itself didn’t capture our hearts, we learned on our last day that solar storms were set to produce one of nature’s true spectacles that night … the Northern Lights! It takes something really special to keep us up past midnight, but we weren’t the only ones on the back lawn on Friday night. As the sky began to show streaks of light, there was a pervasive hush and then the show began. The photographs I took were startlingly clear and the slow shutter speed captured the myriad of colors that the naked eye couldn’t see.

The lights were the hot topic of conversation at breakfast the following morning, as you might expect. Sharing photos at breakfast with folks who slept through the show provided a perfect sendoff to our next destination just down the road … Cannon Beach, Oregon. We had passed through the area on previous trips and were always too early or too late to witness a seasonal spectacle on Haystack Rock. There are numerous sea stacks along the Pacific Coast of North America, but few are as easily recognized. The plan this year was for me to take a chair and sit at the base of Haystack at low tide to document part of another natural phenomenon … nesting seabirds.

Thousands of common murres, western gulls, and pelagic cormorants accompanied the star attraction … the tufted puffins! My idea of sitting worked out perfectly for using a long telephoto lens. I was able to track birds as they flew into and out of their nesting sites without the risk of me falling over backwards. It’s difficult to track flying birds while dealing with peripheral neuropathy … take my word for it.

During my four hours on the beach before the tide started to come in, a pair of bald eagles changed the overall dynamic considerably on two separate occasions. At first sight of this magnificent bird of prey, every bird lifted from the steep cliffs and flew in all directions to avoid becoming prey. The eagles didn’t leave without a catch! My theory is that they had a nest on the slopes above Cannon Beach and were intent on feeding their own nestlings.

Two previous attempts to capture the iconic puffins in action were hardly noteworthy, but this trip made up for it and then some. It was good practice to pick out a puffin or two from the airborne flocks of murres. These fast-flying seabirds are challenging to photograph, but the adrenaline rush and a sturdy chair made all the difference for me. If you’re able to lock in on an individual bird, you can follow it to its nesting burrow on the cliff face. The nest is usually in a grassy area and all you see is a puffin head or two at the entrance, but that’s enough to document the site. I was in birder heaven … and then the tide came in!

After a great getaway week to a cooler destination, we realized that we didn’t miss the warmth of the Methow Valley so much. But, eastside camping is still to come and I’ll be sure to return with another tale or two, so stay tuned.


Joe Meche is a past president of the North Cascades Audubon Society and was a member of the board of directors for 20 years. He has been watching birds for more than 60 years and photographing birds and landscapes for more than 40 years.


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