by Joe Meche
Birding on the Water
As July segued into August and our annual heat wave descended upon us, birding became less fun with the warmer weather. With the addition of crowds of humans and crowds of mosquitoes in some of our favorite places, the dog days of birding kept us away. Those in the know are quick to realize that the cool air will generally be closer to the water … something about natural air conditioning, especially with the slightest breeze. Combing the beaches and shorelines is a good way to beat the heat and see a few good birds, but the right watercraft will offer a different perspective.
I’ve birded on large and small boats and canoes, but nothing beats a kayak to take you down to water level where the birds are. Whether you prefer fresh or salt water there are many places close by to launch your kayak and get into birds on their level. Before getting into the best places to go, I should take a minute to remind the prospective paddler of a few tips, no matter where you choose to launch your adventure. Along with taking food and water if you plan to stay out a while, check to make sure that your vessel is water-worthy and any drain plugs are securely in place. Take and wear a good hat and sunscreen, carry an extra paddle or at least a half-paddle, and, most importantly, wear a certified Personal Flotation Device (PFD). I have personal experience to lend to the importance of a good PFD! PFD is the modern name for a life jacket and the “life” part is essential.
Taking a look at Whatcom County, I’ll offer a few of my favorite places for all seasons. It’s logical enough to start at the Canadian border and work our way southward. While there are smaller, lesser known places to paddle in the county, these are the easiest to get to and all are paddler-friendly locations to file away for later. If you paddle enough, keep in mind that it’s quite addictive. You become the engine that propels you to places that most people can’t or won’t get to.
When it comes to favorites, the sandy beach between the last remaining warehouses of the Alaska Packers Association at Semiahmoo has been my personal choice for many years. This beach is at Tongue Point, the actual tip of the spit, and launching here provides access to Blaine harbor across the channel and all of Drayton Harbor. On calm days, it’s enjoyable to paddle along the bay side of the spit. When winter birds like loons, grebes, scoters, and other sea ducks settle in, it’s very peaceful to drift among the flocks, as much as they will allow. The most important thing to remember here is to pay attention to the tides and wind. This holds true for any and all saltwater locations.
To explore parts of Bellingham Bay, the public boat launching facility at Squalicum Harbor is more than adequate, but I prefer the Community Boating Center (CBC) site in Fairhaven. The often heavy and larger traffic in and out of Squalicum takes away from enjoyment. On the other hand, the CBC is on a much smaller scale and you never feel threatened in any way. If the tide is right, you can paddle into the Padden Lagoon for a real treat. From here, it’s quite enjoyable to paddle to Boulevard Park and stop in for a cup at Woods Coffee.
Launching any type of watercraft at Lake Whatcom requires that you go through the checkpoint to register as the lake is very susceptible to invasive species that attach to the hulls and motors of vessels. It’s a simple enough process and one that monitors the overall health of the drinking water supply for Bellingham and some parts of the county. Pilings from the old Bloedel-Donovan mill are still in place and provide perfect perches for cormorants and California gulls. A small backwater to the right of the boat launch is a perfect place to escape the noise of the busy park.
Two other lakes are worth mentioning in this inland part of your journey. Lake Padden Park is a city park and provides a nearby opportunity to have an after-work paddle, especially on days when it’s just too warm to do any chores around the house. It’s a little farther out, but the same can be said for the county park at Lake Samish. It’s considerably smaller than Lake Padden, but the quiet corner that affords swimming and launching of small craft is a pleasant alternative to the main boat launch on the east side of the lake.
On the south end of our paddling path is Larrabee State Park and Wildcat Cove. The big attraction to launching at Wildcat Cove, aside from the birding potential, is the natural artwork of Chuckanut sandstone along the shoreline north and south of the cove. Black oystercatchers, pigeon guillemots, surfbirds, loons, and cormorants are common sights depending on the season. Keep an eye out for river otters as well.
And once again, as you take to the water, remember that your safety is always the primary consideration, especially in the colder waters of the Pacific Northwest. Like a good scout, be prepared, and enjoy the paddling.
The very sound of September speaks to me of the wonderful shorebirds that come in to spend time at local hot spots. Some species stay for the colder months while others that arrive at the same time are just stopping by to rest and refuel on their way south to their respective wintering grounds. Accessibility and best viewing locations are essential requirements for a good day in the field. The tide flats and cobble beaches of Blaine and Semiahmoo head the list for a wonderful day in search of shorebirds. Having been in the area for over 45 years and reaching a certain age, I feel that I can speak as an elder of the birding tribe.
My standard route for a day at these two places begins with a drive up I-5 to the last Blaine exit, #276. As soon as you leave the hurried pace of the freeway, the sights and sounds help to focus on the day ahead. The flats just offshore from Marine Park and at the boat launch area can be teeming with thousands of shorebirds like dunlin, western and least sandpipers, and black-bellied plovers, September is also the best time for larger shorebirds like whimbrels and godwits.
After spending time in Blaine, an easy drive along the shoreline of Drayton Harbor will take you to Semiahmoo. At the mouth of California Creek, you might find good numbers of greater and lesser yellowlegs, and two species of dowitchers. Pullouts on Drayton Harbor Road are few and far between, so be careful and choose wisely … the birds will be there.
Both sides of the Semiahmoo Spit have potential for a variety of shorebirds. On the Drayton Harbor side of the spit, you’re more likely to find dunlin, western sandpipers, and black turnstones with the ubiquitous killdeer mingling with the flocks. The outside or bay side of the spit is where the most anticipated birds seem to spend their time. Looking over past records, as many as 800 black-bellied plovers have been joined occasionally by three species of godwits, red knots, and willets … the latter group being less common than the plovers.
As you might expect, it’s an exciting time for me and anyone else who has been waiting for cooler days and nights and a new wave of birds to entertain us. Perhaps I’ll see you in September. If I’m not combing the beaches, I’ll be in my kayak so you should feel free to wave.
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. He has written over 200 columns for Whatcom Watch.