by Joe Meche
When the calendar flips from March into April, it’s our cue to start watching all of our local shorelines and even a few agricultural fields for migrating shorebirds! The sheer numbers of these unique birds that migrate north in the spring are often incomprehensible. Many birders will point to shorebird migration time as a personal highlight. Their movements are so dependable that there are festivals up and down both coasts celebrating their return, even though they’re just passing through on the way to their northern breeding grounds.
Similar to the migratory passerine species, northbound shorebirds will have transformed from their mostly drab winter plumage into the bright colors of spring. Like all birds, they are driven by the instinct to reproduce, and these colors play a big part in attracting mates. A perfect example of the contrast in seasonal plumage is easy to observe with the black-bellied plovers. The birds that spend time on the Semiahmoo beaches in spring are sporting their namesake black bellies, while most of the same birds on their return in fall have shed their finery and molted into winter gray.
In all of Whatcom County, the cobble beaches on both sides of the Semiahmoo Spit and the tidal flats at Blaine’s Marine Park hold the best potential for those in pursuit of shorebirds. With these unique birds, the tide is a key factor in their feeding behavior. On an incoming tide you can watch as the shorebirds follow the waterline as it moves in to the high tide mark. As the water floods the beaches, it softens the sand or mud to the perfect consistency for the birds to probe with their unique bills. This phenomenon repeats itself in reverse as the tide begins to ebb. When high tide has covered all the feeding opportunities, look for shorebirds resting on backshores and breakwaters.
If you’re up for a bit of traveling and a good shorebird field trip, consider the Washington coast from the beaches north of Ocean Shores to Tokeland on the northern reaches of Willapa Bay. The beauty of the outer coast lies in the topography that is as varied as the birds you find along the way. Long stretches of sandy beaches are punctuated by numerous estuaries and inlets with bottoms that are magnetic to mud-probing birds. I’ve attempted to make this coastal pilgrimage an annual tradition, primarily in the spring.
My own best case scenario involves an early departure to get through the Everett-Seattle-Tacoma nightmare potential of Interstate 5. It’s always amazing to me that the freeway is already crowded in the early morning. Nevertheless, I convince myself that it was a good idea. Getting off the main highway south of Olympia always elicits a sigh of relief as I travel the back roads and focus on the coast and what I might see when I get there. With the idea of starting on the south end and working my way north, I set my sights on Tokeland.
The small community of Tokeland has become almost legendary in bird-watching circles, and rightfully so. It’s an end-of-the-road destination that is one of the most peaceful places I’ve ever visited. Good numbers of large and small shorebirds at the Tokeland marina are legendary. Godwits and willets are joined by dowitchers and whimbrels, as well as the usual contingent of brown pelicans … if you need a break from shorebirds. I’ve spent entire days there, from sunrise to sunset, and always hated to leave. Such is the warmth and peace we often seek in today’s world.
Twin Harbors State Park has been my choice for a base that’s well within reach of both Tokeland and Westport. The marina at Westport has long been a personal favorite since I first discovered it when taking seabird trips with Terry Wahl. Those trips were real eye openers to the rich avian life beyond the continental shelf, 40 and 60 miles off the coast. The inner harbor offers safe haven for birds ranging in size from pelicans and cormorants to least sandpipers. More than 300 marbled godwits entertained me at low tide last year.
After leaving Westport, Bottle Beach is must stop on your way north. As always, check the tides since low tide will have the birds so far out that only the best spotting scopes or telephoto lenses will bring them into viewing range. Although, there’s a lot to be said when the mass of shorebirds lifts as one when a peregrine falcon zooms in for a meal. This is all a part of the thrill of shorebirding.
After negotiating the snarl of traffic in Aberdeen and Hoquiam, the peace and quiet of Bowerman Basin is the perfect antidote. This 1,500-acre salt marsh has long been a major hotspot for shorebirds in the Grays Harbor National Wildlife Refuge. You can drive to the end of the road past the airport and take the Sandpiper Trace Boardwalk. The wheelchair-accessible trail takes you into the marsh for prime viewing of the expanse of the basin. Since peregrine falcons are in the area, murmurations of shorebirds will add to the excitement with their undulating, twisting and turning flights to confuse the hungry raptors.
On the north side of Grays Harbor, the tempo increases as you encounter long stretches of drivable beaches at Ocean Shores. The rock jetty at Point Brown is a wonderful place to feel the dynamic energy of the Pacific Ocean and view numerous shorebirds as they forage for treats. Adjacent to the point is the Oyhut Wildlife Recreation Area and Damon Point with a wonderful hiking trail that provides a bit of quiet after the roar of the ocean.
Ocean City State Park serves as a perfect base for exploring the expansive beaches to the north and south. The town of Ocean Shores provides the perfect opportunity to replenish your supplies for the rest of your journey. From past experience and if conditions are right, these beaches offer prime opportunities to see the almost legendary green flash. I was quite lucky one year when I actually photographed it as it happened. If you wish to learn more about this amazing natural phenomenon, do a quick Google search.
After you’ve seen all the shorebirds you might ever need to see, it’s time to wend your way northward … just like the birds … and head home via the Washington State Ferry at Port Townsend. After you’ve checked the beaches at Point Wilson and Point Hudson, the fun continues across the Admiralty Inlet at Keystone and Crockett Lake. After long days of birding on the coast, you’ve reached a point in your journey at Keystone where you’re just an hour and a half from home. Even though you’re saturated with shorebirds and numerous other species, it’s time for a relaxing drive home to download a few thousand photos and reflect on the glory of it all.
Maybe I’ll see you there in early May … surrounded by shorebirds!
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.