The email came in as Jeremy Gatten and I were standing in line at the finest Burger King in Whalley - "...weather looks good....... trip is a go..... look forward to seeing you Saturday!"
Spirits were high from that point on as we picked Nathan Hentze up from the skytrain station and headed south, Tacoma-bound. We were on our way to Westport for a scheduled January trip, an occurence even rarer than the birds we were chasing! The last Westport January trip to make it out onto the water was in 2001, as most get cancelled due to weather, but the list of possibles is enough to make any birder pull up stakes and head down. We had visions of Laysan Albatross, Mottled Petrel, and Parakeet Auklet dancing through our heads as we pulled into the South Tacoma Motel 6 (international motel chain of choice, say 8 out of 10 birders!) at 11:00pm. A few beers and a lot of stories later, the clock said 2:00am, and it was time to get some shut eye in advance of our early departure for Ocean Shores, where we planned to spend a day birding before driving around the harbor to Westport.
Any early morning fuelling session at another American cultural icon, IHOP, and we were ready to roll! The fog and cold still couldn't dampen our enthusiasm, until my phone rang somewhere outside of Olympia, and my heart sank when I saw the 360 area code..... that could only mean one thing. Sure enough, it was Chris Anderson from Westport Seabirds, calling to let me know that the weather had changed for the worse, and the trip was off. This made the third Westport trip in a row that I have been scheduled on and had cancelled, including two last year! A quick consultation and we decided that we might as well keep going, as we were just over an hour from Ocean Shores anyway, and there were still birds to be found!
Stop one, Ocean Shores Golf Course! An Emperor Goose has been hanging around the golf course for some time now, and as this would be a lifer for both Jeremy G and myself, it was a high priority. We came upon a group of geese pretty quickly, but they all turned out to be Canada Geese, along with a few American Wigeons, so we continued driving, following roads that we assumed took us through the golf course. On another side road right by the driving range, a small flock of geese were lounging and grazing. A quick look from the car revealed a small, grey-backed goose! Not only did this little flock contain our sought after Emperor Goose, it also contained two "Dusky" Canada Geese, two Greater White-fronted Geese, and a Cackling Goose! We spent a fair amount of time admiring these birds, as Yellow-rumped Warblers flew overhead, and we even ended up chatting with some of the local golfers, who asked if we had seen the Emperor. It was nice to see golfers tolerating us on their turf, and even showing an interest in their visiting celebrity!
Damon Point was our next stop, where Snowy Owls have been present, as well as a female King Eider that has been around for over a year. We eventually located the King Eider with a mixed bag of scoters, quite close to shore. As we admired it, we also kept a scope trained on the point, and watched with dismay at the zoo that was taking place as people tried to get their very own point-and-shoot reminder of the invasion year, getting much too close to the Snowies.... We never did get a look at the owls, but saw areas where they were likely hunkered down by using cameras as an indicator. Again, we had great conversations with many local birders who shared our dismay at the scene, and we decided against adding to it. It was nice to see the Parks Service patrolling the area, presumably to keep the herd under control.
Brown`s Point was our final stop before heading north again, and in the parking lot we ran into two women who had been conducting dead bird surveys. They asked if we were birders, and immediately answered themselves in the positive, as one of the women recognized me..... I guess my blog must have more readers than I had thought!
The jetty quickly turned up several Rock Sandpipers, in company with Surfbirds and Black Turnstones. This was also the point in our trip where our experience turned sombre. On the beach were two Western Grebes which had been washed in and were unable to fly or return to the water. Incoming waves would push them further up the beach, and it was almost heart-breaking to see the healthier of the two looking around, calling, as if to plead for help. We also found 4 dead Rhinoceros Auklets and two more Western Grebes (deceased). In the surf, and much out of place, was a Ruddy Duck that couldn`t stay clear of the waves and disappeared into the water, never to be seen again. The happier ending came in the form of two Parks Service employees making the rounds. When Jeremy and Nathan explained the situation to them, they immediately made a call, and two others came out shortly to collect the exhausted grebes. On our way out of town we saw them dropping the grebes off to be cared for.
At 2:30 it was time to head north, with the perfect plan of catching the 9:00pm boat from Tsawwassen to Swartz Bay. It was not to be, as the virtual gridlock from Olympia to Marysville cost us dearly in time. Despite desperately needing coffee and a stretch, we kept on the road, scared that if we took an exit, we wouldn't get back on the I-5! Finally we made the border where we had to explain our trip, much to the amusement and disbelief of the CBP officer. Apparently birders don't cross the border too often!
As luck would have it, Jeremy G and I managed to roll onto the ferry bound for Nanaimo at 9:45, going straight from ticket to topside, and we settled in for a long boat ride and longer drive. Our last bird of the trip showed itself outside of Duncan, where a sideroad detour led to a Barn Owl flushing from a roadside fencepost!
After dropping Jeremy off at just before 3:00am (where he found himself locked out), I took the backroads home, hoping to run into a Great Horned Owl on a wire (catchy movie title maybe?), but it was not to be. Twenty-one hours of travel on five hours of sleep found me home.
What was to be a winter pelagic turned into what I can only call the "longest twitch", but it was a great trip with great company and great birds, and I wouldn't be entirely comfortable asking for more!