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Friday, March 11, 2011

Part 1: Dungeness National Wildlife Refuge

Today we had a full day to bird-watch around Sequim, and I intended to take full advantage of it. The morning started out a little tenuous, however, as in the aftermath of the huge earthquake off the coast of Japan we learned that a tsunami advisory had been put in place for much of the west coast, including Washington. When your plan is to walk out one of the longest natural sand spits in the world, this is not good news. 

After a little research, we learned that the advisory was pretty minor for the Strait of Juan de Fuca, so we decided to go ahead with our plans. Our first stop was Dungeness Recreation Area, which is adjacent to Dungeness National Wildlife Refuge. On the way there I spotted my first bird of the day: a hooded merganser. A good start! Within the Recreation Area are viewpoints atop a bluff, where we encountered quite a few tsunami watchers hoping to see what was projected to be a one-foot tsunami.

While the locals were convinced the waves were a little bit bigger than normal, they really weren't all that impressive and I was far more interested in the bird life. Out in the strait I could see some surf scoters, horned grebes, and red-breasted mergansers, as well as a single red-necked grebe. On the bluffs just below the lookout were a flock of gulls. Most of them were glaucous-winged, but there were a few western gulls as well.

Looking the other direction from the water, back towards Sequim, was a pretty sight as well. I just loved all the colors:

We continued on to Dungeness National Wildlife Refuge, the highlight of the day. The refuge, made up primarily of a long sand spit and its adjacent tidelands, also includes a bit of forest and that is where the trail began. In the half-mile stretch of woods we found our first chestnut-backed chickadees of the day, as well as a singing Pacific wren. There were several bird feeders near a maintenance building that also attracted a flock of juncos, a few golden-crowned sparrows, and a surprising nine spotted towhees (I don't think I've ever seen so many in one place). A couple of native Douglas squirrels and a chipmunk were taking advantage of the seeds, but this fox sparrow was taking advantage of this small puddle in order to have a bath:

Dungeness Spit itself is an impressive sight. It juts four and a half miles out into the Strait of Juan de Fuca, with a lighthouse perched on the very end of it. Graveyard Spit, long in its own right, breaks off from the main spit and is entirely protected from public access to provide undisturbed habitat for birds, including the thousands of brant that over-winter here.

 One side of Dungeness Spit is open for walking (the other side is also protected for shorebirds), but there is no established trail. You have to make your way over the gravelly beach, which is strenuous walking. They tell you to allow 4-6 hours to make the whole trek to the lighthouse and back, and with other sites we wanted to see we decided to just walk partway out.

One of the first birds I saw out there was a loon. Upon getting a closer look, I realized it wasn't a common or Pacific loon, but rather a red-throated loon (129) - my first of the year! We ended up seeing about eight of them out there. Note the speckled back and thin, upturned bill that help characterize this species:

After getting a ways out on the spit, I decided to peak over to the restricted side to see what birds were in the tidal lagoon. They were way far away over by Graveyard Spit (near the eelgrass beds that they feed on), but I was able to make out that the nearest birds were indeed brant (130). If all the specks in the distance were also brant, there were easily hundreds and hundreds of them.

At about a mile and a half out we decided to turn back, but I stopped to take one more scan up the beach to see what was ahead. I saw a large flock of shorebirds land another half mile or so up the beach and was just about to insist on pressing on a little further when a small flock of shorebirds landed right in front of me. They turned out to be about a half-dozen sanderling (131) and about ten dunlin (132). This glaucous-winged gull didn't seem to mind at all that these birds were foraging all around him:

Satisfied at picking up four year birds on the spit, I was ready to turn back and go explore other areas, but not before snapping a photo of the lighthouse at the end of the spit. This was as close as we got today, but one day I'd like to come back and do the full hike.

With fewer stops for photos and looks through the binos, the hike back was a bit faster, and soon we were leaving the refuge and driving back through the recreation area. While driving through the marshlands, a male northern harrier was keeping pace with my car and then landed near the road. I pulled over and was able to snap this photo of him:

We had spent between 3 and 4 hours at Dungeness but had a lot more exploring left to do. Next up, I'll report on what all we found in the afternoon....


Phil said...

You need to change your blog name to Bird-Watcher. These writeups are great!

Kinipella said...

Beautiful pictures :) Sounds like a great day for birding.

Also, I wanted to ask, has Ruffles the orca been found yet? I heard on the news that he was "missing"?

Warren Baker said...

Blimey, quite a trip Monika, you found some good birds by the sound of it ( not that I know about your birds!) I like the Sparrow in the puddle :-)

Monika said...

Phil - Haha, maybe I should! Thanks for the compliment :)

Kinipella - Unfortunately still no word on Ruffles. When all of J-Pod was seen on the west side of San Juan Island on March 6th, Ruffles was conspicuously absent. I don't think they will call him gone for good until all three pods are seen this spring in case he is off cavorting with somebody else, but it doesn't look good.

Warren - Yes, it was a great trip! And that was only half of it...

Anonymous said...

We kayaked out to the lighthouse with Don Rice from Dungeness Kayaking. This gives you a chance to see the birds on the protected side of the spit.