In August 2013 I spent 3 weeks travelling through the Pacific North-west US states of Washington, Oregon and California. No excuses for the delay in getting round to finally writing up a trip summary, but a chat with Mike and Henerz recently convinced me that I should do something before I forget the details. Our trip itinerary consisted of visiting Seattle, Olympic National Park, Mount Saint Helens, the Columbia River gorge, the Oregon coast, Crater Lake National Park, northern California and San Francisco.
We flew from Manchester to Seattle with Icelandair as we fancied a stop-over in Reykjavik on the way home. Once in Seattle we picked up a hire car for the long journey south to San Francisco, where we then left the car and flew back to Seattle with Virgin America for the return flight home. Considering we drove 2,000 miles the total cost of fuel was staggeringly cheap at £150.
Days 1 – 3: Seattle
We spent the first few days in Seattle taking in the sights. However, despite being confined to a city decent birds were on offer including regular fare like Black-capped Chickadees, White-crowned Sparrows, American Robins, Violet-green Swallows, Pigeon Guillemots and very approachable Glaucous-winged Gulls. When I last visited Seattle in 2000 the vast majority of gulls were Westerns so it was interesting to see that this time they had been largely replaced by Glaucous-wingeds (and their many hybrids!)
On our final day in Seattle we took the bus to Discovery Park, which Henerz had tipped me off about following his visit. While labelled as a ‘park’ this is actually vast area on the outskirts of the north-west suburbs offering a diverse range of birds in a fantastic mosaic of habitats. The wooded trails from the visitor centre were fairly quiet (unsurprising in August) but still produced Pacific and Bewick’s Wrens, Black-throated Gray Warblers mixed it with chickadees in the canopy and Spotted Towhees and Song Sparrows fed on the ground. Walking closer towards the coast the vegetation opened up a bit and produced Pine Siskin, Cedar Waxwings and a Warbling Vireo. Where the park backs on to the coastline overlooking the Olympic peninsula I had Rhinoceros Auklet, Great Blue Heron, Northwestern Crows (very similar to American Crow but with a more nasal call) and a close fly-by Osprey while migrating Northern Rough-winged and Barn Swallows surfed the airwaves. As we walked back through conifer woods bordering gardens later on even more new birds were forthcoming including a brief Evening Grosbeak, Orange-crowned Warbler and a circling Sharp-shinned Hawk.
Day 4: Seattle – Port Townsend
Today we picked up our hire car from Seattle airport and started the road trip proper. Rather than heading straight south we wanted to take a detour around the Olympic peninsula (the USA’s most north-westerly point away from Alaska and home to the Olympic National Park) so we headed around Puget Sound and up to Port Townsend. Pigeon Guillemots and Rhinoceros Auklets showed well here, but the highlight was the assorted gulls (Heermann’s, Western, Glaucous-winged and California) at close quarters along with a small foraging flock of Least and Western Sandpipers.
Day 5: Port Townsend to Forks
We covered the northern coast of the Olympic peninsula today, including a detour up Hurricane Ridge which was disappointingly quiet for the hoped-for montane birds but gave spectacular views over the Olympic mountain range. First stop was at the excellently-named John Wayne marina in Sequim Bay. This site provided a good opportunity to grill some close-in Mew Gulls while a small party of nearby Canada Geese appeared to include both Occidentalis and Fulva. Somewhat more enticing though were two Harlequins just offshore while further out in the sheltered Sequim Bay were groups of Rhinoceros Auklets. Another scan from a bit further north from the end of Port Williams Road produced plenty more Pigeon Guillemots, Common Guillemots (californica) and Rhinoceros Auklets along with a smart Red-necked Grebe floating on glass-calm water.
Moving round to Dungeness County Park, a sandy/shingle spit of land protruding north, I finally connected with my first Marbled Murrelets – these looked oddly out of place with their plump bodies and small heads as they swam on the calm sea still in their cryptic mottled summer plumage that they use to hide on the boughs of ancient trees when nesting in the old-growth forests. Horned (Slav) Grebes and Great Northern Divers were also on show along with hordes of Surf Scoters. Yet more Cedar Waxwings were on offer here too and I was starting to get used to their high-pitched trills.
Continuing on Highway 101 towards Forks for the evening (a tiny town of 3,500 made famous as the setting for the Twilight films, as my Mrs informed me anyway!) we called in for a break at Lake Crescent. Good birds here included a Yellow-rumped Warbler (of the western Audubon’s subspecies), Red Crossbills overhead and plenty of Pacific Wrens (recently split from the eastern Winter Wren and much darker).
Day 6: La Push to Centralia
The day got off to a great start with a visit to La Push, home to the Quileute tribe, on the Pacific coast just west of Forks. The spectacular scenery was complemented with Bald Eagles soaring overhead and two perched together in a dead tree scanning the river, which held a small group of moulting Harlequins. Out on the ocean were yet more Surf Scoters, Rhinoceros Auklets and Pigeon Guillemots, but the highlight was the Tufted Puffins still resplendent in their summer plumage; what a buzz to connect with these in the scope!
As we headed south along the coast other stops gave views of White-winged Scoters, Pelagic Cormorants, Black Oystercatchers and Red-throated Divers. The Hoh River Rainforest National Park (the largest remaining temperate rainforest in the world, and home to nesting Marbled Murrelets) was fairly quiet birdwise but Golden-crowned Kinglets and a pair of Wood Duck were new for the trip.
Tufted Puffins (prints available!)
Day 7: Mount Saint Helens to Cascade Locks
After a night’s stay at a handy Motel 6 we headed over to Mount Saint Helens (long revered since studying it in my school Geography class) which erupted in May 1980. The devastating effects can still be seen now in the lahar-scarred banks of the Toutle River, with new growth juxtaposed against the older forest, and the scorched trunks of long-dead trees in the blast zone itself. In the moonscape of the blast zone a Yellow Warbler feeding young added a splash of colour and a Dusky Flycatcher tested my empidonax ID skills, as did a Western Wood-pewee near Coldwater Lake. Raptors along the road back included Red-shouldered and Red-tailed Hawks.
A break at Beacon Rock Wildlife Refuge on the banks of the Columbia River, which splits Washington and Oregon, gave great views of Vaux’s Swift, Violet-green Swallow and Tree Swallow hawking low overhead in the evening sun allowing good comparison, while a Western Wood-pewee and a group of Western Scrub Jays were in the nearby conifers.
Mount Saint Helens
Day 8: up the Columbia River to Bickleton then back to the coast at Lincoln City
Following the old Oregon Trail east up the mighty Columbia River gorge we set off for Bluebird-friendly Bickleton. En route the drier habitat revealed the first Turkey Vultures of the trip and the drive along the deserted Bickleton Highway was excellent for birding. What appeared to be a fly-catching woodpecker alongside the road had me hitting the anchors and a short wait was rewarded by a resplendent Lewis’s Woodpecker at the top of a dead pine making short sallies every now and then for flying insects. Several were seen doing this along the highway, using the dead trees as perches. An American Kestrel and Olive-sided Flycatcher were also nearby while a Sage Thrasher looked very thrush-like perched on a roadside post.
In Bickleton itself (a tiny village of less than 100 in the middle of nowhere) we drove slowly along the ‘Bluebird route’ (a circuit passing many of the Bluebird boxes that the locals have kindly provided). We were too late for the Westerns, which had already finished nesting and left the area, but a few family parties of Mountain Bluebirds were still hanging about - the adults surprisingly well camouflaged against the cobalt blue sky. Other good birds of this dry, open habitat included Vesper and Savannah Sparrows, Western Meadowlarks and a surprise Say’s Phoebe that hovered alongside the car as it searched for prey.
Vesper Sparrow doing its best Corn Bunting impression
Days 9 to 11: Oregon Coast
We hit the Pacific Coast again at Lincoln City, Oregon. With fog banks rolling in off the ocean we opted to try and escape them by heading inland for a walk amongst the Douglas fir forests at Drift Creek falls. The dense forests were fairly hard work birding-wise but along the trails I encountered a few feeding flocks. The most numerous warbler was Wilson’s, and easily picked up as it fed at eye level in the understorey. Higher up more Wilson’s and Black-throated Gray Warblers flitted under the canopy and I also had frustrating views of either a Townsend’s or Hermit Warbler (or possibly a hybrid) that I just couldn’t quite nail down.
Back up the trail a series of loud clucking noises announced the presence of a massive Pileated Woodpecker, which swooped down past me and was quickly joined by a young bird, both comically hanging from a salmonberry bush as they gleaned the fruits. Driving back down the damp, misty track I encountered the star bird of the trip - after much previous searching and several false alarms with American Robins I rounded the corner and there in the damp verge was a fantastic Varied Thrush! Using the car as a hide I was able to get quite close as it fed under the dripping boughs with its curious hopping, bouncing gait – what a bird and the only one of the trip despite spending plenty of time in apparently good habitat.
First encounter with a Varied Thrush
Further south along Highway 101 in Depoe Bay we heard that a few Gray Whales were hanging about offshore (they normally migrate along the US west coast from Mexico to Alaska but a few individuals opt to hang around at various points) so we booked ourselves on a boat trip for the following day.
The mist was still rolling in the next morning but thankfully the captain was happy it would lift by lunchtime. As we waited in the harbour a Belted Kingfisher flew low overhead calling and Black Turnstones and Surfbirds fed on the seaweed-covered rocks. Heading out into the ocean Brandt’s Cormorants, Red-necked Phalaropes and the californica race of Common Guillemot showed well. It wasn’t long before we were enjoying a magnificent Gray Whale, feeding surprisingly close inshore between us and the cliffs landward – one of the trip highlights.
After another night in Depoe Bay we continued ever south along Highway 101 soaking in the incredible views of the Pacific coastline. Regular scans offshore yielded Black Scoter, Pacific Loons, Western Grebes and a few more Marbled Murrelets for good measure. The first Brown Pelicans also started to appear, flying alongside the highway in squadron formation. A mammal highlight came in the form of two Steller Sealions just offshore.
Surfbirds and Black Turnstones
Days 12 and 13: inland to Crater Lake National Park
After a few days enjoying Oregon’s Pacific coastline we fancied a change of scenery and had heard lots of good things about Crater Lake National Park so we drove east along the Umpqua River highway. A viewing layby on the southern side allowed great views of Roosevelt Elk (one of the four remaining North American subspecies) sparring with each other on the meadows while flocks of Red-winged Blackbirds fed around their feet and Violet-green Swallows lined the overhead wires. Another stop, this time to check out Rochester’s covered bridge, yielded a small party of Lesser Goldfinch on the roadside.
After an overnight in a cabin at Diamond Lake (a bit like the resort from Dirty Dancing) we were up early to make the most of Crater Lake, the deepest lake in the USA. The crater was formed when Mount Mazama blew its top spectacularly 7,700 years ago and it’s now possible to drive the full 33km circumference. The scenery here is quite literally breath-taking and I would highly recommend taking the detour off the beaten track if you’re ever passing.
Crater Lake National Park
Days 14 - 15: northern Californian coast
We hit the Pacific coast again at Crescent City, northern California, passing through the Jedediah Smith Redwood State Park en route. We travelled south along Highway 101 enjoying Giant Redwoods towering above us to the left and the Pacific Ocean breakers to our right. Highlights seen at various roadside stops between Crescent City, Eureka and Garberville included another MacGillivray’s Warbler, a family party of Wrentits, Willow Flycatcher, Hutton’s Vireo, lone Hooded Merganser and Pied-billed Grebes and a fine flock of roosting Elegant Terns.
South of Garberville we forked west onto Highway 1, which hugs the Pacific coast south to Point Reyes. A brief seawatch added Sooty Shearwaters to the trip list and we passed a family party of Wild Turkeys feeding by the roadside. Bodega Bay proved to be fantastic for shorebirds offering great views of Semipalmated Plovers, Western and Least Sandpipers, Western Willets, Marbled Godwits, Short-billed Dowitchers and Sanderling as well as a group of roosting American White Pelicans. That evening a scan from the decking outside our room at Motel Inverness with a glass of wine handy yielded a Northern Harrier quartering the saltmarsh of Tomales Bay and several Hudsonian Whimbrel.
Elegant Terns and Western Gulls
Feeling small amongst the Giant Redwoods
Day 16: Point Reyes
With a full day to explore Point Reyes before driving to San Francisco (only an hour away) we were up early to make the most of it. Along the road to Abbott’s Lagoon an American Kestrel gave good views perched on a post. While stopped to scan a flock of blackbirds for Tricolored I picked out a pair of Cinnamon Teal on a farm pond, alongside the more familiar Gadwall, Shoveler and Pintail. A walk out to the beach from Abbott’s Lagoon failed to produce the hoped-for Snowy Plovers, probably due to a Peregrine that was sitting proud on a piece of driftwood. However, the lagoons en route held a Red-necked Phalarope and several gull species while Anna’s Hummingbirds buzzed among the vegetation. From the beach itself there seemed to be a small southward passage of Red-necked Phalaropes, with several small flocks passing close inshore.
Later on in the afternoon I finally connected with some Tricolored Blackbirds feeding near a ranch among their commoner Red-winged cousins, but the highlight was a surprise encounter with a Bobcat which loped its long legs across the track in front of us alarming the nearby California Quails. Further along the track a Western Bluebird was perched on telephone wires - great to connect with this species at last after missing it earlier at Bickleton.
Mammal highlights included Tule Elks at the northern end of the reserve and a group of Northern Elephant Seals resting on the beach near Chimney Rock, while Surf Scoters and Pacific Loons adorned the sheltered waters of the bay.
Migrating Red-necked Phalaropes
Bobcat action shot!
Days 17 – 19: San Francisco
Some last-minute birding around Motel Inverness in the morning produced a Cassin’s Vireo amongst a small feeding party of Wilson’s Warblers and Chestnut-backed Chickadees. Before arriving in San Francisco there was still time for some more birding so I checked out Bolinas Lagoon, a massive tidal lagoon less than an hour from SF. A Clark’s Grebe was present and Long-billed Curlews, Hudsonian Whimbrels and Marbled Godwits fed on the exposed mud.
Even in San Francisco I managed to eke out a few more good birds including Black Phoebe, Western Tanager and California Towhee in a small park, alongside the more common Anna’s Hummingbirds and Dark-eyed (Oregon) Juncos.
Dark-eyed (Oregon) Junco
The couple of days we had in Reykjavik were fairly quiet birdwise but it was good to see plenty of Glaucous Gulls and a few Icelands hanging about, among a surprising number of Lesser Black-backed Gulls. There were also a few summering Whooper Swans and Pink-footed Geese in the local area. Two young Razorbills from a whale-watching boat got my hopes up for a few seconds too. Wouldn't mind going back to Iceland for a bit longer and with a car!