Our Birds: What is an OPAS field trip?

An eight-spot skimmer.  - Photo by Jackie OneTree
An eight-spot skimmer.
— image credit: Photo by Jackie OneTree

The notice in Harlequin Happenings — Olympic Peninsula Audubon Society’s (OPAS) newsletter — might read: OPAS Field Trip, Neah Bay, Aug. 18. Meet at Washburn’s General Store, 9 a.m. Bring munchies, rain gear, sunscreen, warm clothing, binocs and scope. Trip guide will be Jackie OneTree.

On reading this, you might ask, “Why 9 a.m? Isn’t that sort of late in the morning for birding?” Well, yes it is, but the flip side is that Neah Bay is easily 2 1/2 hours from our local area. So, we meet at 9 a.m. at Washburn’s.

“Good to see you all! I’m Jackie. Before we go further, would you share with us who you are, where you’re from and – because I need to know so I know how best to assist you in this birding venture – you birding abilities: novice, good or walks-on-water!”

And 18 voices share their words.

Jackie continues, “Our day will start south at the fish hatchery, then back north to the Sea-Watch overlooking Makah Beach, then to Tsoo-Yess river’s estuary. From there we’ll beat the bushes along Wa’atch River, then into Neah Bay where we’ll scour the bay from east to west out to the jetty. Lastly, we’ll head to Cape Flattery ending our day searching for puffins.

“And please, if you would, carpool. You can’t get lost. Alright, we’re on!”

And we head south strung out in six vehicles. The fish hatchery is a unique place with a mile’s-long walk through mixed deciduous fir stands entwined over a maze of sloughs, holding-ponds and beaver dams.

As always on any outing, the first stop is a combination of anticipation, socialness and babbling. It’s the time for friends to catch up on gossip, strangers to introduce themselves, optics to be shared, bird IDs talked about and general babble as they walk.

Jackie OneTree’s purpose and place in all of this? ID birds both by sight and sound. Pointing out a bird only heard and talking about its call or song. Pointing out birds seen and noting ID characteristics.

She’s challenged with both newbies and experts in the group; and the need to ensure that she meets these people’s expectations. A challenge at best, especially if a novice is really needy or clingy in IDing birds. Or if an expert gets bored with her facilitating IDs. In reality, that rarely happens. When it does she adjusts, accommodates and assimilates their individual needs.

Birds seen and heard at the hatchery? A few: wood duck, Cooper’s hawk, ruffed grouse, spotted sandpiper, common nighthawk, belted kingfisher, red-eyed vireo (a five-star bird), cliff swallow, house wren, Nashville warbler (a four-star bird), Bullock’s oriole. But also brown elfin, white sulfur, orcas anglewing! green darner, eight-spotted skimmer, boreal bluet. Yes, butterflies and dragonflies are ID’d, too.

To the Sea-Watch, Tsoo-Yess, the Wa’atch River

The Sea-Watch always creates consternation as well as awe within a group. The site is several hundred feet above the south end of Makah Beach. Birding is with scopes, searching out across the waves to open ocean. The birds are, for the most part, just large dots on the water or flying dust-moots.

This is where the learning curve for all birders is tested.

“Set your scopes at low power. Scan the water and as you see birds – if you know them, share where you’re looking. If you don’t, tell us what you’re seeing. If a bird is flying, talk about whether it’s a gull, tern, alcid, duck or shearwater.”

And Jackie goes from person to person, scope to scope making sure ID’s are happening. She listens to what they share in ID characteristics. And then a look-through a scope to confirm an ID.

And she shares, “ … Surf scoters have white splotches on head. Alcids flying over water look like fat footballs with an uptilted head. Cormies fly with long necks out.” And so it goes.

At the mouth of the Tsoo-Yess the tide is halfway in. Sea rocks are exposed. Someone shouts, “Surfbirds!” And points to where a dozen yellow-legged wonders in worn breeding plumage are standing. Common mergansers loaf on the beach on the far side of the river. A lone juvy bald eagle stands in the surf just off shore. A batch of what looked like western sandpipers flies by.

The old gravel road south of the Wa’atch River is dust-laden in late August. But birding this stretch is worth it.

It’s sparrow heaven this time of year. Park and walk. The rewards? Savannah sparrow [x325+ birds], song sparrow, American pipit, lazuli bunting (four stars), clay-colored sparrow (five stars), vesper sparrow (three stars), chipping sparrow, Lincoln’s sparrow, swamp sparrow (four stars), Lapland longspur and others that just make you smile — or even do the dance!

On to Neah Bay, the Cape

Birding the bay in Neah Bay starts at the Coast Guard station, then the Warmhouse dike, Big Salmon boat launch, then Village Creek. Each pullout hoarding its own cadre of birds.

The far eastern end holds marbled murrelet, pigeon guillemot and rhinos. While Village Creek is THE gull hangout. Nemesis birds for novices, trials for others, and haunts of madness even for experts. Today? Bonaparte’s, glaucous-winged, Western, Mew, California, an early Thayer’s, a single juvy black-legged kittiwake.

“That’s a lot of gulls!” He looked up from his scope and asked, “How many, Jackie?” He was speaking of the California gulls lining the beach.

She answers, “Maybe 1,200!” A regular fall event.

Also out there were western grebe, great blue heron, greater scaup, white-winged scoter, and others.

The Boom road is unique. A canopy of old-growth alder and Sitka spruce engulf the road. At its entrance the sign reads: “Keep Out! No Trespassing! Private Property!” In other words, not a place to go. But the signs are ignored, as they are by everyone who knows this area. The road takes you to the jetty separating the bay from the strait.

“What’s that?” Jackie sets up her scope, asks directions to the bird in question, and “Brown pelican! They come north after breeding in California.”

Scope legs click shut, binocs are tucked in and the trip continues on to what many call the gem of the area: Cape Flattery.

The walk to the cape ends at a platform. And west of the platform is Tatoosh Island, the Strait of Juan de Fuca and open ocean. And it’s here that “TUFTED PUFFINS! There!” are found. Nine munchkin black footballs with Creamsicle orange bills and ancient shaman white eyebrow tufts sit on the water below the platform. Magical birds.

Offshore, seen through scopes, rafts of common murres are strung out; birds numbering in the thousands.

“Wow!” Jackie looked up from her scope and just smiled at the overheard remark. A wow-factor worthy of five stars.

Then the treat of the day comes by at eye-level: Peale’s peregrine falcon. Someone pointed up asking, “Are those swifts?” Black swifts, another five-star bird of Cape Flattery.

And then the day’s done. Or at least this facet of the OPAS field trip is. And the plunder? About 20 miles of driving, hours of babble, munchies eaten, scopes road dusted, sunshine for most of day, a splat of rain early afternoon, easy wind out of the south, no one lost, new friends made, optics shared, e-mail addresses exchanged, birds talked about, birds discussed, IDs still a mystery for some.

And the birds? 104 species. Not bad for an OPAS field trip to Neah Bay in late August. Not bad at all!


Reach Denny AFMJ Van Horn at


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