This past weekend we made our annual trip to Grays Harbor to see the migrating shorebirds. Each spring during migration hundreds of thousands of shorebirds stop to feed and rest at the Grays Harbor National Wildlife Refuge estuary in Hoquiam Washington. Each year the migrants start to show up around April 21st and their influx continues for a few weeks. Once they arrive there are optimal times in which you can view the shorebirds. This time period in which you would have the best viewing of them is between two hours before high tide and two hours after high tide. This time frame will allow you to see a high concentration of birds at a close distance without disturbing their activities. As the tide rolls in during incoming tide (high tide) you will see the birds scurry about moving closer to shore and fly around congregating into bigger groups as if the tide was herding them together. If you lucky enough you will see the shorebirds fly together in an amazing massive swirling elliptical ball which looks like one living organism. We have seen this in the past but not on this day as this is a defensive mechanism they used when predators come into the area.
We planned and arrived at the Grays Harbor National Wildlife Refuge within this time period on Saturday to start our birding weekend. Once you arrive and park you will need to take the Sandpiper Trail, which is a well-maintained board walk, that takes you out to the prime viewing area for shorebirds. There are several species of birds you will hear and see along your walk out, so don’t just speed walk to the end take your time and enjoy the signing birds, beautiful butterflies, and the wild flowers. We spent a few hours out on the boardwalk soaking up the glorious rays of sun and watching the shorebirds refuel. While they are all crowded together at high tide it may seem as if they are all eating the same things. However if you look closer at what happens when the tide starts to recede you will see certain patterns to their feeding habits. Sandpipers remain on drier, algae-covered mud, Red Knots and Dunlins concentrate on bare, wet mud. Farther out, the Short-billed Dowitchers stride while rapidly probing the mud beneath the shallow water, accompanied by Yellowlegs skimming prey from the water surface or swinging their bills back and forth to snare small fishes. Sanderlings dash nimbly back and forth at the very edge of the ebb and flow, on the sandy, wave-washed soils probing the sand for tiny shrimp-like crustaceans. On this day there was mostly Western Sandpipers, and Dunlins, but in the distance you could see Great Blue Herons fishing and Caspian Terns diving for fish.
Shorebirds Bottle Beach
After high tide we decided to go to Bottle Beach State Park to see what additional variety of shorebirds we could see there. To our delight the diversity at Bottle Beach was better than what we had witnessed at Grays Harbor NWR. Here we saw Black-bellied Plovers, Ruddy Turnstones, Westerns, Semipalmated Plovers, Godwits and Red Knots. Once the tide had receded to the point where the shorebirds looked likes dots on the horizon we decided that we had time for one more destination and made the journey to the Tokeland Marina in Tokeland Washington.
At the marina there was a few shorebirds scattered around, however the large volumes of Loons and Sea Ducks in the water stole our attention. We were able to capture several nice photographs of Loons, which were swimming by the fishing pier that we were standing on at the time. Although is was blue skies and sunny it was a bit more chilly at the marina, which we figured the case before we got out of the car, since we were watching the Sea Gulls doing that thing when they just float in one spot in the wind as we parked the car. Further out in the marina Red breasted Mergansers were swimming mixed in with the Loons. These sea ducks are one of my favorite ducks to photograph. But before we called it a day we also spotted a Western Grebe, which is an elegant black and white Grebe similar to a Clarks Grebe.
On the next day we decided to have our coffee and walk the beach behind the Quinault Beach Resort where we were staying before we left to come home. The beach behind the Casino is an excellent place to look for shorebirds, just get started early to avoid the vehicle traffic that occurs on the beach. If you are looking for Dowitchers this is a great place to look as this is our second year staying at this location and each time our early morning strolls have produced Dowitchers and other shorebirds. It was a splendid two days of birding during the festival and i would recommend making the trip if you are looking for shorebirds, or just love to bird watch. You can either put Grays Harbor shorebird festival on your calendar for next year or head out soon while the migration is still happening.