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Open Mic: Wader Quest hits the road to Washington

At the Mic: Rick Simpson

Rick Simpson of Newport Pagnell, UK, is a bird guide, illustrator, author of Confessions of a Bird Guide, and a Birdlife Species Champion. 

He previously wrote about Wader Quest at the ABA Blog in Thailand, the UAE, and Florida. 

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If we thought the wind in Florida was strong, we were in for a bit of a surprise when we got to Washington. As our plane approached the runway I nervously glanced over, looked out of the window and was dismayed to see the runway approaching us from the side! I take my hat off to the pilots of this world, at least I did that day, the landing, despite the aforementioned approach, was one of the smoothest I have ever encountered. Wader Quest’s host in Washington, Knut Hansen just happens to be an airline pilot too, and dismissed my story as being a normal everyday
occurrence at that particular airport. Either way, safe and sound we jumped into Knut Hansen‘s car hoping to add to our quest total of 68 and headed for Ocean Shores on the northern edge of Grays Harbour.

We drove down through torrential rain and strong winds, all the time hoping that this maelstrom would blow itself out, alas, our hopes were forlorn. We got out of Knut’s car and headed across the beach littered with logs and other flotsam and jetsam brought in by the strong winds. We headed across to the harbor protection jetty and started searching for ‘rockpipers’ as Knut called them, Black Turnstone, Surfbird and Rock Sandpiper.

The last of these was the most important of the three, seeing these birds later further south was not likely so we had to get them there, and the weather did not help matters much. We quickly came across a small group of these birds that kept popping up from between the boulders only
to quickly drop back down to shelter upon realizing their folly. We saw Black Turnstone and Surfbird, but we could not find a Rock Sandpiper among them. As we left, a beached Great Northern Diver, that’s a Common Loon to US birders, gave us excellent and privileged views, but that did not compensate for the lack of Rock Sands!

Black Turnstone
Black Turnstones, photo by Elis Simpson

We drove around the vast harbour heading south and stopped at a sewage treatment plant near Hoquiam where Elis spotted a couple of phalaropes, these turned out to be Red Phalaropes which pleased Knut far more than it did me! It turned out that these were a vanguard and we were to see many more of this species before the day was done with us.

Grey PhalaropeWe then headed around to Westhaven where we spent the rest of the daylight fruitlessly searching for the Rock Sandpipers both at the State Park, where we came across more Red Phalaropes sheltering on puddles in the car park, and at the rocky breakwater jetties near the marina. As night fell, weary and soaked to the skin, we sought shelter at a motel. The beer and warming food that evening in a bar nearby went some way to cheering us up, but the news that the weather the following day would be “the same; but worse” did not.

However, when we awoke in the morning it was to a cloudless sky and a much abated wind speed, optimistically we headed out in the dark and realizing this was a bit silly
stopped at a diner for a sumptuous breakfast to await the anticipated dawn. We then headed back to the jetties, this time enjoying our birding so much more.

We split up, Knut headed west, Elis east and I stumbled along somewhere in between the two. It wasn’t long before Elis was waving her arms frantically and I joined her at the viewing platform. I discovered she had found a flock of ‘rockpipers’. As I arrived they flew off, out across the harbor mouth! My heart was in my mouth as I watched them go, I could see that there were three species there, the Black Turnstones and Surfbirds again and yes, a smaller bird, this was surely our target. I watched and feared we’d have to relocate them back at Ocean Shores when suddenly they turned, changed their mind about leaving and
flew straight back to the jetty in front of us, the flock comprised 12 Surfbirds, 7 Black Turnstones and to our utter joy and intense relief, 4 Rock
Sandpipers! A shameless display of joy ensued with the waggled dance being performed by all three of us, Knut had joined us by then and his pleasure at our sighting was plain to see.

Rock Sandpiper
Rock Sandpiper, photo by Elis Simpson

We then had a pleasant and relaxed day’s birding, even adding another tick for Wader Quest in the form of Wilson’s Snipe at Bottle Beach State Park, before heading back to Seattle for our flight back to California the next day.

On the last evening of our stay Knut helped us get directions for a flock of Mountain Plovers that had been seen in Carrizo Plains north of Los Angeles. Armed with maps downloaded from ebird, a GPS, a map and a great deal of optimism we set forth and, as we pulled up at ‘x marks the spot’, I started to tell Elis that we should start scanning for these precious birds. As I was doing so, to my amazement and joy, I found one, then another, then another. We had come across the flock exactly where they were supposed to be, all 22 of them.

Mountain Plover (2)
Mountain Plover, photo by Elis Simpson

There was little else for us to do than return to Los Angeles, spend the night in Hollywood, do the touristy thing of looking at the famous sign (which provided good birding too incidentally) and then head south to San Diego, stopping en route at Bolsa Chica where we finally got our Long –billed Curlew.

San Diego awaited us and for our part, we couldn’t wait to see what it had to offer.

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