Tufted Puffins and Other Seabirds Along the Coast Near Port Townsend

“Do you know anything about the puffin cruises to Protection Island?” I asked my friend Kathy who is in the enviable position of having homes in both Seattle and Albuquerque. We were conducting the weekly bird census at the Rio Grande Nature Center State Park.

“I’ve been on the whale-watching cruise, but would really like to go on one of the puffin cruises as well. Let me look into it.”

“I would also like to do that,” chimed Pat, who lives in Vermont, but spends time in Albuquerque. “I plan to be in Vancouver, BC in early July and could drive down with my friend Allie.”

It was settled – and Kathy made the plans.

On July 9, I was in line at Edmonds, WA for the Kingston Ferry and texted Kathy. They were at the head of the line and would make the next ferry. I would be on the following one and would meet them at Point No Point.

When their ferry pulled out and the next group of cars filed onto the pier, I also was in the front of the line and had time to get out and see what birds might be off the ferry dock.

A white wing caught my attention nearby – a Pigeon Guillemot.

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Pigeon Guillemot

I had seen them on a very choppy boat trip out of Seward, AK, but since I am very motion sensitive, it was difficult for me to look at the birds through my binoculars on that trip as our boat rocked and swayed. It was so much fun to see it up-close-and-personal. It was a good omen.

After parking my car on the ferry, I wandered to the front of the ferry – more Pigeon Guillemots and gulls, and then went upstairs and stood outside on the bow as the ferry trudged across the sound.

I was excited to visit Point No Point. When I lived in the Seattle area, the weather person often reported on conditions from that outcropping on the northeast corner of the Kitsap Peninsula near Hansville.

The light station,

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historic lighthouse

we learned, is the site of the oldest lighthouse on Puget Sound, is currently managed by the Kitsap County Parks Department, and is a historical site. The Point No Point Treaty was signed on the spit in 1855 by Territorial Gov. Isaac Stevens and leaders of Chimacum, Skokomish and S’Klallam tribes, ending the Indian wars.

I expected to find my friends on the outcropping, but they were not around. There was a birder peering through his scope. “Have you seen a group of birders?” I inquired.

“They are down the trail and expecting you,” he responded.

I later learned that he was an expert on seabirds and helped them differentiate between murrelets and auklets.

Both Barn and Northern Rough-winged Swallows were darting over a creek and meadow. American Goldfinches landed nearby.

“Hear that?” Pat asked. There was a buzzing sound coming from a thicket. “It is an immature Brown-headed Cowbird and is being fed by a Song Sparrow.” As if on command, a Song Sparrow darted across the trail and into the thicket.

Further up the trail we admired a Bald Eagle surveying the nearby coastline.

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Bald Eagle

“There are a couple of shorebirds in the mud along the creek,” Allie indicated. “I think they are least.”

I looked through her scope and confirmed her ID. Early migrants returning from the Arctic.

As we returned to our cars and passed the light house, Mike stopped to chat with the volunteer.

“Did you notice that you can rent the lighthouse as a guest house?” Kathy stated. “It would be fun to stay out here during the winter.”

After lunch in Port Gambel, we drove across the Hood Canal floating bridge to Port Townsend and did birding at Point Hudson, not too far from the dock where we would be going on our evening cruise.

There was a small spit where we estimated that about 400 gulls were resting – most of them Heerman’s. If you looked closely, you could see a couple of Black Oystercatchers mingling with the gulls.

The wind picked up and it started misting, so my camera stayed in the dry sack; however, it was a good opportunity to get good looks at Rhinoceros Auklets and a Marbled Murrelet.  With the weather, I was getting worried about my ability to look at the seabirds with my binoculars from the boat.

There were some cormorants on a tall buoy out from shore. We determined they were Brandt’s.

Just before it was time to board the boat, the wind dropped and the sky partially cleared. It was going to be a glorious evening.

We filed onto the small boat operated by Puget Sound Express, in cooperation with the Port Townsend Marine Science Center,

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and squeezed around one of the tables.  The captain wanted us to stay seated until he got out of the harbor.

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Our primary destination was Protection Island NWR, an important nesting site, not only for Tufted Puffin, but more importantly for Rhinoceros Auklet.

The island, discovered by explorer Juan de Fuca (the waters between the Kitsap Peninsula and Vancouver Island were named for him). Abraham Lincoln ceded the land for farming to four families as thanks for their service in the War of 1812.

While biologists during the 20th century recognized its importance to seabirds and urged the government to acquire it as a wildlife sanctuary, nothing happened and it was destined for housing development. Two women, Zella Schultz (artist and wildlife biologist) and her friend Eleanor Stopps who joined her on bird-banding expeditions, were responsible for the island finally becoming a National Wildlife Refuge.

The USFWS describes it saying,

Scarred by over a hundred years of farming and grazing, strafed by practice artillery fire during World War II, and carved up for a summer home subdivision in the late 1960’s, its natural significance was finally recognized in 1982 with a National Wildlife Refuge designation before irreversible damage occurred. Today the Island thrums with life as it continues to recover. It supports thriving wildlife populations, including what is thought to be the third largest rhinoceros auklet colony in North America, a nesting pair of bald eagles, one of the last two breeding sites for tufted puffins in the Salish Sea, the largest glaucous-winged gull colony in Washington state, and the first location in Washington where northern elephant seals were observed to come ashore and give birth.”

After we could leave the table, we ventured outside and stood along the side of the boat as it whizzed across the water.  While the air was chilly, it was enticing so stay outside as we began to see clusters of Rhinoceros Auklets
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Some were even close enough to observe carefully as we passed them.

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When my fingers got cold, I moved to the stern where it was more protected.

As we approached the island, the boat slowed. To protect nesting birds, boats cannot get closer than 200 yards. Our first stop was to observe a large colony of Harbor Seals resting along the shore,

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Harbor Seals

as well as a couple of Elephant Seals that looked like over-sized cigars laying on the sand.

“If you look closely,” the on-board biologist from the Port Townsend Marine Science Center directed our attention to the top of the island, “you can see deer foraging.”

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There were several Bald Eagles perched on driftwood at various spots along the shore,

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Bald Eagle

and on vantage points along the side and top – Allie, who was doing our eBird list, counted 16.

On the southwest corner of the island, the biologist pointed out the dark ridge near the top of the island where both Rhinoceros Auklet and Tufted Puffins make their burrows and we began to see Tufted Puffins in the water.

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Tufted Puffin

While I had fleeting looks at them on the Seward cruise, it was wonderful to get good looks at them in the calm water.

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I counted eight.

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After circling Protection Island, we motored back towards Port Townsend and passed the harbor to check out the nesting gulls and terns on Rat Island, a sandy spit that appears to have broken off of Indian Island into a small rat-shaped island.

The outside of the island was teeming with Heerman’s and California Gulls, and Pigeon Guillemots seemed to be everywhere in the nearby waters.

“Look closely,” the biologist suggested. “There is a large colony of nesting Caspian Terns in the middle of the gulls.”

As we were floating near the island, something must have startled the terns, since a large flock rose up en masse and circled above us giving us good views.

The sun was setting at 9 pm as we returned to the dock. It had been a wonderful day of observing seabirds with my birding friends.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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3 thoughts on “Tufted Puffins and Other Seabirds Along the Coast Near Port Townsend

  1. What a lovely trip. I can just imagine the thrill you would have felt seeing those Puffins up close in their own habitat. The colony of Caspian Terns would have made me pretty happy, too!

  2. Pingback: Wildlife Highlights of 2016 | It's a bird thing...

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