Birding the Shorelines

Caspian Tern with Common Terns                                                             photo: Joe Meche

by Joe Meche

As we segue from August and the infamous dog days of birding into the first part of September, most of our birding hotspots are still quiet and far less productive than they were in spring and early summer. I’ve experienced this seasonal phenomenon enough to have come up with what I’ve found to be the perfect solution … exploring the shorelines. In most cases soft breezes will offer a bit of relief to the heat that you’ll find farther inland. And the birds will be there! If you look at a map of Whatcom County you’ll see that we are blessed with opportunities aplenty.

In past columns I’ve promoted the use of kayaks or other small watercraft to explore the hidden beaches and offshore rocks to find good birds along our shorelines. If you don’t have a kayak or other small, seaworthy vessels, do not despair. When you’re on the water and under your own power, your windows of opportunity are somewhat limited to smaller areas. On the other hand, on short drives and even on foot or bicycle, you can certainly cover more ground. By following back roads, most of our local shorelines are accessible.

It’s a matter of choice when it comes to starting points and whether to make a day of it or just pick one spot for a relaxing day of birding. There are two distinctly different approaches to keep in mind when you contemplate your method of exploration. A Big Day is birder jargon for spending an entire day covering lots of ground to see as many birds as you can. This is where the more competitive birders depart from the more relaxed birdwatchers. These days I fall into the latter category and that suits me and my battered body just fine. From Clayton Beach on the south county line to Semiahmoo on the United States/Canada border, you’ll be hard pressed to find better locations so close to home.

Everyone who knows me has heard me go on and on about the Semiahmoo Spit, so this is my choice for a starting point. This 1.5-mile natural sand spit separates Drayton Harbor from Semiahmoo Bay. I’ve photographed solar eclipses and super moons from the spit, not to mention innumerable bird species throughout the year. Even though developers have wreaked their personal brand of havoc on the spit, it remains a special place for birds and watchers. The Whatcom County Parks Department was wise to set aside a good portion of the spit for protection from further development.

The beaches and the public shore on the tip of the spit are accessible to all and this is the time of year when the seasonal trends become apparent with new birds moving in and out of Drayton Harbor. The bay side of the spit is the place to be for shorebird migration. Along with hundreds of black-bellied plovers on a recent September day, we were thrilled to see three godwit species and a lone willet. Though shade trees are scarce, as they are on most beaches, use sunscreen or wear a BIG hat! The birds and the gentle breezes are there to soothe and at least distract us.

As we begin to connect the dots on our way southward, the wide arc of Birch Bay beckons, especially the part that borders on Birch Bay State Park. Bonaparte’s gulls and common terns are regular sightings in September as they continue their southbound migration. Just down the road from Birch Bay is a fairly new access to another part of the shoreline at the Point Whitehorn Marine Reserve Park. After a three-quarter mile hike through a bird-friendly forest setting, the trail leads down to an expansive beachfront with wide-open views across the Strait of Georgia. This is a great vantage point for the numerous seabirds that live in and move through the area. This is one location that almost demands that you pack food and drink to linger a while.

Between Birch Bay and Bellingham, pockets of viewing possibilities are accessible, but you need to find a local birder who knows by experience the best places to stop. Sandy Point has long been a magnet of birds and birdwatchers, though development has squeezed the available viewing to the very tip of the point. There has been much discussion about acquisition of the point by the county or some conservation organization to keep it available to the public. Nearby Cherry Point and Lummi Bay have a few very small stopping places, but again, check with a local birder on how to access both of these locations. Gooseberry Point offers a superb view of Hale Passage and the strong tidal movements offer a variety of good seabirds.

Despite the maze of development that has taken place over the past 43 years that I’ve been here, the Bellingham waterfront boasts a variety of places to relax and spend time on the shorelines. From Little Squalicum Beach on the north side to Marine Park in Fairhaven, a wide variety of species can be viewed at close proximity. The centerpiece on the waterfront is the people-friendly expanse of Zuanich Point Park, where you can still see and hear Caspian terns as they go about their business before migrating in late September.

The South Bay Trail connects downtown to Boulevard Park and continues along the Taylor Avenue boardwalk to Fairhaven and Marine Park. This trail provides expansive and close-up views of Bellingham Bay. Numerous bird species will start flocking into the bay in mid-September and prime viewing locations abound along the shoreline and especially from the boardwalk.

Mud Bay is a little known pocket estuary that leads into Chuckanut Bay and the bird-rich Chuckanut Rocks. If you plan to launch a kayak or canoe here, plan around high tide; otherwise, you’ll find out soon enough how it was named. Just down the shoreline from Mud Bay is the once infamous Teddy Bear Cove. From a parking lot off Chuckanut Drive, a steep trail takes you down to a cobble beach that provides some of the last views of Chuckanut Bay before the string of private residences that line the shore.

Not to worry, however, because Larrabee State Park is just a couple of miles down the road. One of my favorite places to launch a kayak is at the Wildcat Cove boat launch, an extension of the state park campground. Larrabee State Park was Washington’s first state park, opened in 1915. You’re pretty much free to hike the shoreline from the north end of the park to Clayton Beach, right on the Skagit County line. A trail from Chuckanut Drive is an easier way to get to Clayton Beach, however.

An added bonus to spending time on the shorelines into September is the much anticipated bioluminescence that occurs in the Salish Sea this time of year. The fascinating glow on the surface of the water is produced by phytoplankton, almost mimicking the look of water-borne fireflies. While this is easily viewed from the shore, my own best experiences have been while canoeing or kayaking along the Chuckanut shorelines. The wake from the hull and every stroke of your paddle or anything else that disturbs the surface of the water will start a light show that you’ll never forget.

Have a great September and join me in looking forward to fall, and cooler weather! Most of all stay healthy and look to nature for distractions … we’ll get through this craziness together. Oh yeah, wear a mask.

Joe Meche is a past president of the North Cascades Audubon Society and was a member of the board of directors for 20 years. He has been watching birds for more than 60 years and photographing birds and landscapes for more than 40 years. He has written over 190 columns for Whatcom Watch.