Saturday, November 23, 2013
Harlequin Ducks and Friends
This seems to be a banner year for Harlequin Ducks (Histrionicus histrionicus) in Deception Pass State Park. Off and on, I have seen one or two birds at a time. Was I ever surprised to come upon this gang out on Urchin Rocks at Rosario Beach. I have never seen so many at one time.
They nest along fast moving streams at higher elevations. In winter, however, they love our rocky shores, according to Seattle Audubon. They suggest the west coast of Whidbey Island and Rosario Beach on Fidalgo Island are two of the best places to spot them. My experience is proving them right about that.
This group appeared to be resting and bathing. The two males in the water would dunk their heads and splash with their wings while the others looked on and enjoyed the sunshine.
The best wildlife viewing in the park is on a weekday, off-season and early in the morning when it's quiet. Just one other party and I had this whole section of the state park to ourselves. That included all of Bowman Bay, Rosario Beach and Lighthouse Point. Later in the morning and throughout the day, more visitors would be arriving. Even though this is off-season, it is still one of the most visited parks in the state.
Meeting the Harlequin Ducks at Rosario Beach was a special treat. I also met several of their friends along the trail from Bowman Bay to Rosario:
As I set off on the Bowman-Rosario Trail, my first encounter was this Belted Kingfisher (Megaceryle alcyon). This one is a female identified by the rufous coloring on the belly. I have been trying to get a decent photo of one for two years. So far, this is the best I have been able to accomplish. They're very active and fast and they can spot a guy with a camera from a hundred yards. This one paused momentarily on the exposed rock in Bowman Bay, but there was no time for do-overs. When out exploring, listen for their ratcheting calls that sound like loud fishing reels.
I can always count on the Double-crested Cormorants (Phalacrocorax auritis) out on this rock in Bowman Bay. There is a smaller rock further out that they also like. Can you spot the one striking the "angel" pose? They do this to dry their feathers after diving. A group of cormorants like this is called a sunning for obvious reasons.
As I got close to Rosario Beach, near the Rosario Field Classroom, I heard her tapping before I spotted her. When out exploring for wildlife, your ears can be as important as your eyes. This female Pileated Woodpecker (Dryocopus Pileatus) was busy working a Douglas Fir. I could tell this was a female because she had a black mustache or malar stripe. Males have a red mustache. These are large and magnificent birds and I am always thrilled to spot one. Also, how fitting to see one during Movember.
For the past few days, we have been under a Modified Continental Polar air mass which brings dry air, bright sunny skies and frigid temperatures. It was about 26° F (-3° C) when I arrived at the park, very cold by our standards. Usually our weather involves warmer Maritime Polar air masses which bring overcast, drizzle and showers during the fall and winter. I think these chilly temperatures also help to bring out the wildlife. I seem to have the best luck when it's cold. For some reason, this is also my favorite hiking weather.
A raft of eight or ten Common Goldeneyes (Bucephala clangula) were swimming and diving out in Rosario Bay. I tried to catch them all on the surface at the same time, but they weren't cooperating. During the breeding season, they nest in forests around small freshwater lakes and ponds. In winter, they move to marine areas, protected bays and estuaries according to Seattle Audubon. Here they feed on mollusks, crustaceans and fish.
As I watched the Harlequin Ducks, once again, my ears became a useful tool. High pitched calls alerted me to a pair of Black Oystercatchers (Haematopus bachmani) resting at the top of Urchin Rocks. These laid back shore birds seem to like to announce their presence to the world. I am told they nest across the way on Deception Island. Sparse populations are found in rocky habitats along the Pacific Coast from the Aleutians to Baja California. Beaches in the San Juan Islands, around Whidbey Island and in Skagit Bay are some of the few places they can be seen further inland.
Deception Pass State Park is one of my favorite places to visit for viewing wildlife. This day I met the Harlequin Ducks of Rosario Beach as well as several of their friends along the Bowman-Rosario Trail. It was a very good day to be in the park.