My sister was driving, and our husbands had been banished to the back seat. This is not an unusual arrangement when the plan is to “see some birds.” We were headed to a favorite spur-of-the-moment place we’ve enjoyed for over 40 years. Fort Flagler State Park is one of the Olympic Peninsula’s jewels. We knew there wouldn’t be overwhelming numbers of bird species at this time of the year, but there are always some special ones at Flagler.
Despite the brisk northerly breeze, we headed for the beach, unpacked our lunch and got out the binoculars. White-crowned sparrows and Savannah sparrows were active in the large clumps of yellow lupine. Robins were gathering worms almost alongside the crows. An expected bald eagle flew overhead, and the glaucous-winged gulls were flying by nonstop. Along with the Caspian terns, they were the most numerous birds that afternoon.
It didn’t take long before the sound of terns was heard. It was continuous and coming from the direction of Indian Island, the rocky point that juts into the water between Port Townsend and Marrowstone Island where Fort Flagler is located. Terns aren’t known for their melodious voices. Their calling was harsh but distinctive. There had to be a colony on that spit, and I wasn’t aware of it. It was easy to see the large number of birds gathered there. From a distance, it looked like there were hundreds of terns on the island. Cormorants and gulls were in the mix.
Since the 1950s, Caspian tern numbers have grown in both Eastern and Western Washington. They increased to where 30 percent of the world population nested in the state. Population figures, as well as nesting locations, wax and wane depending on habitat factors. When tern numbers approach 10,000 birds in one location, their fish diet that includes young salmon makes them unpopular. Human intervention changes the habitat (dredging away coastal islands, etc.). Predators are attracted to large, concentrated numbers of young, as well as tern eggs. Coyotes and raccoons are the worst culprits.
Dungeness Spit’s Caspian tern colony has been affected by predators, but steps were taken to fence them away from the nests and young. This colony is close to Indian Island and perhaps some of the birds emigrated and established a new colony. Whatever the reason for their large numbers on Indian Island’s spit, it was an interesting surprise.
Pigeon guillemots were the other birds that added interest to the day’s birding. They always do, as far as I’m concerned.
Fort Flagler never fails if you want to show someone these handsome members of the Auk family. The high sandy cliffs near the boat launch are a popular nesting site.
During our visit, the guillemots were floating in the water at the base of the cliffs. These were the mates of birds occupying the nest burrows. If the young had already hatched, the activity would have looked frantic instead of placid. Parent birds would be flying back and forth with small fish in their beaks. They come and go like busy bees when they are feeding their young. Their high-pitched whistles call nonstop to let theit young know that food is on the way.
In a few weeks the birds on Fort Flagler will be busy with their young. Weatherwise, days like the one we enjoyed will increase. Company coming? Take them to see not only the historical fort, but to enjoy Washington’s birds.