BIRD WATCH: ‘Inland Sea’ ideal and easy place to enjoy birding

SOMETHING ABOUT THE lone gull perched on top of the ferry landing’s dolphin was different.

It looked smaller than the familiar glaucous-winged that are so abundant throughout Western Washington.

The coloring was different. Instead of the white feathers that are so predominant on the glaucous-winged, this bird had a wash of gray shading on its neck. The rest of the body was dark gray.

It wasn’t an immature gull. They come in all shades of gray, from light to dark.

The giveaway field mark was the color of the bird’s bill. It was red, and that’s when the “light went on.” It was a Heermann’s gull.

This gull shows up in Northwest waters in late summer. I didn’t think the middle of July meant summer was that long in the tooth.

If this sighting had taken place out on the coast or in the waters of the Olympic Peninsula, it wouldn’t have been as much a surprise. The ferry landing where it was spotted was in Eagle Harbor on Bainbridge Island.

A second Heermann’s joined this bird while we waited to leave the vessel. How many others had I missed while we were on the open waters off Discovery Park and other points along the east side of the Sound?

The auklets feeding in the waters off the West Point lighthouse weren’t missed. The captain slowed our boat down because a flock of rhinoceros auklets were feeding in the water in front of us.

Their diving antics went into high gear when our boat approached. Just as the field guide says, they looked like little dark blocks of wood bobbing about on the water.

Surprisingly, there were no pigeon guillemots visible in the vicinity of Magnolia Bluff’s tall cliffs. Perhaps the cement mixture sprayed on those cliffs to stop them from sliding discourages the birds from constructing their nesting burrows.

Guillemots should be feeding young about now. An area where this is easy to observe is on the Olympic Peninsula’s Fort Flagler. Beachfront composed of tall, sandy cliffs is good guillemot nesting habitat.

In recent years, however, these birds have discovered that ferry landings offer suitable nesting places, too. They actually build their nests under the docks, right beneath the area the cars drive over when entering or exiting the boats.

One of the easiest places to observe this is at the Kingston ferry terminal. From the walkway that runs alongside the boat (where some anglers are often fishing), you can watch the guillemots coming and going with food for their young

For the next two months and more, our empty inland waters will slowly see the return of our marine birds. Some will only be passing through on their southern journey. These are the birds we are beginning to see now.

Heermann’s gulls will grow in numbers. Common terns will join the Caspian terns that have been around since spring.

Phalaropes will be part of the picture. They can be recognized by their small, dainty size and their habit of spinning in circles when feeding. They do this to stir up the small aquatic life they feed on. As they spin, their heads bob up and down to snatch a morsel or two.

Our trip on the waters between Seattle and Bainbridge Island was on one of the ferries, but this was only part of the marine fun. A sightseeing outing on the Argosy Cruise Line’s Good-Timer III was the reason for our trip.

The day was a great example of how easy it can be to enjoy the waters of the “Inland Sea” and do a little birding.

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Joan Carson’s column appears every Sunday. Contact her at P.O. Box 532, Poulsbo, WA 98370, with a self-addressed, stamped envelope for a reply. Email: [email protected].

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