A Fog Enshrouded Nation on the Edge of the Map

On the northwest tip of the Lower 48 States lies the Olympic Peninsula, and on the northwest tip of the Olympic Peninsula you can find the Makah Nation.  The Makah Indians welcome visitors to their small but spectacular reservation, perched on a finger of land where the Straits of Juan de Fuca meet the Pacific Ocean.  The Makah call themselves “the people who live by the rocks and the gulls” in their native Klallam language, and their home is indeed nestled between a pair of rocky shorelines and hosts the highest diversity of gulls in the Lower 48.  The Makah lands are also on the edge of the largest temperate rainforest in North America, and it rains about 220 days a year (for an average total of 110 inches, or over 9 feet of rain).  When I visited last week, the forecast called for (surprise!) thick clouds, misty rain, and heavy fog.  Fortunately, real birders have waterproof binoculars.  I packed my things and started driving northwest.

My first stop was at a little tribal store in Neah Bay where I picked up a visitor permit ($10 allows access to all of the Makah’s recreational sites for a year), a map, and a snack.

The fog was lifting and the winds were calm, but the rain was coming down in the steady drizzle.  The waters of Neah Bay were teeming with ducks, grebes, loons, cormorants, and alcids (birds of the auk family).  My camera told me it was too dark for distant photography, but I snapped a few pictures anyway.  This gray and grainy image doesn’t begin to do justice to the handsome male Harlequin Duck, but it’s the best one I have:

“Rockpipers,” sandpipers and shorebirds that prefer rocky coasts were also present in great numbers, especially Black Turnstones (named for their habit of turning over small stones to look for lunch hiding underneath).  I also found a Surfbird, an unexpected treat here (and last seen near the end of the Point Brown Jetty).  As I continued my walk along the bay through the cold, November rain here in at almost 49 degrees north latitude, I ran into a …

Tropical Kingbird?!?

Yes, a Tropical Kingbird.  According to my field guide, Tropical Kingbirds are “… uncommon and local in southeastern Arizona and the Rio Grande Valley of Texas.”  In fact, Tropical Kingbirds are one of the most common and widespread birds of Central and South America.  Their normal range ends in the extreme southern portions of the US.  This was one LOST Kingbird, and he knew it.  He sat a bit forlornly in an alder tree, occasionally flying out to snap up one of the last flying insects of the season.

What was a Tropical Kingbird doing in Neah Bay?  This unfortunate fellow fell victim to reverse migration, sometimes also called “mirror migration.”  Most migratory birds hatch in the early summer, and are tended to by their parents for a few weeks.  By autumn they are on their own, and must rely on their genetic programming to figure out which way to migrate for the winter (exceptions would be gregarious birds like swans and geese which tend to migrate together in flocks).  In over 99.99% of cases, the juvenile birds go exactly where they are supposed to go.  But in rare cases, a bird gets mixed up and travels 180 degrees in the opposite direction.  Thus, a Tropical Kingbird born in Arizona does not migrate south-southeast to Mexico but instead travels north-northwest, eventually hitting the Pacific Ocean and following it north… to someplace like Neah Bay.  On this northwest peninsula, the Kingbird is now surrounded by ocean on two sides, and is probably seriously regretting not stopping for directions when he hit Fresno.  Some species are more prone to mirror migration than others, and while a Tropical Kingbird in Washington state is most definitely not an every day occurrence, they are seen almost every year – usually along the coast, and usually in October or November.

While this guy is probably doomed (like kingbirds everywhere, he depends on a robust supply of flying insects which are becoming in short supply in Neah Bay right about now), mirror migration might in fact be a genetic feature, not a bug.  Imagine that almost all of the kingbirds in a certain area travel to a known, safe wintering location.  This ensures that the vast majority of the population will end up in suitable habitat.  But a tiny fraction travel instead in almost the opposite direction, or wander at random (imagine they have, for example, a rare “crazy explorer” gene).  Most of these explorers will perish, but a few might randomly end up someplace hospitable.  This could be how kingbirds find distant new areas to populate.  They are one of the most widespread birds in the Americas, and perhaps their tendency towards vagrancy is one of the reasons why.

A little while later, I ran into another lost avian soul.  But this one was a visitor from Asia who has travelled too far west (actually so far east he made it to the west!) and too far south: a Eurasian Wigeon.  We have good old American Wigeons in abundance in Washington, but about 1 out of every 10,000 or so wigeon here in our state is actually a transplant from over the ocean.  There are a few differences between the two species of wigeon, but the most noticeable one is that the Eurasian Wigeon has a red head with a yellow crown stripe, not a gray and green head with a creamy white stripe.  The bird in the middle standing up and facing left (and again, too far away and too dark for good pictures) is the Eurasian one:

A little further along, I stumbled upon a pair of Snow Buntings.  These beauties nest in the high arctic, and winter in the northern tier of states (but rarely in western Washington).

This is a male and a female.  The males have a little more white on them, and the females have a bit more brown and yellow.  It’s hard to see all of the differences in this picture, but the female is in the background.  Here’s a picture of the male alone (he was a little less shy – or maybe more hungry for the grass seeds):

I spent most of the morning around Neah Bay, but had a little extra time before I needed to head back so I drove a short distance to the Pacific coast and Hobuck Beach.

Here a gale was blowing, waves were crashing, and I began to understand why the Makah identified themselves as the people who live near gulls.  Because there were a lot of gulls.  I mean, I whole lot of gulls.  I didn’t count them all, but my conservative estimate was at least 2000 individuals.

This photo only shows a tiny fraction of the multitude.  Contrary to popular belief, there are no such creatures as “seagulls.”  As a group, they are simply called gulls.  And of course there are many different species of gulls.  In this group, I picked out Western Gulls, Glaucous-winged Gulls, Thayer’s Gulls, Heerman’s Gulls, Mew Gulls, Herring Gulls, and Bonaparte’s Gulls (named for a French ornithologist and nephew of Napoleon).  And yes, the convention is to always capitalize the name of a particular species.  Capitalization is what helps you differentiate a blue jay (any kind of jay which happens to be blue) from a Blue Jay (a specific jay which lives in eastern North America, and/or the mascot of the Toronto major league baseball team).

All too soon I had to drive back along the winding route 112 to the south and east.  As I was leaving, the sun peeked out for a moment creating a brilliant rainbow.  And at the end of the rainbow?  (I checked with my binoculars!)  It was a gull.

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3 Comments

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3 responses to “A Fog Enshrouded Nation on the Edge of the Map

  1. Pingback: Emu Composting | Periodic Wanderings

  2. oceanshoresonline

    Reblogged this on Ocean Shores Online.

  3. Thank you for posting this lovely adventure! Especially like the Snow Buntings!

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