by Sharon Moore – Led by expert birders Bill Tweit and Gene Revelas, 51 of us from Black Hills and Tahoma Audubon chapters boarded the Lady Alderbrook on April 28, 2019 in anticipation of an excellent birding morning on Hood Canal. Under clear skies promising good visibility and braced by a brisk temperature, we settled in the deck chairs and along the railings on the roomy 60 ft. cruiser. Originally built in Coos Bay, Oregon, and named the “Rendezvous,” this craft was specifically designed to accommodate dinner cruises; hence, the excellent hull stability and extra-wide upper deck.
The morning started out well with a raft of Western Grebes sighted in the middle of the Canal. Bill estimated 500 birds in that flock. Later we spotted another large raft of Western Grebes to the north of us. As to why the birds congregate in those waters in the spring, Bill explained that millions of young chum salmon were migrating at that time down the Skokomish River into the Canal to embark on their long journey to the Pacific. That yearly chum migration provides a rich food source for many species of birds.
The strong Grebe presence we witnessed was a relief to those of us who have been aware that, by the 1980’s, Hood Canal had become severely polluted. This habitat degradation affected the fish populations adversely, which also impacted bird numbers as well. By 2006 a Watershed Management Plan (90.82 RCW) was finally approved for Mason and Jefferson Counties to improve water quality, stream flows, fish habitat and marine waters. In the last 12 years, cooperating municipalities, agencies and tribes have improved the Hood Canal waters; however, significantly more effort is needed to increase levels of dissolved oxygen in the water, which chum and other fish species need to survive. As birders we understand that improved fish survival will attract more birds into the Canal watershed.
During the morning cruise we identified 20 species including Red-necked Grebe, Western Grebe, Horned Grebe, White-winged Scoter, Surf Scoter, Common Loon, Red-throated Loon, Pacific Loon, Glaucous-winged Gull, Mew Gull, Red-breasted Merganser, Scaup, Great Blue Heron, European Starling, Bald Eagle, Bufflehead, American Crow, Purple Martin and Pigeon Guillemot. Towards the end of our time on the water, a Marbled Murrelet appeared in the far distance. Bill said it was an unusual sighting since that species is seldom observed in Hood Canal any longer. Severe loss of old-growth forests, needed by Murrelets to raise their young has banished the birds from that historic nesting habitat.
A lovely cruise with plenty of bird sightings made for a successful three-hour event. With thanks to Lady Alderbrook co-skippers Cindy Sund and Duain Dugan, we disembarked with plans to return in spring, 2020. (Trip photos by Steve Curry, Western Grebe photo courtesy Frank Schulenburg, Wikimedia Commons)