For shorebirds traveling from South America to the Arctic, Grays Harbor is the perfect vacation destination. The Harbor’s prime location and mudflats make it an ideal place for weary birds to eat and rest their wings before continuing their flight. And they do, every year around this time.
“First we’ll see a couple hundred, then we’ll see tens of thousands,” said Sheila McCarten, visitor services manager for the Grays Harbor National Wildlife refuge near the Bowerman Field airport in Hoquiam.
About 80 percent of the visiting birds are western sandpipers and about 10 percent are dunlins, McCarten said. The remaining 10 percent of the migrating shorebirds is composed of about 10 different varieties of shorebirds, including plovers, dowitchers and godwits.
The yearly bird migration leads to visitors of another sort: Birders from all over the world gather to watch black-bellied plovers, red knots and Western sandpipers. And each year the occasion is celebrated with the Grays Harbor Shorebird Festival, taking place April 25 through 27, this year.
The event will feature several festival favorites, including field trips, lectures and children’s activities, said Arnie Martin, a festival coordinator.
And since parking at the refuge can be difficult, a shuttle will run between Hoquiam High School and Bowerman Basin on Saturday and Sunday. The shuttle will drop off bird watchers at the beginning of the board walk, and a short, easy walk will take birders to the prime viewing areas.
While many of the lectures cost money, the children’s events at the high school are free — as is viewing the shorebirds at Grays Harbor National Wildlife Refuge.
The various field trips offer different views of the various birds in some unlikely places. The Ocean Shores field trip, for example, takes bird watchers to the wastewater treatment plant in addition to more traditional viewing places.
Field trips will also take birders a little farther afield to Point Grenville, located just south of Taholah. Martin said that some observers have even seen tufted puffins from that location.
“It’s a nice place for the seabirds,” Martin said. “It’s a different view from up on the cliffs because you can see what they look like from the top.”
But shorebird watching doesn’t necessarily require a lengthy drive. The Grays Harbor National Wildlife Refuge is an ideal place to watch the birds feed, McCarten said. A boardwalk trail leads through the wetlands and offers several prime viewing spots.
“It was noted in the 1980s that the mudflats (at Bowerman Basin) have the highest elevation in the estuary, which means it’s the last place to be flooded,” McCarten said. “The birds really concentrate there as they’re feeding.”
During the festival, U.S. Department of Fish &Wildlife personnel will spend several hours counting the birds for the yearly census. McCarten said they usually count about 300,000 birds — but the number varies greatly. One year, bird counters saw about 1 million birds.
“Counting shorebirds is really hard because they can change their flight patterns, which depend on weather and tides,” McCarten said. “It’s hard to do because there are so many variables.”
Watching the shorebirds doesn’t mean just standing on the boardwalk and peering through a scope. The real fun starts when the peregrine falcons show up, Martin said. The predators dive-bomb the shorebirds, which take to the sky in shadowy, amorphous blobs.
Instead of moving as individuals, the birds dip and dive together like one organism trying to avoid the falcons.
“Sometimes you’ll even see the falcons catch one,” Martin said.
For more information about the event, visit www.shorebirdfestival.com or call 360-289-5048.
Amelia Dickson: 360-537-3936 or email@example.com and @DW_Amelia on Twitter
Birds to look for:
__ Black-bellied Plover
__ Semipalmated Plover
__ Greater Yellowlegs
__ Wandering Tattler
__ Marbled Godwit
__ Ruddy Turnstone
__ Red Knot
__ Western Sandpiper
__ Least Sandpiper
__ Short-billed Dowitcher
__ Long-billed Dowitcher