A Whale of a Time in Seattle

Tim HealyBirding, Mammals, Photography, Science, Trip ReportsLeave a Comment

Summer vacation is always a crucial window of opportunity for adventures, but it is all too short and often too busy. This year, I was thankfully able to find the time for a brief getaway. Although international travel still poses a bit of a thorny logistic challenge, we were content to set our sights on a domestic destination. It didn’t take us long to decide on Seattle. Jacqi had yet to visit the Pacific Northwest, and both of us have multiple friends who live in or near the Emerald City. My last trip to Washington State was back in the summer of 2007, an especially memorable segment of a cross country family road trip. The chance to revisit these gorgeous mountains, woodlands, and coastlines after so long was an exciting prospect!

We arrived in Seattle on July 13th, and we had a full week to explore the city and its surroundings with our friends. This was by no means intended to be a birding trip. That being said, any expedition away from home presents an opportunity for encounters with interesting wildlife. Even walking around town offered reunions with western specialties like Pigeon Guillemot, Violet-green Swallow, and the hybrid “Olympic Gulls.” I knew going into this vacation that my odds of encountering avian lifers were low, but I was looking forward to reconnecting with some species I haven’t seen in a while. What’s more, there was a very real chance to finally track down one of my biggest nemeses in the animal world!

The Strait of Juan de Fuca

Our first full day in the city was spent in full tourist mode, checking out popular attractions like the Seattle Art Museum, the Space Needle, and the Chihuly Glass Gardens. We also had the opportunity to catch a meal with my buddy Josh, who also ended up driving us to and from the airport despite his hectic schedule as a brand new parent! We also enjoyed a delicious dinner with my old friend Allie, who unsurprisingly hit it off with Jacqi immediately. We made plans to make more plans together before the week was through. Thursday the 15th was booked as our first nature-focused adventure: a whale watching tour out of Edmonds with the Puget Sound Express. I’ve been itching to get out on the water and search for wildlife ever since my last pre-pandemic pelagic back in 2019. While I would be happy to see any creatures of the deep, I had a clear primary target in mind for this outing.

The Orca is a species I have tried to see on countless occasions and barely missed more times than I care to count. From just-too-late chases in Alaska to false alarms in California, my quest for wild Killer Whales has been a veritable saga. In a way it was fitting that this journey would lead me back to the Strait of Juan de Fuca, considering that my search first began here 14 years ago with a trip out of Victoria, British Columbia. Our voyage aboard the Saratoga finally broke the long-running streak of bad luck. We encountered a family group of Orcas just south of the San Juan Islands: a 50+ year old female with two daughters and a granddaughter. We were fortunate enough to witness them hunting as well, making short work of some unseen prey (likely a seal) and sharing in the feast together. The whales provided incredible views over the better part of an hour, including a cooperative close-range spyhop! These incredible predators certainly lived up to the lifetime of hype, and they were well-worth the time and effort it took to make this experience a reality.

Though the Orcas were the undeniable stars of the show, we did spot a variety of other interesting coastal critters during our time with the Puget Sound Express. I was thrilled to get reacquainted with the adorable Marbled Murrelets, a species I haven’t seen since my forest ranger days back in 2013. I’ve long held a soft spot for these birds, and hearing their squealing whistles instantly transported me back to the old growth groves outside of Juneau where I used to hear them departing from their nests. Jacqi thoroughly enjoyed the large flocks of Rhinoceros Auklets, which often passed close enough that their distinctive bill horns were visible to the naked eye. Heermann’s Gulls, Common Murres, and Pelagic Cormorant were among the other birds documented, and we observed large congregations of Harbor Seals lounging about on the rocky shores. The only other cetaceans we found were a handful of Harbor Porpoises, but I was plenty pleased with the results of our trip. The top-billed attraction definitely delivered!

Back on dry land, we caught a ride south to the suburbs of Seattle. Josh had graciously offered to let us borrow his old car, so we swung by his place to say hello to him, Courtney, their new baby, and the dogs. The vehicle was experiencing a bit of battery trouble at the time, but once I got a crash course on how to jump it with the portable battery pack we were well on our way. We caught up with Jacqi’s friends Megan and David for supper, but we made a point to turn in early for the night. There was another big day or exploration ahead of us. 

Olympic National Park

Friday morning saw us up before the dawn. We met in the lobby with our fellow NYC pals Edem and Kelsey, who happened to be in Seattle for a wedding and jumped at the chance to join one of our day trips. I was grateful to have a full car, which always makes it easier to stay awake and alert during early mornings on the road. More than 4 hours later, we arrived at the Pacific Coast of the stunning Olympic Peninsula. We snapped some photos and breathed in the sea air at a pull-off north of Kalaloch, then headed onwards to the famous Hoh Rainforest. There was a bit of line at the entrance due to limited parking on site, but even the drive in was delightfully picturesque. Upon arriving at the visitor center, we eagerly set off to explore the surrounding area. Both the Hall of Mosses and the Spruce Nature Trail featured spectacular scenery and dense greenery. We marveled at the towering trees, the lush ferns, and, of course, the omnipresent moss that seemed to carpet every available surface.

Plants weren’t the only nature of note at the Hoh Rainforest. As soon as we stepped out out of the car, we found ourselves face to face with a Roosevelt Elk cow that was browsing at the edge of the parking lot. A nearby ranger warned us that this individual was a bit temperamental and prone to charging, so we made sure to give her a wide berth. I was pleased to hear the songs of Varied Thrushes and Pacific Wrens ringing through the woodlands. My lifer encounters with both species took place at this exact site, and those memorable vocalizations were an integral component of the sense of place in this magical grove. It comforted me to find that all was as I remembered it. Noisy flocks of Red Crossbills moved through the canopy overhead while Chestnut-backed Chickadees fluttered about the edges of the trails. We scarfed down our prepacked lunches once we returned to the car, setting off again to continue our whirlwind tour of the park.

We followed the Hoh River back out to the coast and turned north, passing through the small town of Forks along the way. There was just enough time in our agenda for a stop at Rialto Beach, one of the most famous stretches of coastline on the Olympic Peninsula. The towering sea stacks rising dramatically from the surf and the enormous driftwood trunks lining the shore make for an incredibly striking landscape. Jacqi was excited to see her first Brown Pelicans patrolling the water’s edge, and though there were plenty of seabirds wheeling around the nesting cliffs were too distant for us to confidently identify most of them without a scope. Once we’d had our fill of the impressive views, we bid the Pacific Ocean farewell and began the long journey back to the city.

Against the odds, we made it to the town of Sequim early enough to partake in the renowned Sequim Lavender Festival. I was getting nervous about missing out on this highly-anticipated attraction due to tight scheduling, but we arrived at Fleurish Lavender of Lost Mountain with plenty of time to enjoy the festivities at the farm. Once we’d picked our flowers and procured some lavender lemonade, we hurried back to Seattle so as not to miss our dinner reservation. Thanks to a few quality recommendations from friends and some thorough research of her own, Jacqi had booked a diverse array of restaurants for us to indulge in. She knocked it out of the park every single time, and a hearty meal was just what I needed after logging over 14 hours and nearly 400 miles behind the wheel in a single day! Having such a fun crew to travel with undoubtedly helped make this intense undertaking possible. The borrowed car handled the odyssey admirably, too!

Mount Rainier National Park

Saturday was considerably more low-key than most of the trip, featuring a much-appreciated spa visit and a quiet date night dinner to ourselves. Once Sunday rolled around we were back at it again, picking up Allie early in the morning and heading out to Mount Rainier. This outing represented one of my few shots at a life bird during the outing: several recent reports of White-tailed Ptarmigan in the Paradise area had me somewhat hopeful about connecting with these elusive alpine grouse at long last. It was an especially sunny, warm day out on the mountain, and the hiking trails were unsurprisingly pretty well packed by the time we arrived. Nevertheless, we enjoyed an exceedingly pleasant trek up the Skyline Trail. There were plenty of little critters to be seen frolicking amidst the lovely wildflowers, including Anna’s Blue and Snowberry Checkerspot butterflies. The brazen Casade Golden-mantled Ground-Squirrels scrounging around the overlooks were another new mammal for me, and it was nice to see the familiar furry faces of Hoary Marmots again.

Just as it had been some time since I was out at sea, I couldn’t remember the last time I found myself above treeline. It took us a while to hoof it all the way up to Panorama Point, but the vistas that awaited us were well worth the effort. We were treated to some jaw-dropping photo ops with Rainier itself, and we could also see Mount Hood, Mount Adams, and Mount St. Helens from the overlook.

The birding was pretty good on the mountain. We encountered Jacqi’s ever-favored Canada Jays, cooperative American Pipits foraging at our feet, and several displaying Rufous Hummingbirds. Alas, despite extensive searching during our hike I was unable to find any ptarmigans. I have a feeling that the large weekend afternoon crowds may have kept them hidden out of sight, especially since I learned that an obliging family group was photographed exactly where we were the next day. Having struck out with this species multiple times at a number of sites throughout the years, I think it has earned its place as my new number one Nemesis Bird. I knew the void left by vanquishing LeConte’s Sparrow earlier this year couldn’t stand forever. At least this is a bird that is guaranteed to take me somewhere fun if I want to add it to my life list. We’ll have to see how that story ends on another day.

Once again, we made it back to the city just in time to enjoy another tasty meal, this time with Jacqi’s friend Lizz. Monday brought one last round of tourism, including the fantastic Museum of Pop Culture and the Starbucks Reserve Roastery. We returned the car to Josh and Courtney, thanking them for their unbelievable hospitality while enjoying a late lunch together. Lizz met up with us again for dinner down by the docks and drinks at a local speakeasy. We bid farewell to Seattle on Tuesday the 20th, exhausted but ecstatic after the incredible week we’d enjoyed out west. It was a refreshing change of scenery to visit the mountains and forests of the Pacific Northwest after a full year locked down on the East Coast. We were lucky enough to meet up with some truly incredible creatures in between sightseeing and connecting with friends. Finally settling the score with Orcas was a clear highlight, but the entire trip was rich with unforgettable experiences. I look forward to seeing what the next adventure brings!