Birdwatching in Olympic Coast National Marine Sanctuary

May 2017

Volunteer citizen scientists play a key role in helping sanctuary researchers track seabird populations and ecosystem health. The following is a field report from Bob Boekelheide, a citizen birdwatcher in Olympic Coast National Marine Sanctuary.

On Saturday, Aug 13, 2016, our birdwatching group from Olympic Peninsula Audubon Society traveled through the northern waters of the Olympic Coast National Marine Sanctuary on the M/V Windsong out of Neah Bay. Our route traveled through the western entrance of the Strait of Juan de Fuca to Swiftsure Bank, then south over the Juan de Fuca Canyon and back inshore by Tatoosh Island.

birds fliying over the ocean

The highlight of our day was at the southern margins of Swiftsure Bank, where we found thousands of birds and about 40 humpback whales feeding at a huge patch of krill and baitfish extending over a wide area. Krill darkened the water and small silvery baitfish jumped everywhere around us. Humpbacks plowed sideways through the middle of the swarm, mouths wide open, inhaling everything in their paths. One humpback let out a big red poo right next to our boat, telltale sign of krill for breakfast. Pink-footed and sooty shearwaters, along with California and Sabine's gulls, made up the bulk of the flocks, wheeling back and forth, plunging into the water, and sitting in large flocks nearby. Several times we watched jaegers and a skua chase down gulls and shearwaters, and in turn watched gulls chase the jaegers. One of our lingering images is seeing hundreds of beautiful Sabine's gulls all taking flight at once, like snowflakes fluttering over the dark water.

whales breaching

Other birds in the flocks that day included fork-tailed storm-petrels, red-necked phalaropes, common murres, Cassin's and rhinoceros auklets, tufted puffins, glaucous-winged gulls, Arctic terns, and one lone barn swallow that flew by about 15 miles offshore.

We also passed by Tatoosh Island, a seabird-nesting island offshore of Cape Flattery, where we tried to estimate numbers of birds visible on the island and nearby. Tatoosh birds, both on land and in the sea, included 300 pelagic cormorants at their nest sites with chicks of various sizes, 1350 common murres at their nests with small chicks, 3000 nesting glaucous-winged gulls, along with Brandt's and double-crested cormorants, black oystercatchers, pigeon guillemots, marbled murrelets, rhinoceros auklets, tufted puffins, Heermann's gulls, California gulls, brown pelican, great blue heron, and a lone bald eagle overseeing it all.

whales breaching

Our group plans similar journeys into Olympic Coast National Marine Sanctuary during summer 2017, with trips planned on August 12 and September 9. For more information, contact Denny Van Horn at