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Protection Island is an incredibly valuable place. According to its Wikipedia page:
Approximately 70 percent of the nesting seabird population of Puget Sound and the Strait of Juan de Fuca nest on the island, which includes one of the largest nesting colonies of Rhinoceros auklets in the world and the largest nesting colony of Glaucous-winged gulls in Washington. The island contains one of the last 2 nesting colonies of Tufted puffins in the Puget Sound area.On New Year's Eve, we took a boat tour around the island to view the wildlife it supports in wintertime. Join me over the tangle of kelp for some great winter birds.
The public is not allowed on the island - only sanctioned researchers, a caretaker, and one inholder who still owns his home from before the island was designated a NWR. Boats must stay away from the shoreline to protect the wildlife. We have joined a few cruises around the island to view the birds and sea mammals from a distance. This was our first wintertime trip.
(All pictures below are in "Lightbox" mode - click to enlarge.)
Protection Island came to the attention of Captain George Vancouver in 1792 who wrote that it was "as enchantingly beautiful as the most elegantly furnished pleasure grounds in Europe." The botanist on that expedition, Archibald Menzies, described "vast flights of water fowl." Through the untiring efforts of two women, Zella Schultz and Eleanor Stopps, the island was finally made into a National Wildlife Refuge in 1982 (the only such legislation signed into law during the Reagan administration) and plans for its development were avoided (but not until construction bulldozers had begun destroying the Rhinoceros auklet nesting burrows).
This New Year's Eve trip was sponsored by the Port Townsend Marine Science Center and provided by the Puget Sound Express. PTMSC had a naturalist on board to help identify the birds we were seeing and explain the natural history of the island.
The 364 acre island is at the mouth of Discovery Bay (named by Vancouver after his ship Discovery) and is west of Port Townsend. It is in the rainshadow of the Olympic Mountains and is very dry. It is mostly grasslands on top with a small forest on the east end that is nourished by fog. There are constantly eroding, high sandy bluffs that are good habitat for nesting seabirds and low sand spits on two ends of the island where harbor seals are often seen resting.
The highlights of the summer trips that we've been on have been the Tufted puffins and the Rhinoceros Auklets. When I suggested this trip to my family, they asked "what will we see in the winter?" Well, I guess that was exactly the point of the trip - to find out! And what a satisfying experience it was!
One of the most beautiful sights was a flock of Long-tailed ducks that took off as soon as the boat got close. Many of the birds seemed rather shy on this particular day and we saw a lot of birds taking flight. What gorgeous birds in their winter plumage!
One of the goals of the trip organizers was to try to find some Ancient murrelets that had been reported in the area. This was an exciting sighting.
According to BirdWeb:
The Ancient Murrelet is more agile in flight than most alcids and will often plunge directly from the air into the water to forage. Swimming underwater, using its wings as flippers, it catches most of its food within sixty feet of the surface. Its breeding behavior is unusual among seabirds in that, at night, in the nesting colonies, males sing from tree branches and other high perches.There was some hope that we'd find a group of Yellow-billed loons that had been sighted in the vicinity. The boat took a detour in the direction of the reports, but we didn't see them that day (I have since seen them in Discovery Bay from our house - a yardbird!).
Here's a summary of all the birds we saw around Protection Island:
Harlequin Duck - Histrionicus histrionicus
Surf Scoter - Melanitta perspicillata
Long-tailed Duck - Clangula hyemalis
Bufflehead - Bucephala albeola
Common Goldeneye - Bucephala clangula
Hooded Merganser - Lophodytes cucullatus
Common Merganser - Mergus merganser
Red-breasted Merganser - Mergus serrator
Pacific Loon - Gavia pacifica
Common Loon - Gavia immer
Horned Grebe - Podiceps auritus
Brandt's Cormorant - Phalacrocorax penicillatus
Double-crested Cormorant - Phalacrocorax auritus
Pelagic Cormorant - Phalacrocorax pelagicus
Bald Eagle - Haliaeetus leucocephalus
Black Oystercatcher - Haematopus bachmani
Common Murre - Uria aalge
Pigeon Guillemot - Cepphus columba
Ancient Murrelet - Synthliboramphus antiquus
Mew Gull - Larus canus
Glaucous-winged Gull - Larus glaucescens
It was a wonderful end to 2013. Of course, we were too tired (and cold) to manage to stay up to greet 2014, but the trip was so worth it.
I'll be responding to your comments as soon as morning arrives on the west coast.
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