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I live in the center of the Salish Sea, the large estuary in the northwestern corner of the U.S. with deep tidal-scoured passages. These inland waters were officially named as such in 2009 in honor of the Indian tribes who made a living off the sea in this area for thousands of years.

salish sea map
We moor our sailboat, the Blue Penguin (named for her color and her nature: awkward on land but graceful in the sea), in a quiet protected bay at the south end of the San Juan Islands.
blue penguin
Most of my marine bird observations are close to shore, either from the beach and bluffs, or in my kayak. I see plenty of beautiful wildlife there, like these killdeer who have returned to beach after the hiatus of spring. Killdeer are among the very few shorebirds who live in the county year-round. I did see some migrating shorebirds offshore, but they were flying too fast to identify.


Eagles and osprey perch in the trees by the shore and fish in the shallow bay.


In winter, our shallow bay, 25' deep at most, is full of ducks, mergansers, loons and grebes. Right now it's pretty empty and very quiet. So sometimes we take the Blue Penguin out to see wildlife activity further from shore. In summer there isn't much wind so sailing is iffy. But out in deeper water there are birds I never see from the beach, and others that do frequent shallow water behaving differently out there. So it's worth a trip out onto the bounding main even if we have to use the iron wind to get there.

Here are some birds I saw in June and July from the Penguin. We weren't more than an hour's sail from our buoy, and nowhere in the Salish Sea is a pelagic habitat in any case. These are offshore birds that rely on rocks and swift currents away from human habitation.

We'll leave the Double-crested Cormorant perching on the buoy...

cormorant buoy

and head out toward Iceberg Island first. The Strait of Juan de Fuca and the Olympic Mountains are in the distance.

Iceberg island

(All photos by me. In to enlarge, some are taken from a ways off)

Kelp beds grow along shorelines with swift currents. Between the shore and the mats of kelp, the water gets very calm. A pair of Belted Kingfishers passes over a glassy surface near Iceberg Point.


On Iceberg Island I was thrilled to see the pair of Black Oystercatchers that forage frequently along the beach in my bay at low tide. One is banded so I know they are the same pair. The bird-banders I contacted told me the banded male was found nesting on this island in 2009. I didn't see a nest, but we kept our distance.

oystercatchers on iceberg island

Further out there are a number of rocks and islets. Some are covered at high tide, others are high enough for grass and shrubs. Many of these rocks are surrounded by rough water and kelp, and since they are free of people and mammal predators, provide safe nesting spots. These are where I could expect to see nesting Double-crested Cormorants and Glaucous-winged Gulls, our only year-round gull.

offshore island and baker

There were lots of gulls and cormorants out there. During spring and summer, that's where they are mostly - very few inside the bay.

gulls flying off hall isl

cormorants on outer rock

Hall Island has been an important nesting place historically. The sign says "National Wildlife Refuge. Stay 200 yards away."

Hall isl

hall isl sign

Pretty hard not to, with the shoals and kelp beds. This sailboat passing on the inside is farther away than it looks, with the telephoto foreshortening.


I scanned Hall Island as carefully as I could at magnification several times over the last two months, looking for nesting GW Gulls. There were some on nests, but not many. They were mostly roosting.

nesting gwgs

My informal observations are consistent with what local experts, Audubon data and formal research studies have documented: the total population of Glaucous-winged gulls has declined by at least half, maybe more, in the last few decades. There are fewer nesting pairs, fewer and smaller eggs per clutch and laid later in the season. There are several reasons, foremost being the precipitous decline of herring, their primary food source. Herring numbers are way down since the 19th century due to overfishing, loss of eelgrass egg-laying habitat, and pollution. An increase in marine mammals like seals (due to protection) who also feed on herring, and possibly aquatic changes resulting from global warming are additional factors. Whatever the combination of hits to herring, gulls aren't getting enough calories to produce eggs and rear chicks. The closure of open garbage dumps has eliminated even that low-quality food source. And even when they do nest, the eggs and chicks are heavily preyed upon by Bald Eagles, whose numbers have increased dramatically in response to federal protection and the end of DDT. There are other food sources in the sea, but not in the volume or calorie-density as herring needed to support the historic GWG population of the Salish Sea.

By all accounts, our most abundant Salish Sea gull is getting scarcer. Mark Lewis, author of Birding in the San Juan Islands, reported to our local Audubon group on July 17:

Today ran a transect from FH to Salmon Bank to Iceberg Pt to Long Is to Griffin Bay to FH. 1000s of Heermann's Gulls, much more than normal for this time of year; only a few California, no Mew yet; pitiful numbers of Glaucous-winged and only a handful of chicks. 1000s of auklets (still doing well on sandlance); a couple of Murres (just beginning to arrive); 8 prs of Marbled Murrelets + 1 juv (seem to have stabilized after a 90% decline); no puffins (will be extirpated as breeders in the Salish Sea very soon).
On my most recent sail around Hall Island I saw what looked like a few juvenile gulls. Here's one standing next to an adult GWG. Also on this rock are Heermann's Gulls (with the orange bills) and California Gulls (black wingtips). Californias migrate through here in summer on their way from the interior out to the ocean shores. Heermann's spend summer and fall here before returning to Mexico to breed on one small island in the Sea of Cortez.

juv gull

This Sea-Moss covered rock was very popular. Two big male Harbor Seals and two mom-pup pairs nap amidst hundreds of screeching gulls. Seen together it's really clear how big Glaucous-winged Gulls are compared to the Heermann's. Perhaps it's their larger size that puts them at a disadvantage in rearing young?

seals, gulls

Adult Heermann's Gulls bathing:

Heermanns bathing 1

heermanns bathing 2

The juveniles and immatures arrive in September. Between now and then the adults will change color, becoming a muddy gray all over. A few are changing already, and the one on the right is in winter plumage already.

imm heermanns

What a mix of species on this rock below! In addition to the seal and masses of Heermann's Gulls, I see GWGs and Mew Gulls, newly arrived for the winter. There's even an Oystercatcher - can you see it?

mix of gulls, seal, oyster

The crowds are enough to make a gull want to find its own roost!

gwg on driftwood

The farthest out we go is Whale Rocks. Beyond is the open water of the Strait. In winter, Steller Sea Lions monopolize these rocks, fishing the wicked tidal currents and making a huge growling racket audible miles away. In summer Bald Eagles and gulls station themselves there. This doesn't look like good nesting habitat anyway, but I saw an immature eagle standing around on Hall Island once, apparently watching the nesters.

whale rocks distance

whale rocks close, eagle

Invisible shoals and the strong flood tide created confused seas here where water coming up the Strait funnels into the narrow channels of this archipelago. Even with the engine at full power, Mr O had his hands full negotiating the eddies and whirlpools here at the entrance to Cattle Pass. Didn't dare get any closer to the Rocks. These pics give you an idea of the currents that marine mammals and diving birds relish, stirring up the fish and nutrients.

These are also the waterways oil tankers and container ships navigate regularly. The proposed coal ships and tar-sand oil tankers would increase that traffic dramatically. In the PNW many of us are very concerned about these proposals. As it is, Cherry Point (near Bellingham) where the coal traffic would come and go, has already done a lot of damage to the marine ecosystem as a result of the oil refinery there: what used to be the most productive herring spawning site in the Salish Sea is now down 90% or more, from development and pollution.

We're in about 150 feet of water right here, with the tidal current running more than 6 knots:

tide rip 1

tide rip 2


At this time of year there are few diving ducks. At the edge of this rock, I saw two female Harlequin Ducks in July.

gulls plus ducks

Most Harlequins go inland to breed over the summer but non-breeders remain on the coast. This group was roosting communally in June.


      photobombed by Pigeon Guillemots, lol:

harlequins plus guillemots

Pigeon Guillemots are common here. Their omnivorous diet is a factor in their relative success, compared to other marine birds. I love those bright orange feet, which are usually demurely hidden in the water.

one guillemot

guillemot floating

I was lucky to see a sleek Common Murre. Far fewer of them these days.


The most abundant alcids were the Rhinoceros Auklets. Sometimes they'd burst out of the water and fly by fast and low in a group. They usually cluster on the water. Close up, a Rhino is a flamboyantly handsome bird in breeding colors, with its white plumes and horn. In winter, they are dull gray and hornless.

rhinos group

one rhino

Males and females look alike, with the male slightly larger than the female. Could be a pair here:

2 rhinos

These days the Salish Sea Rhinos breed mostly on Protection Island across the Strait to the south, where their burrows are less likely to be disturbed than up here. They collect a beakfull of sandlance and fly back to their burrow at night to feed their single chick.

rhino sand lance

Twice I caught sight of Marbled Murrelets, whose population has declined partly because there are fewer old-growth trees to nest in. One pair:

2 murrelets

And on another occasion a Murrelet burst out of the water next to the boat. Like other alcids, the Murrelet dives deep for fish.

murrelet jumping up
murrelt jumping 2
This area right here off the south end of Lopez island is one of the best spots for Murrelets in Washington.


During these summer months I saw a few oddball marine birds.

This Red-Breasted Merganser in June was unexpected. These mergansers are abundant in winter but usually gone by the end of April. On an offshore rock:

red breasted merg june

A Horned Grebe in breeding plumage paddled around in the bay for a week in July. Perhaps it never went north, or came back early?

horned grebe july

Surf Scoters are not unknown in summer, but they are much more common in winter, foraging for shellfish in bays. Gorgeous male and napping female:

surf scoters july

Black Turnstones are rare in summer. I saw a group on an offshore rock in late June:

black turnstones

This was a weird one. It showed up in a pic on a rock way out by the Strait. Cousin It? I'm thinking maybe Great Blue Heron grooming?



Summer in the Salish Sea is beautiful on land and at sea. When you're sailing, things go slowly, lots of time to take in the sea, sky and creatures making a living out there.

A mirage along the shoreline of Cattle Point on San Juan Island, flocking gulls in foreground:

gulls iceberg mirage

A tight group of Oystercatchers heading up Cattle Pass with the lighthouse behind them:

cattle point oysterc

Mr O trying to eke a bit more wind power from the light summer breeze:


and sailing home, afternoon sparklies on the water...

sailing home

Still some more weeks of summer. Fall and winter won't be unwelcome though...that's when the ducks return!


Some resources for further reading -

A recent article on declining birds in this area in general:
Declines in marine birds trouble scientists

Research on population changes and natural history:



Archaeological data provide alternative hypotheses on Pacific herring (Clupea pallasii) distribution, abundance, and variability

And for those of you who like maps, here's a section of chart showing the area mentioned in my report (Light boxed for better resolution):

chart south end Lopez

Originally posted to Birds and Birdwatching on Sun Aug 10, 2014 at 06:00 AM PDT.

Also republished by Shutterbugs, Koscadia, and Backyard Science.

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