Beaks and Bills
The Southwest Coast
by Joe Meche
Joe Meche is a past president of the North Cascades Audubon Society and was a member of the board of directors for 20 years. He has been watching birds for more than 60 years and photographing birds and landscapes for more than 40 years. He has written more than 145 articles for Whatcom Watch.
A quick glance at the maps of Oregon and Washington shows a striking dissimilarity in access to the respective beaches of the two states. Unlike the coast of Oregon, a sizable portion of the coastline of the Evergreen State is inaccessible. The access to the wild and remote stretches of shoreline along the northwest coast of the Olympic Peninsula involves miles and miles of hiking. Solitude is easy to find on the wilderness beach areas of the Olympic National Park, extending from Cape Flattery to the Quillayutes Needles National Wildlife Refuge. With an eye on the high tides, this is a unique hiking adventure unlike any other.
On the other hand, the farther south you travel, accessibility is no longer an issue. From Taholah and south to the Columbia River, coastal access is almost unlimited and includes a variety of habitats for wildlife and a wide range of activities for humans. The large estuaries of Grays Harbor and Willapa Bay host great numbers of wintering birds, and the numbers during spring migration are often incomprehensible. The sandy peninsulas of Ocean Shores and Long Beach provide more open beaches than any beachcomber could ever comb.
Cindy and I decided to move our annual spring getaway up by a couple of months to sample a bit of late-winter camping at Ocean City State Park, just north of the town of Ocean Shores. With temperatures forecast in the low thirties, this proved to be a good test of our off-season gear. For a comprehensive test of all our gear, we reserved a site with hookups, so we had all the comforts of home — mainly heat. Why rough it if you don’t have to?
In choosing a route to the southwest coast, we agreed that travel down the interstate, through the potentially-stressful traffic of Seattle, Tacoma, and Olympia, would be the antithesis of a relaxing getaway. With this in mind, we decided to reach our destination for the week by way of back roads and the Keystone ferry to Port Townsend and the Olympic Peninsula. This proved to be a wonderful alternative, especially with the added security of having ferry reservations in hand. As it turned out, the Monday ferry traffic was very light and we gained an hour and a half on our departure sailing.
When traveling the Olympic Peninsula on Highway 101, part of the charm is the unique place names that you encounter along the way, no matter which direction you choose. Traveling along the eastern side of the peninsula, you cross rivers with names like Dosewallips, Hamma Hamma, and Humptulips. These rivers and numerous tributaries flow from the tremendous snow and ice fields of the Olympic Mountains to the tidewater bays and inlets of the Hood Canal.
The peaceful small towns and settlements that you drive through along the west side of this unique estuary are in stark contrast to the presence of the Bangor Naval Submarine Base on the east side. From this base on the Kitsap Peninsula, Trident submarines with full complements of nuclear warheads make their way up the canal and through the Strait of Juan de Fuca to the vastness of the Pacific Ocean. I have never understood building this kind of base in this particular location. However, I decided to let others ponder this while I continued driving.
On our first day on the road, the weather was nothing short of spectacular. With the extra time gained by an early ferry crossing, we had ample daylight to get our camp set up and running as the sun was going down. With all our chores done and an early dinner behind us, we decided to celebrate the beginning of our week with a walk to the beach for the sunset. Whenever I’m on a beach at sunset, I’m always aware of the potential for a particular natural phenomenon — the green flash.
It seemed almost too perfect for a trip highlight to happen on the first day, but it did. The almost-mythical green flash occurs randomly and viewing it requires that all conditions are perfect. Atmospheric conditions on earth change the sunlight into different colors as the sun sinks below the horizon. The green flash is best seen through binoculars or a spotting scope, but it’s important to not look directly at the sun until the last moment before it sets. On this particular day I was finally able to capture the neon-green color with my camera. I’ve tried for over thirty years to do it, so this was a special occasion.
And so began a wonderful week on the six-mile-long stretch of beach. Sunshine ruled the days and bright moonlight lit the nights. Our heater worked like a charm and the cozy confines of our camping trailer allowed for competitive games of Scrabble into the night. With the constant roar of surf for a background, sleep was deep and came easily.
The unobstructed shoreline that stretches from north of Quinault Beach to the north jetty of Grays Harbor allows for days of beachcombing. The entire beach also allows motor vehicles for most of the year, so even if you’re unable to enjoy the beaches on foot, you can drive to a perfect spot and set up for the day. There has always been a semblance of magic in the never-ending sound of the ocean. It’s nature’s perfect version of white noise.
When you go to Ocean Shores, be sure to take your bike. After a short, one-mile leg on the highway, traffic calms down to a manageable level and speeds are reduced to make for a comfortable pedal. Bike lanes are ample and you’re able to bike the entire peninsula, all the way to Point Brown and the north jetty of Grays Harbor. This jetty and the surrounding beaches have always been prime territory for shorebirds, especially during spring migration.
We were at least a month early for the big numbers, so shorebirds were few and far between; although, another birder shared photos from the day before (through the magic of digital photography) of at least a thousand dunlin that were massed on the very beach where we stood. I plan to return to the area in late April, so stay tuned. The annual Grays Harbor Shorebird Festival takes place this year on the first weekend in May. The festival always coincides with shorebird migration, so consider a visit at this time — especially if you want to see more birds than birdwatchers!
No matter your interests or pursuits, the potential for things to do in and around Ocean Shores and the southwest coast is unlimited. With a good base camp in place, more of this part of Washington State is well within reach for day trips. On the south side of Grays Harbor, the area surrounding the towns of Westport, Grayland and Tokeland provide ample opportunities to see a variety of birds in accessible and varied habitats. And there are always beaches that need combing.