Beaks and Bills
Camping and Birding Close to Home
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 150 articles for Whatcom Watch.
If you’ve read this column before, you know that I’ve always referred to this time of year as the dog days of birding. It’s the time of year when summer seems to be dragging on, and everyone is waiting for the first cooling days of fall. I often feel that birds and the folks who watch them feel the same way, that they’ve had enough of the dry and dusty season for another year. Recent field trips have proven my theory, as evidenced by the lack of bird activity in general and the lack of pursuit by many birdwatchers.
Coincidental to the lack of bird activity was the unusually warm weather this summer. As we considered destinations for our annual grandkid camping trips in July and August, we decided that it would be better for everyone to stay closer to home. As many of us know from personal experience, long drives with kids are known to take a toll before you ever reach your destination, with the sounds of “are we there, yet” ringing in your ears. We explored our options and decided that the time had come to experience Birch Bay State Park. As hesitant as I am to use the old cliché about two birds and one stone, this was definitely an opportunity to do just that.
This is one place that Cindy and I have often overlooked, mainly because of the impressions we had from only driving through the park in the past. On a different day and with different goals in mind, a drive through the campground in early July convinced us to try it on for size. Our main concern is always to find a place that has enough to offer, not only for the grandkids in tow, but also for the grandparents. We drove through with our standard criteria in hand along with a notebook to mark the sites that might work for everyone. While sites with electric hookups can be a luxury, we’re self-contained enough to do without.
There have been so many campgrounds in our shared history to offer different perspectives every time we explore a new one. We have a fairly broad understanding about campground dynamics in general so our criteria might be different from most. We just search for a site that suits us and our needs. We don’t always succeed, and with campgrounds you never know how the neighborhood is going to be from one day to the next. I could write a book on today’s campground etiquette – or lack thereof – but that’s neither here nor there. When camping in mid-summer, you can’t really expect to be alone.
Birch Bay State Park is a 194-acre park/campground, and its main appeal to overnight and daytime visitors is 8,255 feet of saltwater shoreline. This shoreline is a regular stop for birdwatchers throughout the year, especially when there are large numbers of birds like brant and Bonaparte’s gulls. On our first four-day trip in mid-July, southbound Bonaparte’s were regulars on all of my morning walks. I also observed common loons feeding just offshore and great blue herons foraging along the shoreline.
In addition to easy access to the bay is the 14,923 feet of freshwater shoreline of Terrell Creek, which flows through the park and into Birch Bay and eventually the bay itself. The creek connects Lake Terrell to the Terrell Creek Marsh on the south side of the campground. This marsh is one of the few remaining saltwater/freshwater estuaries in northern Puget Sound and abounds with a variety of wildlife throughout the year. Virginia rails and soras frequent the marsh along with nesting waterfowl. Wood ducks, American wigeons and hooded mergansers can be found on this long stretch of Terrell Creek all the way to its outflow into Birch Bay.
With the campground as a base camp in mid-July and again in August, I covered a lot of ground on my early morning walks. There was very little human activity so the birds were active on both fresh and salt water. The big surprise in August was the number of pileated woodpeckers moving around the campground and calling back and forth throughout most of the day. My guess was that at least one pair of adults was showing the ropes to recently-fledged young birds. Numerous Swainson’s thrushes were calling as evening approached in July. Given the time of year, they were doing similar exercises with their own young. I only regret that I didn’t find the barred owls the ranger had told me about when I checked in.
On both of our visits, I took day trips on my bike to Blaine and Semiahmoo. Again, with the Birch Bay campground as my base, I was able to extend my bird watching beyond the park. While the ubiquitous gulls and cormorants were around, little if anything else was moving, especially in August. But, being an optimistic birdwatcher and always alert, I did locate an early flock of western sandpipers foraging near California Creek as the tide was falling. Shorebirds on their southbound migration are often the only highlight this time of year.
Despite the general lack of birds a highlight for me in July and August was the return of purple martins to the tip of the Semiahmoo Spit. My friend, Phil Calise, built martin-specific boxes and installed them behind one of the old cannery buildings and the martins have taken to them in good form. There are three boxes mounted on a single post and, since I grew up with martins around, the sound and behavior of these birds was a delight for me. With hungry nestlings in the boxes, the adults were always in motion, coming and going with food deliveries.
For folks who might consider the bike trips to Blaine or Semiahmoo from the Birch Bay campground, I would recommend the trip to Blaine, but offer a caveat if you decide to take the back roads to Semiahmoo. Be prepared for a workout, especially when pedaling up Drayton Harbor Hill from the spit! I kept going even though I was down to my last available gear. By the time I reached Shintafer Road and the north end of Birch Bay, I certainly felt that I had earned a stop for a cold draft at C J’s on the way home.
In the process of exploring closer alternatives for camping, alone and with grandkids, we’ve done a complete one-eighty on Birch Bay State Park. This park is large enough to accommodate a lot of folks but at the same time offers ample elbow room. The mixed forest provided enough shade to keep the temperature at a comfortable level and the sunsets were magnificent. We’re excited now to take quick weekend trips later in the year as the bird numbers increase and the number of humans decreases significantly. With the dry weather this summer, we missed that all-important part of camping — a campfire. However, fires will be permitted as the cool, wet weather returns, and we plan to be there. And keep in mind that if you’re already there, you don’t have to drive there!