Rhinoceros Auklet

March 29th, 2019: Day trip to Point Roberts, Washington

I was very happy to sneak out to Point Roberts with a good friend I don’t see that often on one of my days visiting Vancouver! Point Roberts is actually in the U.S., but the only way to access it by land is through southern BC where it meets Tsawwassen. There are also no ferries that run to Point Roberts, so it’s pretty much a vacation/second home location. While I’m not generally a fan of places that cater primarily to second homes, it’s definitely not all like that. The pace of the place really slows, making it a wonderful place to visit. And, jutting out well into the Georgia Strait, it’s a great place to bird!

Point Roberts on the map: I mean...what? This is even less sensible than Alaska.
I mean…what? This is even less sensible than Alaska.

Before heading to the best spot–I don’t think I’m going out on a limb to say that Lighthouse Park is the best place to bird on Point Roberts–my friend and I stopped to walk some trails at Lily Point Marine Park. Lily Point is a lovely area that’s WAY up on the bluffs above the ocean, where trails wind through coniferous forest.

A blooming Cherry Tree (one of the several reasons it's nicer to be in Vancouver than Minnesota in March)
A blooming Cherry Tree (one of the several reasons it’s nicer to be in Vancouver than Minnesota in March)

Because of its location and habitat, Lily Point is great both for birds that love western conifers and for great scope views of the surrounding area. Way below us on the ocean, we turned up a mix of the usual species (but not big numbers today): Brant, Pelagic Cormorant, Surf Scoter, Horned Grebe, Red-breasted Merganser, American Wigeon, and Common Goldeneye. It was particularly nice to see a few Long-tailed Ducks and Bonaparte’s Gulls mixed in with other family members.

The very small border crossing to enter Point Roberts, WA, U.S.A.
The very small border crossing to enter Point Roberts, WA, U.S.A.

The highlights at Lily Point today came in the forest. We were happy to hear 3 Hutton’s Vireo along the trail, along with several Purple Finch and Pine Siskin. But when we were almost back to the car we heard a “hoo-hoo” from nearby. It’s not every day you stumble across a Great Horned Owl, even if you are in perfect habitat. She hooted at us only a few more times, but we were able to find her only a few paces off the trail and way up in a conifer. Man, when does an owl ever not make your day??

A terrible (phone) photo of the Great Horned Owl
A terrible (phone) photo of the Great Horned Owl

Considering the relative dearth of water birds, we thought that 32 species on a quick walk was a pretty good start to the day and decided we’d head out to some other Point Roberts locales.

After not turning up much at the marinas, we headed for Lighthouse Park, to park ourselves with a scope (I wasn’t able to bring mine for this trip) and see what floated/flew by on the southern tip of Point Roberts.

Looking southwest over the strait toward Washington State from Point Roberts' Lighthouse Park
Looking southwest over the strait toward Washington State from Point Roberts’ Lighthouse Park

Well, we weren’t disappointed! Late March is not the best time to be birding here, with some of my favourite pelagic species (like Ancient and Marbled Murrelets) mostly out of town, but we were very happy to come across many highlights: both Surf and White-winged Scoter (no Black Scoter today), more Long-tailed Duck, Horned, Western, and Red-necked Grebe, Common and Red-throated Loon, Double-crested, Pelagic, and Brandt’s Cormorant, plus Common Murre, Pigeon Guillemot, and Rhinoceros Auklet.

A small flock of Rhinoceros Auklets
A small flock of Rhinoceros Auklets

In my mind, the last three are the really species ones. It’s true that you can hop on a ferry to Vancouver Island during much of the year and find at least one or two of these alcids, but I don’t get to do that often. And having a nice look from land is just awesome. I was particularly pleased to see the Rhinos.

Rhinoceros Auklets are described on eBird as “shaped like a football,” which is certainly accurate, if a little unflattering. Their stunning facial plumes jump out even at distance as they catches the sun. Even at distance with no scope, these little guys are quick IDs if you watch for a floating greyish football with lots going on around its face/beak. They nest in ground burrows on islands in the area and they’re doing much better that many alcids in terms of conservation (though raccoons on some of their breeding colonies have had massive impacts in some localities).

A panorama centered WSW from Lighthouse Park
A panorama centered WSW from Lighthouse Park

We said “Goodbye” to the auklets and other fun pelagic birds and headed to Maple Beach: an area on the east side and a little north of the point. Holy cow were there a lot of birds there!! We were running low on time and could only do a quick and very conservative estimate of what we were seeing. A quick count yielded under 20 species on the water, but some impressive numbers: several thousand Brant, at least 500 American Wigeon, 500 Mallard, 600 Greater Scaup, 1500 Bufflehead, and 300 Glaucous-winged Gull. I feel I should stress again that we were in a hurry and this was a very rapid count done of species we could see well in close. I’ll need to come back here! And maybe stay at one of the nice B&Bs in the area…

Looking north at Maple Beach from a good birding spot
Looking north at Maple Beach from a good birding spot
Some of the nice small homes in Maple Beach
Some of the nice small homes in Maple Beach

On our way out of Point Roberts, we made one last stop at the jetties on the south side to see if we might tally a few more species for the day. We were very pleased to see 15 Harlequin Duck and about 40 Sanderling on this briefest of stops before turning to head for home.

Birding with friends is so much fun; especially fun and knowledgeable ones. And Point Roberts is a blast. I’ll make a point to head down there more frequently, hopefully with more Rhinoceros Auklets and other alcids waiting for me.

Looking NNW toward Vancouver from Lighthouse Park in Point Roberts
Looking NNW toward Vancouver from Lighthouse Park in Point Roberts

This Post Has 2 Comments

  1. Good write-up. I absolutely love this site. Continue the
    good work!

    1. Thanks so much! I’ll do my best!

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