A Very Important Bird Area
|Quartermaster Harbor received the designation as an Important Bird Area by the National Audubon Society in 2001 and continues to live up to that appellation. It holds significant concentrations of birds. Over the past several years, Christmas Bird Counts have verified an average population of 3,000 waterbirds of about 35 species. About eight percent of the wintering population of Western Grebes in Washington State arrive each fall in the harbor and stay through the spring. Western Grebes are slender, black and white diving birds that are dependent on fish populations.
Quartermaster Harbor is a great winter bird area for a number of reasons. It has the third largest spawning population of Pacific Herring in the entire Puget Sound region and is the largest in south Puget Sound according to Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife spawning surveys. It is also a major spawning area for Surf Smelt. These fish populations are vital to a wide variety of bird species. Others, such as Surf Scoters and other sea ducks, find mollusks in the relatively shallow depths of much of the harbor. The Black Scoter, only occurring in isolated, local populations around Puget Sound, can be found regularly by Shawnee in Quartermaster Harbor because of this. Also, due to very little commercial marine traffic, the area is relatively disturbance free, allowing birds to feed easier.
Good bird viewing locations circle the harbor, each with their own specialties in bird species. On the Vashon side of the harbor, start at Portage and look for a raft of Ruddy Ducks as well as the ubiquitous White-winged and Surf Scoters. Follow Quartermaster Drive around to the highway and turn south and park in one of the roadside pullouts overlooking the marina. This spot is one of the best for comparing the two goldeneye species, seeing all three mergansers at various times and occasionally finding something rare like an American Coot (usually seen around the dock pilings). The boat moorings and the dead tree standing out of the water are the most dependable places for finding Green Herons on Vashon, the smaller relative to the Great Blue Heron.
The long straightaway between the four-way stop at Burton and Shawnee provides several good stopping locations. On a good day in winter, one should be able to see Common Loons; Hooded, Red-necked, Western and rarely Eared Grebes; all three scoters; both goldeneyes; Greater Scaup; Bufflehead; Red-breasted Merganser. Kingfishers and Bald Eagles dart in for additional excitement. On the Shawnee end, as mentioned above, is the best location for Black Scoters.
After the straightaway, the road begins to curve away from the water and prepares to head up the steep hill that eventually leads up and down to Tahlequah. Just before the hill begins, watch for the intersection sign and turn left onto Shawnee Road, a short, dead-end street. You can park at the end of the street, step on the mound of grass clippings and view the harbor and the delta from the stream that comes out there. All of the waterbirds above hang-out here, feeding around the stream outlet. The delta is one of the island's best gull locations between high and low tide. At different times of year one can see Caspian and Common Terns resting and Glaucus-winged, Mew, and Bonaparte's Gulls preening and roosting. It's worth looking for unusual species here, Ron Simons once found a Thayer's Gull amongst the others. Sanderlings, our winter shorebird, often feed along the delta shoreline and then sit out on the small square docks when the tide covers the mudflat. Last winter, I saw a Dunlin, a rare shorebird for Vashon, mixed in with the Sanderlings.