Birding by Boat

Christine Smith finds herself dashing out of the David B's galley with her hands covered in flour to hear the mournful cry of a red-throated loon.

Birding By Boat Heron
Christine Smith

I love birds and I especially love birding from a boat. When I'm cruising on the David B, I keep a daily list of the all the birds that I notice. It's nothing particularly special, just a column down the side of my journal where I note that I've seen something new or even something mundane like a crow flying up with a clam in its beak to drop onto the rocks. For me casual birding is a big part of being on the boat. I'm not a hard-core life-lister that needs to see every bird there is, simply the type of birder who loves to notice and watch the birds that cross my path.

In the years that Jeffrey and I have been running the David B between Bellingham, Washington and Juneau, Alaska, I've grown to know where to expect certain birds. There's an osprey nest in Stuart Island's Reid Harbor in the San Juans that's become a favorite and an eagle's nest in Farragut Bay, Alaska that we watched for several weeks until one day two eaglets were spotted. I look for red-necked phalaropes in tidelines littered with floating masses of rockweed in Frederick Sound, and in Queen Charlotte Sound I watch rhinoceros auklets, common murres, and pigeon guillemots. This year, we crossed Queen Charlotte Sound on my birthday. It was a beautiful clear day with thirty knots of wind and two meter seas. My birthday present from Mother Nature was a sighting of sooty shearwaters skimming the surface of the waves, with their long albatross-like wings. We were skirting the edge of the Pacific Ocean in a place where only boats go. The effort required to go through the ocean waves made watching the birds that much sweeter.

Even when we’re at anchor I watch and listen for the birds that surround us. On lucky days I find myself dashing out of the galley with my hands still covered in flour to tell my guests that I just heard the mournful cry of a red-throated loon. It’s the kind of cry that can cause tears. I love that moment when my guests and I are standing on deck patiently listening for the next cry. When it happens, their faces light up with the recognition of a special bird so near the boat. Most times when we’re anchored I’ll sneak away from the after-dinner conversations in the galley and walk up to the bow where the voices from the pilothouse don’t carry. There’s a spot between the anchor windlass and the stem that I like to sit quietly and listen.

One of my favorite anchorages is Bottleneck Inlet. With no nearby towns, Bottleneck Inlet is on the east side of Hecate Strait, which separates the Queen Charlotte Islands from mainland British Columbia. It's also one of my favorite spots for birding. Sitting on the bow there, I have often enjoyed the songs of Swainson's and varied thrushes. Anyone who has ever been in a Pacific Northwest forest in the summer will stop in their tracks when they hear the sound of a Swainson's thrush. It's a melodic upward spiral. The varied thrush, by contrast, has a buzzy single note call that Jeffrey always likens to a referee's whistle. In Bottleneck, the songs are amplified and echo in the steep-sided bowl where we anchor the David B. At the right time of the year the voices of the thrushes fill the entire anchorage. The birds are obscured by the dense forest, but their songs are the music that make these beautiful anchorages so worth the visit. While I listen, I watch too. Usually there's a common loon and a pigeon guillemot or two floating on the surface. It doesn't matter to me what's out there, I'm just happy to have those moments of quiet for appreciating birds.

Birding from the David B connects me more deeply to the ocean and the world around me. To be out on the water and in places where nature reigns is something that I never take for granted. It's a different experience than watching birds ashore. On the boat, I'm disconnected from cell phones, internet, and the need to "get things done." On a boat I have time to wonder and to ask questions. To me, birding by boat really is something special.