Lake Quinault Birding: A Conversation with the National Audubon Society’s Mary O’Neil

A couple months ago, a friend asked me if I had any tips regarding Lake Quinault birding. I had no answer for her, so I decided to find someone who did.

My gumshoeing eventually led me to Mary O’Neil, secretary of the Grays Harbor Audubon Society. After graciously agreeing to talk with me about Lake Quinault birding, O’Neil gave me more information than I’d hoped for in my wildest dreams. My intention was to deliver an informative Lake Quinault birding guide, and I believe O’Neil helped me accomplish that.

O’Neil was introduced to birding by her sisters. Her passion for the hobby eventually led her to be an interpretive program worker at the Lake Quinault Lodge, a job she’s still doing today.

Though O’Neil vehemently insists that she’s no expert, I find it hard to believe there’s anyone else in the world who knows more about Lake Quinault birding than she does.

O’Neil also happens to be a good-humored conversationalist and a pleasure to talk to, and I look forward to someday getting a personal Lake Quinault birding tour from her. So, without further ado, here is my conversation with Mary O’Neil.

Lake Quinault Birding: A Conversation with the National Audubon Society’s Mary O’Neil

Northwest Nomad: What are some of the more common birds people can expect to see around the Lake Quinault Lodge area?

O’Neil: Steller’s jays are the dominant bird there. They raid the feeders constantly. We have the song sparrow. At the moment we have this dysfunctional song sparrow who thinks he’s competing with a bird in the lobby window.

Then we have our white-crowned sparrows during the summer months, and they’re having babies up there just having a wonderful time. In the summer months we also have ospreys that nest around the lake, and if you take the lodge’s lake tour you’ll quite often see a contest between the osprey and the eagles catching fish. It’s really cool.

Anna's hummingbird perched on a branch.
Anna’s hummingbird. Photograph provided by Reed Moss (https://www.instagram.com/yssom/).

They don’t have as many Anna’s hummingbirds. Well they may have them, but everybody takes their feeders down after summer, not expecting a winter hummingbird.

Summer months, the hummingbirds are just thick. They get so thick people can’t keep their feeders full. They do feed them there at the lodge, and everybody in the area has hummingbird feeders in their yards. You can walk in the woods and the hummingbirds will just buzz you. They’re everywhere.

Winter months we’re looking for the varied thrush. They should be returning quite soon, and if you look out to the water you’ll see the common common merganser and occasionally red-necked grebes; not so much, but occasionally. And, of course, the common loon hangs out there on the lake quite a bit.

The most common bird up there, probably, is the Pacific wren. I saw some just yesterday out on the trail. There was one, probably a male, chipping at us. A second bird was quieter in the background, and it was like the louder chipping one was trying to draw attention away from it.

Nomad: What are some of the rarer birds to have out there, or the more difficult ones to see?

O’Neil: Well, I don’t know how difficult it is, but we have grouse in the area. We have the ruffed grouse. Occasionally you’ll just see them walking on the trails around the lodge. In the summer months, if you drive the 31 mile loop road, they’ll be nesting in the dirt road in the upper end of the valley. It’s quite common to see them there.

It’s a little more difficult to bird among the trees. In the summer months, you can expect to see warblers. You’ll definitely hear the Wilson’s warbler, orange-crowned warblers, black-throated grays, but to see them is quite difficult, because they’re in the thick trees. You can get lucky, but it’s very difficult.

Black-capped chickadee hanging from a fir branch.
Black-capped chickadee. Image provided by @antlischio (https://www.instagram.com/antlischio/).

It seems year-round we’ve got the black-capped chickadees and the chestnut-backed chickadees. And if you walk the trails carefully you’ll run into them.

One of the more rare birds that I found and took great delight in identifying was the warbling vireo. I’d never run into one before, but I found it, isolated it, and identified it. I felt really good then.

It was up in an alder tree, and it was really hard to pull out of the tree. There was one year and then the next there were three in the area year-round. I think they may have reproduced in the area, but I don’t know.

Nomad: What are your tours like?

O’Neil: Well, it has been and will probably continue to be on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday. I just do a standard interpretive walk in the woods. But depending on the interests of the people there, I may turn the focus to a bird watching trip. But a lot of the times the people aren’t interested as much in the birds, so I talk more about the plants and animals and some silly stories.

Nomad: How about for newcomers to the area who want to bird on their own? There’s a lot of ground to cover out there. What would you say is the best place to start?

O’Neil: Definitely check out the lawn at the lodge. That’s probably got your best variety. They’re out in the open.

In the summer months, we have evening grosbeaks and black-headed grosbeaks. I think they nest in the area. They also hang out at the feeders quite a bit. You can count up to 10, 12 at a time, maybe even as many as 25. They’re really cool to see. That’s definitely a good place to start, just checking out the feeders there.

The further off the road you get, the more difficult it is to catch the birds, but around an area above the lodge some trees blew down rather seriously in 2007, so quite often if you get yourself in the right position you can look down over the shrubbery and the newly growing trees and then you’ll see the trees in the tops. That’s particularly where you want to look for the threshes. You can hear them with their upward, spiraling whistle.

Nomad: Do you know if there’s any particularly good time to see eagles?

Osprey perched in a tree branch.
A magnificent osprey on the lookout. Photograph provided by txbirdguy (https://imgur.com/user/txbirdguy; https://www.reddit.com/user/txbirdguy).

O’Neil: I don’t see that many, but they nest there in the summer months so that may be a good time, especially if they’re particularly bent on stealing from the osprey. I don’t see so many in the winter months, but there’s great opportunity for them because the fish run in the winter months.

Winter Lake Quinault Birding

Nomad: What about winter birding? Winter seems to be a time when few people take advantage of Lake Quinault, but it’s so great there during that time of year. So quiet.

O’Neil: I think you have quite a bit of opportunity because the lake birds will show up. I think there was a grebe out the other day. You have your western grebes and your red-throated grebes.

Swans winter near the Rain Forest Resort Village at Lake Quinault.

Song sparrow perched on a branch in the daytime.
Song sparrow. Photograph provided by Reed Moss (https://www.instagram.com/yssom/).

Along the sides of the roads there’s juncos and song sparrows. Then you’ve got fox sparrows out there. Winter we get the hermit’s thrush; summer we get the Swainson’s thrush. You may come across one of those.

If it snows, you can expect to see the varied thrush. The varied thrush likes to hover near the snowbanks. You’ll hear it singing all summer long, but picking it out of the woods is not so easy. You can hear it, but you can’t see it.

A couple years back the snow was real bad and I was doing a different job. I drove in several times early in the morning, after the snow plow had gone through, and the edge of the road would be so full of varied thrush you couldn’t go very fast because they’d fly up in clouds in front of you.

Nomad: And you don’t get to see them as much in the summer?

O’Neil: No. If you live there you might hear them, because I think they’re around all the time, but they do elevation migration. In the summer months, they’ll migrate up to the higher elevations where the snow is.

Making a Day of Lake Quinault Birding

Nomad: Are there any other tips you’d like to share about Lake Quinault birding?

O’Neil: The most extensive way to do it, is to take a morning and do a morning walk around the lodge area. Then get in the car and drive up the south shore road, up to the bridge area. Take it very slowly. Don’t rush it. The open fields just east of the lake area quite often will have hawks. That’s also where the elk like to hang out.

There are cooper’s hawks and sharp-shinned hawks. That’s what you can expect to find if you troll slowly up through the valley. Of course you’ll find flocks of Canada geese and sometimes ducks in the upper valley. The common merganser’s the most common duck in the valley, but occasionally I’ve run into the harlequin duck.

Nomad: Well, I’m no good at identifying them, but I’ve seen lots of birds up at Irely Lake.

O’Neil: Did you run into Sasquatch up there? (laughs)

Nomad: Not yet, but I’m hoping! Do you have anything else to suggest? Anything I’ve missed?

O’Neil: Only that if you do plan on coming, check out the Lake Quinault lodge website and see what kinds of things they’re offering.

Nomad: Great. Well, Mary, thank you so much for taking the time to share your knowledge with Northwest Nomad and my readers.

Where to Find Roosevelt Elk at Quinault

Roosevelt Elk at Quinault

Lake Quinault and the Quinault Rain Forest provide some of the best outdoors recreation in the Pacific Northwest. They’re terrific for hiking, fishing, and viewing wildlife.

Black bears, black-tailed deer, bald eagles, and cougar all inhabit the region. In my travels across the landscape (it’s my favorite spot in Washington and I go there frequently), I’ve run into all of those animals at least once, and often at close proximity (the bear a little too close for comfort in fact) in their natural environments.

Perhaps the best wildlife to see in the area is the herd of Roosevelt elk at Quinault. The sizable herd regularly inhabits the area and can be found quite reliably in the woods and fields just off northeast portion of North Shore Road.

This area of Lake Quinault gets little visitation, especially in the off-season autumn/winter months. The road is rough and sometimes washed out, so even on days when Lake Quinault Lodge is full, you can find some solitary remove in this area.

Roosevelt elk at Quinault eating ferns in a roadside meadow.
The elk here were about 100 yards off the side of North Shore Road, Lake Quinault, Washington.

The Roosevelt elk of Quinault feel safe and at home there, so they generally won’t scatter if you set up shop to observe them (as long as you don’t get too close, of course). They’ll go about their social business at ease.

I watched them for nearly an hour once, and they just went about their routine as though I wasn’t there. Obviously, I can’t speak for every encounter with the animals, but in my personal experience they’ve never bolted when I stopped to watch.

About the Roosevelt Elk at Quinault

According to the National Park Service, the elk at Quinault represent the Pacific Northwest’s “largest unmanaged herd of Roosevelt elk.”

The elk are named after President Theodore Roosevelt, famous wildlife enthusiast and the man who started the national park system in the United States. The elk at Quinault are significantly bigger than the black-tail deer they share space with (the deer are beautiful, as well, though harder to find).

Male elk at Quinault, identified by their antlers, are larger than the females, but all share the characteristic darker-brown heads and lighter-brown bodies. They eat meadow grasses, ferns, shrubs, and lichens.

Male roosevelt elk at Quinault displaying a fine young-of-season rack of antlers as he stretches his neck out to eat some leaves.
Stretching that neck out for the tasty upper leaves.

The elk can also be seen regularly in the Hoh Rain Forest, and I’ll be covering that area, as well. For the purposes of this article, however, I’m focusing on the elk at Quinault.

How to Find the Roosevelt Elk at Quinault

The elk move throughout the area, but they frequently congregate along a stretch of North Shore Road. Google Maps won’t let me pin to the fields, so I had to pin the Quinault Rain Forest Ranger Station (which has a nice little nature trail) in the interactive map below.

If you go east about 10 miles east of that ranger station, you’ll find some open fields. The Roosevelt elk herd often hangs out in those fields, which are pretty close to the road–I’m talking close enough to watch clearly without equipment. With binoculars or a camera, you can see the sky reflected in their eyes.

North Shore Road Approach

You can drive to the area either from North Shore Road or from South Shore Road, both of which run into each other to form a loop around Lake Quinault. South Shore Road has merit because it’s better maintained and makes the approach from Lake Quinault Lodge, but I’m going to start with North Shore Road because the ranger station is the most easily identifiable landmark close to the elk.

Before going on, let me stress that you WILL lost phone reception for a good portion of this drive. This isn’t a great cause for concern, as I’ve explained below, but just be aware that you may want to write directions down or bring a hard copy of a map.

It’s difficult to get lost on the North Shore Road drive because it’s the only real road out there, other than some primitive Forest Service roads branching off into the woods. The one spot that may cause confusion is at the end of North Shore Road. There, you’ll encounter a spot where the North Shore Road turns left/north to continue as North Shore Road and right/south to go over a bridge connecting North Shore Road to South Shore Road.

If you want to continue the loop and head back to the main road, you need to go over the bridge to the south rather than the road continuance to the north. Even if you miss this exchange, though, you’ll just end up driving a dead end road that leads to North Forks Campground, a Park Service ranger station, and the Irely Lake Trail (among other walks). It’s a dead end road and will just take you a few miles out of your way and into beautiful country.

South Shore Road Approach

You can also get to the elk-viewing spot by driving up Lake Quinault’s South Shore Road from Lake Quinault Lodge, which may be the most desirable route if your car isn’t well suited to rough driving. North Shore Road gets pretty tough in parts, particularly after heavy storm events. South Shore Road also has its hairy moments sometimes, but in my experience after years of visiting this area regularly, it’s generally kinder to vehicles than the North Shore Road.

If you decide to come up South Shore Road, just remember to turn left over the bridge linking South Shore Road to North Shore. If you’ve got the vehicle for it, though, I recommend driving the whole Lake Quinault North/South Shore Road loop. It’s a terrific drive through moss-laden trees and mountain views.

Regardless, remember to write directions down or take a hard copy map, because you WILL lost phone reception for a good portion of this drive. Also, South Shore starts out well paved, but be prepared because it will turn into a dirt road that has lots of big holes and rocks.

Come for the Roosevelt Elk at Quinault, but Stay for all the Other Critters

As mentioned in the preceding section, close to the area with the elk herd is the North Forks Campground and the Irely Lake trail. I go camping and hiking in that area frequently.

 

Female elk at Quinault eat grasses in a meadow near Lake Quinalt.
Lady elk enjoying meadow grasses.

Once, in winter, I stumbled upon a black bear in one of the North Forks camping spots (I was the only person staying there). It was a spectacular encounter. The bear was no more than 10 yards from me when we first realized we weren’t alone. He watched me curiously as I walked to the outhouse and then lumbered off. I was a bit nervous camping that evening!

If you go to this area during the salmon runs, you’ve got a good shot of seeing bald eagles picking off the fish. Having grown up in Pennsylvania where bald eagle were nonexistent, I’ve never stopped being amazed at the sight of these birds.

One time (I swear) I saw a lynx dip into the woods on South Shore Road. A big chunk of road had collapsed from flooding and made the road inaccessible to vehicles. National Forest Service sites say lynx aren’t found in this area, but I swear that I caught a fleeting glimpse of one.

Lake Quinault is also an excellent place for birding.

The area is a terrific spot for wildlife enthusiasts. Obviously, you can never know for sure what you’ll run into, but the elk are about as safe a bet as I know of.

Go check them out. Maybe you’ll see some bear or eagle, too.

If you decide to make a longer trip of it, consider staying at the Quinault River Inn. There are many great choices for lodging in the Lake Quinault area, but the Inn has always been my favorite. It’s run by terrific people and is set off on quiet spot by the riverside.

No, I do not have any affiliation with the Inn and receive no compensation from them. I just really like their establishment.

If any of you need more specific directions to the open fields I discussed, shoot me a message and I’ll walk you to the spot. Also, I’d love to hear about your experiences.

Strange Conversation at Irely Lake, Olympic National Park

So it was I found myself on the shore of Irely Lake, talking out loud to a tree…and I’ll be damned if the tree didn’t talk back.

It was one of those days of common desperation. Common for me, anyway, the man who never outgrows his existential angst. No matter how old I get, the nagging doubt remains. What am I supposed to be doing here? Why do the answers fade as fast as they arrive? Is there a reason or isn’t there a reason for anything and everything, and what am I supposed to do with either of those possibilities?

Christ, man, I’m tired of this shit.

Just like every other time my head gets too loud, I felt the need to get away from the commotion of modernity and into the woods, so I hopped in my car and drove three hours to the Irely Lake trail.

The trail head is a few miles outside Lake Quinault, down a couple dirt roads rough enough to turn most the city cars away. Quinault’s one of my favorite places in Washington state. It’s got elk and cougar and bear, rain forest, mountains, miles and miles of trails…and silence. The people there pretty much leave you well enough alone, unless you’re up for a brief and friendly chat.

It’s a short walk along the trail to the lake. Only a little over a mile, I believe. But this was still the winter season. Winds had blown two enormous trees over the trail and water flooded some other parts. This made for some fun obstacles, and even better it meant the trail was mine, so that only a mile from the road I felt completely alone in the rain forest.

Reaching the shore of the lake, which has trees and brush encroaching all along its bank, I saw a duck and its ducklings fly down and splash into the water. A moment later a pair of grown ducks flew side by side over the surface of the lake and away. Right after them, like a glitch in the matrix, two more identical ones followed in seemingly the exact same flight path.

I sat down next to a big old spruce and found myself thinking in the rain. My mind felt like a rabbit getting chewed up by a rabid dog…ugly and haggard.

So I turned aside and look at this big old spruce tree beside me and I said, “Hey, old man, I know this is kind of crazy, but there’s no one around other than you and me and I’m wondering if you can tell me what I’m supposed to do with my life.”

I sat there looking at the tree, not really expecting an answer. Hell, I’m crazy enough to talk to a tree, but not crazy enough to expect it to talk back.

But, as I sat there staring at this thing, I began to notice some details I’d previously glossed over. Multiple species of moss grew on its bark. The bark itself was incredibly thick and the cracks in it were deep; it undoubtedly gave home to all kinds of insects and worms. Up in the branches, birds and squirrels might have nested. If not, they at least certainly stopped there for some time now and then. In the warmer season, I bet that tree was crawling with life.

That’s when it hit me, so clear that it was like the tree was talking directly to me.

What I realized was that that tree had never done anything with its life other than stay rooted on that lake shore, yet in doing so it had given home to a multitude of living things. In staying motionlessly true to itself, it had became a home for life. Zen moment. Bam.

“Thanks old man,” I said.

I stood up, patted the tree’s side, and headed back, feeling lighter as I went.

What’s my purpose? It is to give my absolute best at the things that come most naturally to me. It’s to write and think deeply and create, and to laugh at the absurd things that strike me funny and to read obscure history and study things I’ll never actually use. It’s to explore and to give and to find magic in the world so I can write about it for others. It’s to be selfless and fearless. It’s to be my true self.

At least, that’s the answer I’m toying with now. Here’s to hoping it lasts, because this one feels good and right.

(In “Wandering Around With a Notebook” entries I share the poetic or philosophical side of my travels. A more utilitarian entry will be made for this location.)