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.

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