April 2023 Dispatch: Port Townsend, Washington

April 2023 Dispatch:
Port Townsend, Washington

By Michael McCormick

After spending nearly seventy years in New England and Alaska, I am welcoming spring’s arrival in the Evergreen State.

Since the third week of March, I have lived in a 416 square foot cottage in Port Townsend, a community of about 10,000 people on the Quimper Peninsula in Western Washington.  The S’klallam people have hunted, fished, gathered, traveled, and lived in this area for thousands of years. White settlers built the first cabin in the present-day town in 1851.

Our community has temperate winter temperatures due to the warming influence of the Pacific Ocean, less than a hundred miles away.  Even though Port Townsend is much farther north than anywhere in New England, snow is rare.

Port Townsend lies in the rain shadow of the Olympic Mountains. Rain and snows from the most violent storms off the Pacific are blocked by the mountains and often doesn’t reach us here. On average, Port Townsend gets only about twenty inches of annual precipitation – far less than Lowell, Boston, or Seattle.

This spring, longtime residents are complaining about the cold. Temperatures have been falling into the 30’s nights and seldom break the mid-40’s in the day. Sunny days have been rare. Winds have buffeted the community more days than not. Residents are longing for a succession of calm days with temperatures in the sixties.

As much as I would relish sixty-degree days, I have been enthralled by the beauty I am experiencing this month.

Delicate pink cherry blossoms, magenta azaleas and rhododendrons flowers, and creamy, pink tinged apple blooms create a dreamlike landscape along streets and forest edges.

The skies are a shifting palette of colors; there are patches of blue and a hundred shades of gray. Clouds billow and break, roll and pack together. Light shifts, fades, then intensifies.

Winter rains and occasional bursts of sunshine have perked up the Douglas fir, red cedar, western hemlock, and madrone evergreen canopies. Lemon and green tree trunk lichens, sphagnum moss carpets, and dangling strands of old man beard glow. Sprawling evergreen ferns create a jungle-like appearance on the forest floor.

The rolling farm fields in the nearby community of Chimicum, shimmer with greens as lush as any I can imagine in Ireland. Cows and sheep graze along roadside fences.

The grass in our yard has risen above my ankles. The lawn already needs mowing. But weeks from now- after the garden’s daffodils have gone to seed- the dry season will roll in; lawns and fields will turn brown. Our mower will sit dormant for most of three months; a mid-summer trim or two will get us through until September.

Dawn arrives well before six. When I step out of my cottage into the half-light the air is thick with bird song.  Robins, towhees, juncos, flickers, wrens, song and white crowned sparrows, red breasted nuthatches, black capped and chestnut backed chickadees, house finches and crows all pitch their voices into the morning chorus. As the day brightens, I’ll hear from resident bald eagles (their calls remind me of squeaky gates) and squawking glaucous winged gulls. Overwintering Anna’s hummingbirds will buzz and probe the red based, sugar water feeder; rufous hummingbirds will join them any day now.

Most mornings I take my coffee to nearby Point Hudson, a beach at the edge of the historic downtown, where I look out unto Admiralty Bay.  I’m mesmerized by the shifting colors and textures of the water. After spending decades in snow country, it’s a joy to traipse along the shoreline and paths in the month of April without sidestepping mud, snow, or ice.

The Bay sits at the point where the waters of the Strait of Juan de Fucca meet Puget Sound.  Glaciers carved this mesh of cliffs, mountains, and waters where winds and tides rush and collide. The constant churning of elements delivers abundant sources of sustenance for seals, sea lions, birds, river otters, and occasional whales.

Thousands of birds that nest farther north winter in these waters. Living in New England and Alaska most of my life, I have grown used to marking spring by the arrival of birds that winter to the south. Now, my spring is characterized by birds flying away to the north for the summer breeding season.

Each day hundreds of birds eat frantically to nourish themselves for flights to their breeding grounds. I watch delicate looking brant geese chatter and bob as they feed on sea lettuce and eel grass close to shore. Dozens of turnstones, sometimes letting loose with a strange, high-pitched sound that reminds me of flying saucers in a sci- fi flic, probe the gravel bar for food. Black billed dunlins, a mid-size sandpiper type bird, feed alongside them.  Now that the dunlins have entered breeding season they have assumed black spots on their breasts that remind me of smudges Catholics get on their foreheads on Ash Wednesday. A pair of black oystercatchers, the color of crows but with fiery clothes-pin like beaks, red eyes, and pink legs are there too; perhaps since they will not migrate – they’re year round residents- they stand aside and watch the migrators feed intensely.

The first white and green Washington State Ferry leaves the downtown dock for the twenty plus minute crossing to Whidbey Island at six-thirty.  Next week I will board it and stand in the winds and cold on the front deck with binoculars in hand. I expect to see extraordinary seabirds. There will be pigeon guillemots (red footed diving birds that propel themselves under water by beating their wings), the increasingly rare marbled murrelets which nest in old growth forest tree canopies, and common murres (dubbed the penguins of the north) that nest in colonies on rocky cliffs. With luck I’ll find dozens of my favorite seabird- the rhinoceros auklet – a diving  bird that is a close cousin to the puffin. The bird is named for the fluorescent vertical beak that sticks up from its orange bill that is thought to aid in communicating with other “rhinos.”

I relish the ease of these spring ferry crossings; reservations for passengers with cars will be hard to get and waiting lines will be hours long in a few months when the summer tourists swarm in.

Many sea ducks- buffleheads, goldeneye, and harlequin ducks- have already left. Thousands of freshwater ducks- pintails, widgeon, gadwall, teal – have headed north too -though hundreds remain. Further north along the Skagit River Valley (where acres of tulips are now in bloom in roadside fields), the thousands of snow geese and trumpeter swans that wintered there are already winging north to Alaska, Northern Canada, and Wrangell Island.

Spring migrants now arrive daily. Violet green and tree swallows dip and crisscross the waters on Anderson Lake and Kai Tai Lagoon. Barn swallows search for nesting places in the buildings of Fort Worden, the de-commissioned military base that is now one of Washington’s most popular state parks. Ruby crowned kinglets pump out their staccato calls; the first warblers-yellow rumped, orange crowned, and common yellow throats-sing from alders and blooming trees.

Last week I got out of my car to grab a beer at a popular watering hole called the Pourhouse. I stopped walking when I noticed a full rainbow bending over the shimmering waters of Port Townsend Bay beyond the beer garden. I took out my i-phone, clicked a few shots, and then noticed the red brick courthouse atop a nearby hill blazing in golden light. I hustled back into my car, shot up the hill, and arrived at County Courthouse Square just in time to capture the stunning scene.

As the days lengthen into summer, I find surprises and beauty every day. Although I surely will discover joys in June, for now I am happy to embrace this season.