I was homesick when we uprooted from the Bay Area to Seattle, missing my long strolls along the ocean. I discovered a small public park on Elliott Bay in our new neighborhood, a niche of a corner of a park, barely visible on the map. It’s a corner patch of a 7-acre parcel, where a large swath of that space is a soccer playfield. The section on the bay is a small lawn, trees, shrubs and a few benches overlooking port traffic and the cruise ship terminal. It’s a postage stamp on the larger marina, but it’s gritty and complex — an industrial cove with a view to floating hotels and their top-deck pools, tender boats and police patrols.
Smith Cove Park is populated only occasionally with dog walkers, cruise ship aficionados, marina boaters and a few transient souls who stop there by way of a nearby bike route. I went there for the waters — and for the salt air — without expectation of wildlife. But, that was about to change — one late April day.
Taking a break from unpacking boxes, I was sitting on a bench there, watching a fishing vessel angle into port.
Suddenly, this sound pierced the shipping hum:
I spun around to look for the familiar bird behind the raspiness. Overhead, clear as his call, I saw him:
This Caspian Tern flew with purpose over the chaos of the port … and toward even more tumult over Interbay … over the warehouse bunkers that were once a living salt marsh, and over the filled, paved, and tracked landscape of Balmer rail yard.
That was my first Seattle tern and, in Joseph Campbell’s terms, this tern was my Call to Adventure — to embrace, appreciate and learn about the nuances of tiny, urban wild spaces.
In a future post, I’ll write about the two-year citizen science project that evolved from this single Caspian Tern sighting. In this piece, I’m posting just a glimpse of the wildness that reveals itself around this little park on Seattle Port property — different days, different light, different species. They’re not always easy to see, but they show up when I take the time to sit and wait … and watch and listen for wildlife among the tugs, cranes, cargos and masts of a working port. (This act of patience sometimes requires a strong cup of coffee.)
This Osprey took me by surprise and I didn’t have a high enough shutter speed to freeze the wings. This image is testament to the photographer’s adage that you should always look behind you. I didn’t do that, and a whole set of Osprey expeditions took place behind my back before I saw him.
Shortly thereafter, I learned this Osprey was the male from a nesting platform on Port property, within distant viewing of Smith Cove Park.
I discovered that a pair of Belted Kingfishers frequented this cove, fishing and performing flying miracles in and around the dock pilings.
I met this river otter while sitting at the picnic table … another shot I wasn’t quite ready for in terms of exposure. Two otters popped out of Puget Sound, periscoping for all of 10 seconds before submerging and never reappearing that day.
On another day, during an extreme low tide, I had a different and distant otter sighting in this cove.
At 5 o’clock one evening, I found this Canada Goose, swimming solo, calling out to what appeared to be no one.
A few minutes later, I heard the characteristic call-and-answer heat up between her and a distant voice. After five minutes, he flew in, landed beside her, and engaged in a few friendly hellos. I discovered during return visits at 5pm that these two repeat this routine every evening at the same time.
During a super low tide much later in the season, I captured this family traipsing across low tide mussel beds and seaweed.
This is also the spot where I captured the Bald-Eagle-Gull-Osprey showdown.
Young Starlings fledge at this park and feed on the borders of berry bushes.
A few crows nest there as well.
The Northern Flicker’s distinct call of “kleeer” is always ambient sound at the park.
One afternoon, this Golden-crowned Sparrow popped out from under a fir tree and foraged around my feet at the picnic table.
Pigeon Guillemots flit around the port pilings, always at a distance making photos exceptionally tough. Of course, on the day a Pigeon Guillemot came close, the light was absent and I had a scrim of rain between me and the bird.
In the winter, the usual suspects of Puget Sound waterfowl arrive. From that perch I’ve seen Barrow’s and Common Goldeneyes, Red-breasted Mergansers, Scaup, Surf Scoters, and American Wigeons. These female mergansers spot their fish, face down in the water, paddling along like snorkelers.
Regular visitors all times of year are the Great Blue Herons — Seattle’s official city bird. They fish at low tide, and put on plumage displays like ballets, when one heron encroaches too close to the other.
I almost always see a harbor seal or two in the cove … less often, California sea lions coming in to exploit the benefits of changing tides.
Finally, this might be the most unusual wildlife I’ve seen at Smith Cove … a guy in Robinson Crusoe duds who jumped into the cove, chasing a cruise ship out of port.
Here’s an overview of the park and port. The red circle shows the location from which I took these shots. 🙂