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Whatcom Watch Online
Winter Birdwatching


January 2010

Beaks and Bills

Winter Birdwatching

by Joe Meche

Joe Meche is president of the North Cascades Audubon Society and also serves the chapter as newsletter editor and birding programs coordinator. He has been watching birds for more than 50 years and photographing birds and landscapes for more than 30 years.

Just because the wind is howling or the sky is falling, there’s no reason to put away your binoculars until spring. While you might not think this is a good time of year for watching birds, experienced watchers will contend that it’s actually the best time of year – hands down. Western Whatcom County and the Puget Sound lowlands are premier locations for watching birds throughout the winter months. In fact, some of the state’s largest concentrations of wintering waterfowl can be found right here in our backyard.

Spring and summer always bring music and color to our backyards and woodlots, but winter is more dramatic because it’s a matter of survival for all living things. The languid days of summer have given way to rain, wind, and much lower temperatures. Humans and their pets have warm, dry places to weather the winter storms, but the birds are out there, just trying to scratch out a living and make it to another spring.

Since they endure the worst of extreme weather, the birds of winter are to be appreciated, and with all the leafless trees about, they are certainly easier to find. Some birds become territorial and seek a little privacy during the nesting season, but winter is a time for flocking and feeding together for many species. For birds, the old adage about strength in numbers seems to hold true when the weather turns colder. The avian tendency toward flocking in winter produces some of the impressive numbers of birds that we see here.

From the shorelines to the foothills, there is a wealth of interesting and exciting birds to warm those often frigid days from late November through February. Many northern breeders utilize the varied habitats of the county for the winter months which, from a birdwatching perspective, actually range from mid-October to mid-April. If you make the necessary preparations, winter birdwatching can be quite enjoyable. Winter also holds the possibility of close encounters with the rare or unusual bird that just happens to show up in the area.

Given the shorter span of daylight hours, winter birdwatching can be divided into two general search categories — land birds and water birds. The traditional rule of thumb is to look for the land birds early and late and the water birds during the day. The pre-dawn hours and dusk are best for owls. With this search criteria, a good day in the field can be organized for maximum coverage of a variety of habitats and increase the number of species that you’re likely to see.

Raptors

For some people, winter birdwatching is all about diurnal raptors — the eagles, hawks, falcons, and owls. There is usually a bit of excitement associated with raptors, not only for the observer but also for the prey. Some of the most dramatic times in the field take place when an eagle or a falcon cruises through an area filled with waterfowl or shorebirds. Open areas of the county are ideal places to observe raptors.

Historically, Lummi Flats has provided suitable habitat for raptors such as northern harriers, rough-legged hawks, and short-eared owls. Red-tailed hawks are quite common and can be found throughout the county and even in the downtown area. Cooper’s and sharp-shinned hawks and merlins are often found where there are active feeders to attract prey species.

One bird that is always a highlight to discover and is truly symbolic of winter in the northern tier states is the snowy owl. Snowy owls are content to remain in the far north as long as the food supply is adequate. In some years, however, when their food sources are scarce they leave their normal haunts in large movements called irruptions. An irruption differs from a migration in that it’s an event that is not predictable or part of an annual cycle. During irruption years in the past, at least 50 snowys have been observed in Whatcom County. The snowy owl is one of the “best birds” you can find in the winter.

For birdwatchers of all levels, a big attraction in winter is the often spectacular gathering of bald eagles that congregate every year on the North Fork of the Nooksack River, coincidental to the late salmon runs. The eagles have night roosts above the river and come down to the river to forage on salmon carcasses during the day. Estimates of the total number of eagles on the Nooksack in winter are sometimes in the range of 500 individual birds.

Waterfowl

Waterfowl species can be found in significant numbers throughout the winter in several locations in the county. Ranging in size from the trumpeter swan to the diminutive bufflehead, waterfowl can keep you busy honing your identification skills throughout the winter in both fresh and saltwater habitats. Within the waterfowl family, you can find swans, ducks and geese. Within the family of ducks are diving and dabbling ducks, and sea and bay ducks. To paraphrase an old saying, you’ll find ducks in winter wherever there’s a wet spot.

The passerines or perching birds can be found in brushy areas, especially those with leftover wild berries and seeds to sustain their winter diets. Stream sides and woodlot edges are perfect for small birds that require cover from predators, which are always on the prowl. When you get past the basic robins, towhees, and juncos, the numerous sparrow species can provide a winter-long challenge for your field identification skills. For this reason, many of the smaller birds are referred to simply as LBJs, or Little Brown Jobs.

For a good day of birdwatching in the winter months, travel up to Blaine and then follow the shoreline as closely as possible all the way back to Bellingham. You’re likely to see thousands of waterfowl in the protected bays along the way. Huge rafts of northern pintails, American wigeons, red-breasted mergansers, Barrow’s and common goldeneyes, and all three scoter species can be found feeding and resting in the expanse of Drayton Harbor. Scope the areas of deeper water between the Semiahmoo Spit and White Rock, B.C. for three species of loons, grebes, cormorants, and gulls. The occasional sighting of a yellow-billed loon in the area brings birdwatchers from all over the state.

Beaches and tide flats are great places to observe shorebirds. As you drive along the water from Blaine to Bellingham, you will find numerous opportunities to scope tidal flats for several wintering species. Large flocks of dunlin and black-bellied plovers frequent the flats at Marine Park in Blaine and the flats on the north end of Birch Bay. On Lummi Bay and along the Lummi Peninsula are more opportunities to combine shorebirds with more deep water species. Black turnstones and killdeer frequent the gravel beaches as well. Be sure to check the open fields of the Lummi Flats and adjacent farmland for flocks of trumpeter and tundra swans.

When you return to Bellingham, stop by the Padden Lagoon and Marine Park on Bellingham’s southside for shorebirds and another look at deep water birds like western and red-necked grebes and possibly even long-tailed ducks. Then, take time to look into the city parks that host a variety of land birds and owls. Lake Padden and Cornwall Parks have extensive trails for you to get out and stretch your legs after the long and winding road. Complete your day of birdwatching at the Scudder Pond Preserve, and after you explore the pond, continue walking into Whatcom Falls Park to look for dippers in the creek and below the falls. Five species of woodpeckers can be found in the park along with numerous passerine species.

Preparing for Your Birdwatching Adventure

To find out where you might see birds in Whatcom County in winter, visit the website of the North Cascades Audubon Society at http://www.northcascadesaudubon.org. On the home page and under the Birding menu, click on Locations and pick a place or two to spend the day with some of our local winter birds. The map is printable and can serve as an excellent guide for a day of birdwatching.

Whatcom County has a wealth of birds to occupy birdwatchers throughout the year, but winter is one of the best times. If you take the time and prepare for any and all types of weather, you’ll find that there are things to watch other than football on Sundays, or any other day of the week for that matter. You’ll also notice that there aren’t as many humans to contend with on your outings. It could be just you and the birds.

So, as soon as you’ve finished reading this article, pile on those layers and get out there and enjoy. The birds will be there! §


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