Beaks and Bills
Fall Into Winter Birding
by Joe Meche
Joe Meche is a past president of the North Cascades Audubon Society and is still active in chapter affairs.He has been watching birds for more than 50 years and photographing birds and landscapes for more than 30 years. He has written more than 100 articles for Whatcom Watch.
When it comes to birds and bird watching, we’ve just made it through the well-known dog days of birding — that time of year when good bird sightings are few and far between. The birds are quiet and often less colorful and energetic after the long grind of the breeding season. And now it’s time for us to plan ahead for fall and even winter as the seasonal changes are upon us. Temperatures are noticeably cooler, and many leaves are already showing a bit of color. While much of the color is likely due to water stress, it’s still good to feel the change in the air.
On the birding front, the nesting season is history for another year, and many of this year’s young birds are out and about exploring their new world and learning the ropes from their parents, while mingling with others of their kind and even meeting new species on their own. In mid-September, small flocks of American goldfinches are regular sightings on the Red Tail Reach area of Whatcom Creek, along with white-crowned sparrows and house finches. Many of these birds will be around throughout the fall and winter, while most of our visiting migrants have already packed their bags and headed south.
In some respects and for many of the watchers, the best is yet to come. As temperatures moderate here and get even colder farther north, southbound migrants are passing through and wintering species are arriving to generate a little excitement. In fall and winter, when birds flock together for various reasons, truly ardent bird watchers are in heaven. The annual large flocks of shorebirds are arriving or passing through, including the entertaining flocks of black-bellied plovers and western sandpipers crowding the beaches on the Semiahmoo Spit. In addition to the usual sightings, there have been reports of less common or rare species, like a recent Hudsonian godwit on the tidal flats at Marine Park in Blaine.
When flocks of common terns and Bonaparte’s gulls make their way southward, often accompanied by parasitic jaegers, experienced birders begin to visualize the immense flocks that are on the way. In our little corner of the Northwest, the protected estuaries, bays and inlets combine with moderate temperatures to create ideal wintering habitat for a variety of species. At the same time, the expanse of open fields and agricultural lands in the north county provides food and shelter for a variety of waterfowl, including our largest birds, the magnificent trumpeter swans.
As the seasonal changes shift into high gear, the number of wintering birds builds across the county. These large flocks tend to congregate in habitats that provide suitable forage and safety from predators. Hunting season will be in progress, so it’s important for the watchers to think about safety, as well. Historically, the wealth and assortment of wintering birds in places like Drayton Harbor and Semiahmoo Bay exceeded the criteria established for the designation of sites as Important Bird Areas (IBAs). IBAs are internationally recognized sites that are, as the name states, important areas for birds. Birdwatchers are the coincidental beneficiaries of the IBA program.
Drayton Harbor and Semiahmoo Bay were included in the first round of 53 IBAs in Washington state. The same area also provides the perfect anchor for the Cascade Loop of the Great Washington State Birding Trail—the first of several loops throughout the state that guide bird watchers to the best places to see birds. It has long been my opinion that there is no better place to enjoy winter birding. It’s understandably a given when you consider how much of the state is covered by snow and ice in midwinter.
Even though I always recommend Drayton Harbor and Semiahmoo Bay as the best places to see wintering birds, keep in mind that Whatcom County has numerous sites to visit in pursuit of feathers. The “locations” map under the “birding” menu on the website of the North Cascades Audubon Society (NCAS) gives a comprehensive view of the areas that are open to birding year round. The one exception would be the Hart’s Pass area that will be snowbound from late November until midsummer. As a matter of fact, there was still six feet of snow at the pass on my last trip in July.
As you travel along the western county shoreline, traveling south from the Canadian border, inlets and estuaries provide the essential ingredients for winter bird-watching. The open expanses of Birch Bay and the more protected Lummi Bay have the potential to be filled with waterfowl. The near shore habitats along the east side of the Lummi Peninsula are equally suited as resting and feeding places for birds. The entire Bellingham waterfront, from Little Squalicum Beach on the north to Marine Park in Fairhaven, provides safe haven for birds such as goldeneyes, scoters, grebes and loons. Much of the remainder of the shoreline all the way to Larrabee State Park is accessible for an entire day’s worth of birding. The most important piece of equipment you can take along while doing the shoreline tour will be a scope.
For closer looks at land-based winter birds, consider the inland sites that are also listed on the NCAS map. All of Bellingham’s city parks will have birds to observe through the colder months ahead. Trails around Lake Padden and throughout Whatcom Falls Park not only offer good birds but also provide the opportunity to get a little exercise while you’re at it. The area at the mouth of Whatcom Creek often has surprise visitors in fall and winter. Diving ducks, loons and grebes follow the salmon and other fish up the creek as far as the lower falls, despite the shoulder-to-shoulder activity of humans waiting to hook the big one.
As we leave a wonderful summer behind, there’s no need to put away your binoculars and field guides. The birds will be out there waiting for you. Dress properly for the weather, and you just might be amazed at the winter visitors that are in our neighborhood. Incidentally, my own personal cure for cabin fever—should you be so unfortunate as to experience it—is to get out of the cabin, as long as you’re able to do so.