Beaks and Bills
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.
The migration of large numbers of birds has always ranked near the top of nature’s most spectacular phenomena. Millions upon millions of birds participate in these massive movements twice every year – once in spring and again in the fall. Historically, these movements have been well documented and are symbolic of the changing of the seasons. Humans have often timed their own activities to coincide with the return or departure of a particular species. Festivals have been organized along all the major flyways to coincide with and celebrate the arrival of birds in the spring, but it seems that fall migrants don’t get as much press as their spring counterparts.
To a great extent, this is understandable. With the arrival of spring migrants comes new life and warmer weather, often at the end of long, cold winters. The fall migrants, on the other hand, are the harbingers of just the reverse. In spring birds arrive and regale us with their bright breeding plumage. When birds arrive in fall, they’re often tired, torn, and even a bit tattered after the time-consuming and energy-draining breeding season.
When I was growing up in southwest Louisiana and later living in southeast Texas, fall and cooler weather were always a welcome respite from the summer heat and humidity. The sure sign that we had made it through another gruesome summer was the arrival of the vanguard of immense flocks of snow geese and other waterfowl that were on the way. The symbolism of fall migration has diverse meanings for people in different parts of the country, and some even dread the return of colder weather. No matter where I’ve lived in seventy years, I’ve never wavered in my preference for fall over spring.
Some of my earliest memories of birds are of the sounds that I heard lying in bed, especially during the dark and sometimes foggy nights of October and November. Flocks of geese arriving from the north would circle above our neighborhood in search of the recently harvested rice fields nearby. These sounds were magical to me and sometimes seemed to last all night, or at least until I fell asleep to the sound. When morning came, I couldn’t wait to head for the fields to see the new arrivals. In the fields, vast numbers of geese were feeding while even more continued to come in. During the fall and winter these magical sounds were part of everyday life. It seems that I could never get enough and I never wanted it to end.
In the Pacific Northwest, September sneaked up on us this year. Late August rain showers and the first cool mornings were reminders that fall was just around the corner. It was also a reminder that we and the birds were on the verge of one of the most significant of our seasonal swings. When the lazy days of our ninth month progress toward October, we humans begin to put our shorts and sneakers away and consider more appropriate outdoor attire for fall birding. While we go about our own day-to-day activities, birds have already responded to the survival instinct that motivates them to move southward. This is the time of year when most of the species that breed in North America are taking part in fall migration, with the young birds of the year in tow.
In late August, numerous black-bellied plovers arrived on schedule and literally covered stretches of the beach on the bay side of the Semiahmoo Spit. Traditionally, these plovers are the first to remind us that fall is on the way, and they didn’t let us down this year. While most individuals in the large flocks were already sporting winter plumage, a few stood out with the deep black bellies of their breeding plumage standing out in the sea of gray. Along with the plovers were the advance guard of western sandpipers and numbers of mew, ring-billed, and California gulls. Common loons and red-necked grebes were noticeable inside Drayton Harbor, still sporting their breeding plumage. As these first teasers began to arrive, a small wave of excitement rippled through the birding community.
The quiet and near absence of most birds in August and early September was easily forgotten when large flocks of common terns were spotted with the accompanying presence of parasitic jaegers. As September moved along and the foggy mornings became commonplace, the minds of most avid birdwatchers began to awaken. We turned our thoughts to a more numerous and wider variety of birds than we’d seen in months. It is quite understandable that the large numbers of birds that spend their winters here are what established this corner of the state as a Mecca for winter birding. It is a known fact that large flocks of birds attract sizable flocks of humans.
Before winter sets in and we all wait for reports of snowy owls, some of the best birding of the year is at hand. Birdwatchers tend to be fickle to a great extent and the return of our winter birds is often the highlight of the year. While we enjoy the bright colors and songs of spring birds, fall brings an entirely new perspective on bird behavior in general. Birds of the same species that were highly territorial during the nesting season flock together and thrill us with their sheer numbers. Very few images are as impressive and firmly implanted as that of more than twenty thousand snow geese leaving the security of bays and inlets to feed in agricultural fields.
Along with the snow geese are tens of thousands of birds of the large family of waterfowl, including the magnificent trumpeter and tundra swans. Thousands of northern pintails and American wigeons move in and begin to crowd the shores of Drayton Harbor and Semiahmoo Bay. Dunlin and western sandpipers arrive by the thousands and entertain us with their spectacular synchronized flight, often utilized to confuse the attendant peregrine falcons and merlins. On the water, diving birds become more plentiful with grebes, scoters, mergansers, and scaup providing opportunities for birders of all experience levels to hone their skills at field identification.
I might be simplifying the entire picture by showing my unabashed bias for fall in general and my own seminal connection with birds. Roger Tory Peterson often told the story of the yellow-shafted flicker as the spark that ignited his passion for birds and started him on his lifelong quest. We all have stories of how we became interested in birds and my own is deeply rooted in the sights and sounds of migrating waterfowl and the end of the summer doldrums. As you ponder the birding opportunities ahead, be sure to add the spectacular light and colors of fall. Throw on your favorite wool jacket and hat and you’re ready to go. After all, the beginning of fall takes us one step closer to next spring!