Lifestyle

Bird-watching in winter offers a window into Vashon’s natural beauty

By ALAN HUGGINS

For The Beachcomber

Last December, my wife saw an uncommon bird on the suet feeder outside our kitchen window.

She described it as “smaller than a song sparrow, olive gray above and yellow below.”

Orange-crowned warbler, I thought and then confirmed when it appeared again. It’s common in spring but rare in winter as most of its kind migrate south to coastal California and Mexico. The same is true for the vibrantly black and yellow Townsend’s warbler and the yellow-rumped warbler, affectionately known as a “butterbutt.”

The Anna’s hummingbird, with its rose-red chin and crown, is another small winter wonder. On milder sunny days throughout the winter, I often hear it its chattery and scratchy song and see its display flight punctuated with a loud “peep” of exclamation coming from the braking spread of tail feathers at the end of a steep dive.

Historically limited to coastal California, it’s the only hummer to have expanded its northward winter range as far as British Columbia. This bird, and perhaps the warblers, may be responding to climate change, but the hummer’s preference for suburban areas with exotic flowers and feeders may ensure its success.

Bird-friendly gardens with natural food of flowers, berries, seeds and insects will help, but when snow or ice covers the landscape, consider offering extra gifts of suet, sunflower seed and nectar.

In return, you may have a close encounter with a warbler, hummer or the brightly colored, yet wary, varied thrush. This bird is a winter visitor here that migrates within the Pacific Northwest, preferring mountain forests in the breeding season and returning to the lowland forests in winter.

Colored like a turbocharged robin with an intense orange breast and chin, slate-blue back and tail and orange and black streaked head and wings, this thrush is more often heard than seen. Its ethereal whistle, a single harmonic chord, is often heard drifting eerily from its perch in a conifer forest.

Your prospects for seeing these and many of the more than 100 species of winter birds on Vashon increase as you venture around the Island.

Loons, grebes, cormorants, geese, ducks, gulls and other water birds reach the height of their numbers on Vashon ponds, bays and shorelines, along with at least 60 terrestrial species.

Last year, organizer Sue Trevathan reported a record number of 121 species seen on Vashon in the annual Audubon Christmas Bird Count (CBC), including another record of 78 Anna’s hummingbirds and more than 20,000 individual birds overall.

This was made possible by a record number of 54 volunteers in the field and 11 feeder watchers covering a 15-mile circle that includes Vashon and parts of Kitsap, Blake Island and Three Tree Point in Burien. Also, a crack team of owlers documented hearing or seeing all the resident owls, including great-horned, barred, barn, northern saw-whet and western screech owls.

This year, the CBC will be on Saturday, Dec. 27. (See the box below for details on how to participate).

Regarding owls, mid-winter is when they begin courtship for mating. By December, they’re already calling out to each other through the night. The classic “hoo hoo hoo ... hoo hoo” of the great-horned owl and the “who cooks for you” of the barred owl are commonly heard.

After our last New Year’s Eve party, I invited friends outside at midnight to listen for the first bird of the new year. (I had recently heard barred owls).

We turned off all lights and broadcast a recording of the barred owl call from our deck over the deep forested canyon. We faintly saw one and then another dark silhouette fly silently into nearby tall firs, waiting and listening. This was a breeding pair, and we were intruders on their territory.

I played their calls again, “who cooks for you… who cooks for you” followed by some wild, monkey-like calls, characteristic of their breeding season. I paused the playback, and we listened.

Within seconds they screamed the same calls back to us repeatedly in an aggressive owl duet.

I remembered hearing stories of other birders being swooped upon by owls defending their territory, so we ducked low behind the deck rails and listened quietly as the owls continued their vocal assault. When they stopped, we crept back into the house wide-eyed, took a deep breath and savored our encounter with the wild ones.

These experiences with warblers, Anna’s hummingbird, varied thrush and owls are all examples of what Lyanda Lynn Haupt writes about in her book, “Rare Encounters with Ordinary Birds.” Here’s a quote from her introduction:

“Birds will give you a window, if you allow them. They will show you secrets from another world, fresh vision that, though avian, can accompany you home and alter your life. They will do this for you, even if you don’t know them by name — though such knowing is a thoughtful gesture. They will do this for you if you watch them.”

I hope your holiday season will be full of rare, wild and delightful encounters.

­— Alan Huggins teaches classes and leads field trips for both Vashon and Seattle Audubon.

Christmas Bird Count

Conducted nationwide, the Audubon Christmas Bird Count (CBC) is the oldest and largest citizen-science event in the world.

For more than 100 years, people have gathered together during the winter holiday season to count birds. The first CBC was organized to discourage a more destructive tradition — that of going out and shooting birds on Christmas day.

For many people, the CBC is an annual tradition that has passed from one generation to the next. In the process, they have created a vast pool of bird data that is the most comprehensive available for mid-December to early January, studied by scientists and interested people the world over.

The Vashon-Maury Island Audubon Society invites all birders to participate in the CBC on Saturday, Dec. 27. Here’s your opportunity to spend a day in the field with expert birders and enhance your birding skills.

Teams are assigned sections of the count area canvassed either by car or on foot. Most team members spend the entire day in the field, while others contribute the minimum four hours. If you have an especially popular feeding station and would rather not venture forth on a cold winter morning, you can count birds from the warmth of your home or venture around the neighborhood. Special rules for feeder watchers will be provided.

After sunset, usually around 5 p.m., birders gather for a potluck at the Land Trust Building and to share stories about the birds that were either seen or missed.

To participate, contact CBC organizer Sue Trevathan at 463-1484 or at sue.trevathan@centurytel.net.

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