As winter draws near, thousands of birds descend on Vashon

On the October Audubon bird walk a newcomer from Detroit looked surprised when I said we would be checking on the arriving winter migrants. She asked, “Did you say birds migrate HERE for the WINTER?” From her delight at this discovery, I could see that she was ticking another 100 points onto her mental scoreboard for Vashon versus Detroit!

While many summer songbirds have left Vashon to winter in the tropics, thousands of winter waterfowl, including warmly feathered loons, grebes, geese and more than 20 different species of colorful ducks are arriving daily from their northern breeding range. They’re returning to the protected shorelines, numerous bays, freshwater ponds, wetlands and green fields of the Pacific Northwest. And unlike those cryptic summer songbirds flitting among the leaves, these over-wintering water birds are as easy to watch as, well, sitting ducks.

One of the best viewing spots is the gravel parking area called Ellisport on the shore at Chautauqua Beach Road, just north of the intersection of Ellisport and Dockton roads. Best viewing is at high tide, which brings the birds in close to shore. If you approach quietly and slowly, they will stay for you to have a closer look. And by November you will find hundreds of American wigeons there.

The name “wigeon” is derived from the French word “vigeon” for “a whistling duck.” You can hear their soft whistle reminiscent of a bathtub rubber ducky. Wigeons are members of the category of “dabbling” or “puddle” ducks, which includes mallards, pintails, teals and others. Dabblers comically forage “butts up” with head and bill reaching underwater to forage on the eel grass below. A versatile duck, wigeons are also seen foraging on grassy fields and lawns, as their bill is uniquely shaped for clipping grasses.

Smaller than mallards, American wigeons have a short blue-gray and black-tipped bill, speckled gray head, reddish-brown flanks and gray feet. Males are distinguished by their white head patch and an iridescent green band sweeping back from the eye. Years ago they were called bald pate ducks for the white patch on top. If you take a closer look, with a bird guidebook in hand, you may find one in a flock of 100 or so that is actually the red-headed Eurasian wigeon. As the name implies, it’s a separate species common in Europe and Asia. With overlapping breeding grounds just 52 miles across the Bering Strait between Russia and Alaska, some American and Eurasian wigeons do cross over and are seen on both continents. I wonder if Sarah Palin, known to keep a watchful eye on Russia from Alaska, would object to such unauthorized border crossings?

The wigeons, and other dabblers, start arriving at Ellisport as early as late August and gradually increase to peak numbers by December. Early arriving males may cause some birders to exclaim in surprise and wonder what it is. Wigeon drakes, as well as other dabbler species, sometimes appear a little shabby and off-colored; those that do are still completing a major molt that began after breeding.

The preferred breeding habitat of wigeons is the large inland marshes scattered from northeast Washington to Alaska. Drakes remain only until incubation begins, leaving before the eggs hatch. The chicks begin to forage on their own shortly after hatching, but the hen stays and watches over them until they fledge. Meanwhile, with apparently nothing better to do than start replacing feathers worn ragged from the travails of migration, defending a territory and breeding, drakes make good use of their time. They gather together on open lakes and undergo a drastic all-in-one molt from breeding colors and body and flight feathers to a drab, brown and gray hen-like plumage. Imagine that, drakes in drag skulking together! Ornithologists call it the “eclipse plumage,” common to many duck species. Although they are flightless for a month, the hen-like plumage may offer some camouflage against predators. Even though most of their molt is complete before they migrate, early arrivals are still wearing remnants of the camouflage plumage with them when they arrive on Vashon. Hence the reports of “odd ducks.” Meanwhile, females molt in less drastic phases throughout the year.

Drakes are fully feathered in colorful breeding plumage by December, when their amorous antics begin. You may see them run and fly across the water chasing females to eventually pair with a choice hen by mid-winter, ready to migrate and breed again in spring. Go ducks!

— Alan Huggins is a lifelong learner who enjoys birds and nature.

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