The return of rafts of water birds marks the beginning of fall

birds by season

Autumn approaches, leaves turn yellow and red, sunlight slants low — while returning flocks of birds splash their colors across the canvas of a deepening blue sky and Sound.

For these water birds, it’s a time of departures, returns and trading places. And for me, it’s the promise of their arrival that eases my transition into the drizzling skies of winter.

A friend who has lived on Quartermaster Harbor for decades was smitten by these gorgeous water birds when she learned of them in the Enjoyment of Birds classes last fall. As her new duck discoveries continued through the fall and winter, she stopped me at Thriftway one day in February, exclaiming, “Alan, I must tell you that all I used to see out there were sitting ducks, and now I see rafts of elegant long-necked Western grebes, red-throated loons, red-breasted mergansers, buffleheads, glowing goldeneyes and those clown-faced surf scoters. I had no idea they were all out there before!”

She and her husband were so taken by these birds that they bought new binoculars and a spotting scope for a closer look at these iridescent beauties. They had discovered a new world, yet it had always been there.

While the exotic songbirds of spring and summer depart to winter in the tropics, the warmly feathered water birds of winter — loons, grebes and no less than 35 different duck species — return from their secret northern or mountain breeding grounds to winter quarters, adorning our shoreline, bays and ponds.

Meanwhile, a few species of winter forest birds also return. Ruby-crowned kinglets re-appear, hanging upside down while picking insects under alder leaves. And those seldom seen but often heard Swainson’s thrushes trade places (off to the tropics) with the Halloween-colored varied thrush and the aptly named hermit thrush, both descending from the mountains.

Robins trade places too. Many of our spring-summer robins migrate to California, while others arrive in flocks from Alaska and Canada to winter in Puget Sound.

But the water birds are the lead players in the avian drama of fall and winter.

Unlike the cryptic warblers and Swainson’s thrushes of spring and summer, these over-wintering water birds are as easy to watch as sitting ducks. We can view them easily at any time of day from our many shorelines, bays and docks. Some of the best viewing stops include KVI Beach, the Tramp Harbor pier, Shawnee beach (a wide road pullout with an “Important Bird Area” interpretive sign marking the spot), Fisher Pond and both sides of Portage. And there are those special views to be enjoyed from above the water — on a ferry.

A wall tile by Irene Otis that hangs on our kitchen wall reads, “Vashon’s a state of the heart: missing a boat means catching a golden opportunity.”

For me, with a book and binoculars always in the car, that’s time for either a good read, a latte or birding from the pier. And I continue those bird discoveries on the crossing, along with the occasional sighting of an orca pod, a Dall’s porpoise or a seal swimming below. Yet, I often get curious looks from others on the ferry when I’m searching the water with my binoculars. Once, a ferry worker asked me what I was onto, and I pointed out a red-breasted merganser. “Oh, I call that one the mohawk bird,” she said, a perfect name for a bird with a shaggy red crest. Being a good observer, she asked, “Where does it go in summer? Where do all the water birds go in summer?”

Northwest winters may often be

dreary, but they are much less so once you become acquainted with the winter water birds. Although the waters around the Island seem sadly empty after they leave in April, the returning songbirds of spring arrive to take their place in the ongoing avian migration and the cycle of the seasons.

— Alan Huggins teaches The Enjoyment of Birds Classes for Vashon Audubon.

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