2023 Christmas Bird Count gifted with glorious weather

Dozens of birders helped count over over the island and Kitsap Peninsula this year.

A glorious burst of winter sun and rain-free skies accompanied Vashon’s annual Christmas Bird Count (CBC) to close out 2023.

Birders and boaters Asta Tobiassen and Cara Borre, of Gig Harbor, joined island historian Bruce Haulman and helmsman Dennis Davidson aboard Haulman’s boat Vashona, along with The Beachcomber’s editor, to traverse Quartermaster harbor and spot birds from the sea.

Their angle from the sea proved fortuitous. The birders spied and recorded birds at a furious pace for about three hours, calling out goldeneyes, buffleheads, kingfishers, surf scoters, red-breasted mergansers, cormorants and many more birds. Along the way, they passed by a lounging harbor seal and at least one bald eagle.

Tobiassen and Borre have birded for years, but this was the first count they participated in on Vashon. Spying birds from the bow of Haulman’s Vashona made for a plethora of catches, and they had help through eBird, a online database that helped them look up which birds have been historically spotted on Vashon.

Tobiassen said she expected to see more scaup — a medium-sized duck — and Borre was surprised that they didn’t run into any mallards during the visit. The huge numbers of wintering scoters, on vacation from their breeding grounds in Canada and Alaska, were the star of the show that Sunday.

“(Birding) takes you cool places you’d never go,” Tobiassen said. “You meet people you’d never otherwise meet.”

Borre goes birding about thirty miles out from the coast through Westport Seabirds, where she spies huge, open-ocean birds like albatross.

“It’s a great hobby,” Borre said. “You can do it anywhere. We travel all over the country and the world … (but) you can do it in your backyard, on your way into the supermarket, and you can travel all over the world for it. … It can get quite obsessive, but it’s also peaceful.”

The count evolved from a tradition of hunters competitively killing birds on Christmas Day. Birders, starting in 1900, looked at the tradition and suggested counting, rather than killing, the birds.

That morphed into what is now the annual Christmas Bird Count, organized by the National Audubon Society, which takes place nationally each year as local chapters schedule their events between Dec. 14 and Jan. 5. Vashon’s took place on New Year’s Eve this year.

For the bird count, the 15-mile Vashon “count circle” includes the entirety of both Vashon and Maury Islands as well as a large chunk of the Kitsap Peninsula, most of Blake Island and a small slice of Burien. (In Vashon’s count circle, there’s actually more land area on the Kitsap Peninsula and in Pierce County than the total of Vashon-Maury island area according to Vashon CBC coordinator Ezra Parker.)

That circle is divided into smaller areas, with roughly two dozen teams assigned to different routes to identify the types and numbers of birds seen that day. Roughly 60 to 80 people participated in the count this year, Parker said.

Birders can also help individually by counting from their backyard.

Data collected at the local level from the bird count informs research on bird populations and migration patterns across North America, and also helps Vashon Audubon analyze trends here on Vashon.

This was the ninth count coordinated on Vashon by Parker, who said it’s too early to draw broad conclusions from this year’s CBC data, which is still being tabulated.

It’s hard to tease out conclusions from the count, Parker said, because there are so many confounding factors: How long was a group counting? How skilled were they? Was the weather good? And did they just get plain lucky?

And even from day to day, you can see “dramatic fluctuations” in bird populations, Parker said.

But this year included the first sighting of an American dipper in seven or eight years, and the first sighting of a brown-headed cowbird, which hasn’t been counted on the island in at least a decade, Parker said. Both birds were spotted by the same lucky team on the Kitsap Peninsula.

“It was probably the best Christmas Bird Count weather we’ve ever had,” said island photographer and bird counter Jim Diers.

Diers’ group sought birds around the center of the island between Tramp Harbor and Burton, covering the skate park, Paradise Valley, the Burton peninsula, Sunrise Ridge and more. From saltwater to freshwater, forests to wetlands, Diers’ group saw more than 50 species in one day, though there were surely many birds they missed, he said.

Diers said he typically sees hundreds of robins — this year, he only spotted 10. On the other hand, they saw bald eagles, red-tailed hawks, a Cooper’s hawk, a red-breasted sap sucker, loons and lots of raptors. The Christmas Bird Count makes you feel like part of a much larger community, Diers said, and helps researchers understand the threat of climate change toward bird species.

Diers cited Ed Swan’s “The Birds of Vashon Island” as a valuable resource for understanding avian life on the island.

At one point, while counting buffleheads, their group spotted a couple of bald eagles, which captured and ate one of the buffleheads, Diers said — raising a philosophical question for their count.

“We weren’t sure if we should count that one or not,” he said.

On Vashon and Maury, Diers said the Christmas Bird Count has helped him explore more parts of the island and notice changes in avian populations over the years — including the decline of the iconic Western Grebe, which is also the logo of the Vashon Audobon.

Bird populations worldwide are generally in decline, Parker said, for a variety of reasons that include climate change, habitat loss, overfishing and pollution. On Vashon, some birds populations are increasing while others are dwindling.

One well-known species in decline is the western grebe, which used to number in the thousands in Quartermaster Harbor, birders said. A significant chunk of the species in Washington used to winter at Vashon, Parker said, but that has changed to the point where they’re “almost non-existent in Quartermaster Harbor” now.

The Vashon Audobon started in 1989. The group works with the Vashon-Maury Land Trust to improve ecological habitat, organizes a birding program with Chautauqua elementary students, puts on monthly bird walks and advocates for bird-friendly policies in the state legislature.

The organization is also currently considering a name change, reflecting a broader trend among birding communities to reckon with the history of namesake John James Audubon. Audobon was a talented naturalist and illustrator, but also a fabulist and plagiarist who bought and sold enslaved people, stole human remains and criticized the British government’s emancipation of enslaved people.

For more information about Vashon Audubon and the bird count, visit vashonaudubon.org or write to Parker at ezra@cfgrok.com.

Alex Bruell photo
Cara Borre, left, calls out bird names and counts to Asta Tobiassen, right, who photographs and records the bird numbers on New Year’s Eve day in Quartermaster Harbor.

Alex Bruell photo Cara Borre, left, calls out bird names and counts to Asta Tobiassen, right, who photographs and records the bird numbers on New Year’s Eve day in Quartermaster Harbor.

A bald eagle in flight. Jim Diers photo

A bald eagle in flight. Jim Diers photo

Alex Bruell photo
A gull stands on the rigging of a ship in Quartermaster Harbor.

Alex Bruell photo A gull stands on the rigging of a ship in Quartermaster Harbor.

Jim Diers photo
A red-tailed hawk.

Jim Diers photo A red-tailed hawk.

Jim Diers photo
An American crow.

Jim Diers photo An American crow.

A spotted towhee. Jim Diers photo

A spotted towhee. Jim Diers photo