Birder’s latest guide is a compendium of local avian life

Over the years, Vashon Island Audubon President Randy Smith has gotten phone calls from birders wondering how they could snag a copy of Ed Swan’s book, “The Birds of Vashon Island.” Printed in 2005, all 750 books sold quickly, and it was a rare day that a used copy appeared on a bookstore shelf.

Over the years, Vashon Island Audubon President Randy Smith has gotten phone calls from birders wondering how they could snag a copy of Ed Swan’s book, “The Birds of Vashon Island.” Printed in 2005, all 750 books sold quickly, and it was a rare day that a used copy appeared on a bookstore shelf.

Lately, though, Smith has been able to offer words of encouragement to those hungering for the second edition. “I tell them, ‘He’s working on it.’”

Indeed, eight years after that first edition, Swan is about to issue the second edition of “The Birds of Vashon Island,” and birders throughout the region are already eagerly anticipating it. His is a singular contribution, Smith said, a compendium that provides information not just on the different species of birds on Vashon Island, but also their nesting habits, migration patterns, habitat needs and historic ranges – a snapshot in time as well as a look at the way Vashon’s ecosystems have changed over the years.

“The thing about the book and Ed’s work,” Smith said, “is that there’s almost nothing like it for an environment of our scale.”

Smith, who used to manage clean water programs for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, is deeply impressed by what Swan has accomplished. “If we were like Japan and designated people as national treasures, we would designate Ed either an Audubon treasure or a Vashon Island treasure.”

Swan, 51, likely wouldn’t count himself a local treasure. A bespectacled man with a quiet, bookish manner, he quickly dismisses the notion that he has a regional reputation for his contribution to ornithology or a following much beyond the island. He’s a self-taught birder, a political science major from Whitman College and the stay-at-home parent of two adolescent boys.

His first book sold quickly, he believes, because its publishing fortuitously coincided with the start of Alan Huggins’ popular birding classes on the island. As Huggins launched one class after another, eager birders — many of them new to the fold —  not only snatched up Swan’s book but also began to contact Swan with their sightings, noting their observations and participating in regional bird counts.

Swan says his new book benefits from this growing interest in Vashon’s avian life. But it also benefits from who Swan is, Huggins and Smith noted — a meticulous man and expert birder who has assiduously built a database of sightings he and Vashon’s many other birders have made over the past decade. Add to that Swan’s ongoing research and that of other island ecologists, and the result, Swan says, is a book far more in-depth than his first edition.

“This new book is really pretty complete,” Swan said.

The new edition differs from the first in some significant ways. First, and perhaps most significantly to the regional birding community, Swan documents 15 additional bird species on the island, for a total Vashon list of 251 species.

Several species, it turns out, are more common than he noted in his first book: Barn owls, for instance, went from rare to uncommon, as did the Wilson’s snipe and mourning dove. Great blue herons, meanwhile, though still considered fairly common, no longer successfully nest on Vashon; eagle predation has destroyed all of the island’s heron rookeries as well as smaller nest clusters and even individual nest sites.

His second edition also contains much more information about Vashon’s varied habitats, again due in part to the contributions others have made to the region’s collective knowledge, Swan said. Vashon forester Derek Churchill, for instance, directed Swan to the most up-to-date imagery of Vashon habitat types, enabling Swan to characterize the island’s forest types with much greater specificity.

His first book contained one map that attempted to depict all of Vashon’s habitat types. The second edition has three maps, all much more detailed, showing regions of the island and their varied habitats. “I was able to characterize the forests much more clearly,” he said.

Vashon has also changed over the years, and the new edition captures those changes, as well. Raab’s Lagoon, for instance, was not a protected site in 2005, when his first book was published, and the fight to protect eastern Maury from an industrial-scale gravel-mining operation was still in full swing. Indeed, Swan said, when he now looks around Vashon, he sees that nearly every habitat type has been protected, making the island a rich and exciting place for birders.

Recently, birders on one of the Audubon Society’s monthly field trips discovered a pair of green-winged teals nesting at Mukai Pond, the first such sighting recorded on Vashon. Such a discovery, Swan said, “is exciting.” Green-winged teals need wetland areas, a habitat type that has disappeared through much of the greater Puget Sound region, Swan said. “You just don’t think about teals nesting in Western Washington much anymore.”

Swan was raised in Olympia and developed an interest in the outdoors as a boy, when he used to go deer-hunting with his father. “Birding in a lot of ways is like that — being out in the wild and looking at what’s there,” he said.

He and his wife, Linda Barnes, the chief quality officer for the Puget Sound Blood Center, moved to Vashon 15 years ago. Today, they live in a well-appointed home tucked into the woods above Paradise Valley, where they used to watch a pair of sharp-shinned hawks that nested nearby try to get their chickens. (The hawks were unsuccessful, but Swan got some great photographs.)

Swan’s office looks out over a tangle of native forest, and its walls are lined with books that bespeak his passion — decades’ worth of local Audubon magazines, arranged chronologically, regional natural history books, countless bird guides and the first volume ever published about birds in the region, W.L. Dawson’s 1909 “The Birds of Washington State.”

Swan is pleased by what he’s been able to capture in the second edition of “The Birds of Vashon Island.” His first book was based on data 15 years old at the time; this one is based on data six to seven years old. The Christmas bird count was still somewhat recent when he published in 2005; this time, he’s had 15 years’ worth of Christmas count data to incorporate. It’s not a field guide, he notes, nor is it a picture book. Like his first edition, it’s a companion to a field guide — a book that tells stories about what’s here and why.

This time around, though, he doesn’t expect it to sell out in a matter of months. He’s printed 2,000 books, a lot, he figures, on an island of 11,000. “I’ll have this one for several years,” he predicted.

Huggins, however, thinks this edition — like his first — will sell quickly, in large part because of Swan’s reputation as a regional expert. “Ed’s contributions to our knowledge and enjoyment of birds on Vashon have been astounding,” he said.

— Leslie Brown is the former editor of The Beachcomber. She works at the King County Department of Public Defense.

Ed Swan will give a talk about his book at 7 p.m. Thursday, Dec. 12, at the Land Trust Building. Swan also leads birding tours on Vashon and throughout the Puget Sound region. For more information about Swan and his book, visit his website,