As the rain fell on Sunday morning, a flitting song sparrow took shelter beneath the awning over the stairs by the parking lot at the north-end ferry terminal. Three hearty island birdwatchers had gathered there to help kick off the 2019 Audubon Christmas Bird Count, but the weather threatened to spoil the occasion.
“One of the keys of birding is to buy waterproof binoculars,” said Randy Smith, conservation chair of the Vashon-Maury Island Audubon, undeterred.
Before long, he and his wife, fellow birder Sharon Metcalf, met islander Fran Brooks by the Water Taxi dock where together they spotted the black and white plumage of half a dozen bufflehead ducks poking their heads out of the rough surf. A cluster of cormorants watched them from atop the adjacent pilings.
The Christmas Bird Count had modest beginnings. It was originally started by the Audubon Society on Christmas Day in 1900 as a first-of-its-kind tally of birds that, until then, were the annual targets of hunters during so-called holiday “side hunts,” in which scores of animals were killed for sport. The individual that racked the most kills of the day was named the winner, but with the turn of the century came the vanguard of the conservation movement and a change of attitudes.
Ornithologist Frank Chapman, a pioneering Audubon member, proposed the bird count as an alternative to the “reports of the hundreds of non-game birds which were sometimes slaughtered during a single hunt,” writing in an early issue of the organization’s field manual magazine “Bird-Lore” that the tradition had lost favor among many sportsmen, signaling “a very radical change of tone [that] is one of the significant signs of the times.”
Birders today are as passionate and dedicated as ever, with more than 75,000 citizen scientists leading each Christmas count within 15-mile wide circles — 2,500 in all — across the western hemisphere annually, and more emerging in Latin America. The island count covers a wide area including part of the Kitsap Peninsula, most of Blake Island to the north, and all of Vashon and Maury. Teams have recorded between 115 and 120 bird species each year, according to Christmas Bird Count coordinator Ezra Parker in an interview with The Beachcomber.
Brooks has long participated in the Vashon bird count, held from dawn until dusk on Jan. 5 this year, but always keeps an eye out for the flutter of wings and signature attributes of birds that often touch down in her yard. She recently noted a golden-crowned sparrow, a hummingbird and some crows — all routine sightings for the island during the winter months. But she said times are changing.
“The numbers are so low. Even the birds I normally watch are not here anymore,” Brooks said.
That could be due to a range of causes. The national Audubon notes that last year’s Christmas Bird Count saw a variety of waterfowl and water-dependent birds forced south as early as November after unseasonably cold temperatures set in. The cold finally broke, but many remaining birds were scattered as a result, with common species tallied in generally low numbers.
Another reason for the seeming disappearance of once-recognizable birds could be because they have had to adapt to changes in their environment. The western grebe, Parker noted, stands apart as one of the most prominent examples of change in recent Vashon birding history. Nearly 10% of the species in Washington once used Quartermaster Harbor annually. But no longer.
“We had a significant wintering population a couple of decades ago,” he said, adding that their wintering grounds have shifted as far south as California.
Theories differ to explain why they left. Parker believes there was not enough forage fish for them to feed on in the harbor. But whatever the reason for their departure, there is no indication the western grebes are coming back. “They’re not really here anymore. They’ve been going away for quite a while,” he said.
Parker couldn’t predict if 2020 might be a banner year for a drop-off in population sizes for any given species. As a whole, however, he said most populations of birds on the island remain stable by all accounts, with some even growing, such as Eurasian collared doves, which only made their first appearance in the Christmas Bird Count in 2013.
He added that this year’s Christmas Bird Count on Vashon was especially challenging given the weather, which made it difficult or impossible to observe a great number of the birds that have continued to draw islanders to the count since the Vashon Audubon chapter began participating 20 years ago. Parker said the heavy rain and strong winds may have forced many of the birds into hiding, with volunteers unable to see them or hear them calling — that might impact the results of the count, which have not been finalized yet. But Parker said he was still surprised by preliminary observations of this year’s count. On the south side of Luana Beach road, he said, island birders found flocks of chickadees taking shelter from the wind in numbers unlike anything else all day.
“All the birds were trying to find their way out of the wind. If you didn’t manage to catch up with them in that particular spot, it was a ghost town,” Parker said.
But Parker is also concerned that trends will gradually turn downwards for many species of birds in the near future due to changes in the ocean that will affect the birds’ behavior and habitat, and the loss of insects due to pesticide use, a vital part of their diet.
“A lot of teams told me anecdotally, ‘Wow, it’s really quiet out here,’” he said.
On Sunday morning, Brooks and Smith stood next to each other against the blustery wind charging across the dock and looked through their binoculars, surveying the Vashon waterfront and shore. The count had begun. The team saw five pigeon guillemots. One red-necked grebe. Six or so horned grebes. One red-breasted merganser. Another pair of buffleheads. There were scoters and 18 cormorants in total, Smith shouted to Metcalf, who scribbled them quickly in a moleskin notebook. The conditions made it hard for her to hear him.
Towering above them from a roost on the bare branch of a fir tree onshore, a stoic bald eagle, watching vehicles line up to board the next ferry, ignored the cautious advances of gulls circling nearby. Smith said smaller species of birds, including gulls, have learned to harass predators and drive them away, lest they become lunch.
Satisfied they had identified enough birds from that spot, the group made their way toward the two boat slips where the Issaquah was moored to continue the census. Smith counted 10 rock pigeons and another red-breasted merganser, along with a thin-billed pelagic cormorant and three Brandt’s cormorant. They saw more grebes and the first and only loon of the day. Smith said loons have enormous lungs and can spend up to a minute and a half underwater, making them hard to see. More buffleheads. The males and females are so dissimilar looking that a generation ago, people thought they were different species, he said.
There were nine more cormorants atop some pilings hidden by the Issaquah that eventually came into view. Four surf scoters. Scratch that — five, six, seven, eight, nine surf scoters, Randy shouted. Four more horned grebes. Two more. Five more.
Drifting in the water underneath the porch of The Wild Mermaid not far away were two male Barrow’s goldeneye, distinguished by their oddly shaped heads and piercing, yellow eyes. But Smith said he was searching for harlequin ducks, known to frequent Vashon in only about two or three locations during the winter, including the waters around the dock. But he didn’t see any.
According to a major report by the National Audubon Society released last fall, harlequin ducks are projected to ultimately shift out of the contiguous United States under the most extreme warming scenario driven by climate change, a threat that looms even larger over other species of birds that will be most vulnerable in a warming world, unable to survive in the places where they have always migrated.
Fisher Pond, the largest freshwater pond on the island, has for years been a haven for many species of birds, but during the Christmas count, there was hardly any life on the surface, including heron, common wood ducks or ringed teal ducks. Their absence was maligned and mourned by the discouraged birders. Brooks went so far as to call it the saddest Christmas Bird Count ever.
“What’s interesting is what’s not here,” Smith said.
But Parker said that later in the day, a volunteer using a scope managed to spot two males and a female wood duck in the pond. To him, that underscores the need to get more people involved and enthusiastic about birding, a hobby popular with older people who have more time on their hands but who Parker said may soon encounter greater difficulty getting out to do it in their age.
Parker hopes others will discover their own interest in birding and the natural world and join him for the next Christmas Bird Count. As he found for himself, he said, they will be better for it.
“We have a modern lifestyle that has endless distractions, many of them digital, and I personally tend to find walking around outside elevates my mood a little bit rather than just staring into a screen,” he said.
For more information, visit vashonaudubon.org.
This version of the article corrects Sharon Metcalf’s name.