Thursday, June 14, 2007

Vacation Bird Count

While we saw and heard many birds while on vacation in the state of Washington, we didn't really see the kinds of birds we expected at the ocean. It seems that Florida or Carolina always have lots of birds on the beach, including different kinds of gulls and the small wading birds that go down to the ocean and back. In Washington, we learned that large numbers of shore birds appear in early to mid-May for their migration back to Alaska, then they all disappear. This is a valuable lesson: check first to see what birds are in season, so you don't miss them by only two weeks. Inexperience gauging the tides affected our birding success too, since the birds apparently prefer some water rather than just mudflats. We did not realize that high tide is different in the marsh up the bay than it is on the ocean itself. The real surprise was the number and variety of birds at the Sewage Treatment plant ponds!
We saw Herring and Ring Billed Gulls (I think. They never came as close as the Florida gulls for a sure identification). Once I saw some gulls with black heads that I decided were Black-headed Gulls. There were Northern Shovelers, Mallards and Scaup. There were a few Great Blue Herons in the bay, and once we saw a group of Dowitchers. They were back-lit and in silhouette, so we only ID'd them when we saw more at the Seattle Aquarium. Surprisingly, we saw many American Crows wherever we went, whether at the beach or inland. I thought they were Ravens at first, but a Fish and Wildlife officer said they were just crows. They still looked like the trickster, sneaking up and spying on you. Signs prohibited driving on the beach to protect the Snowy Plover.
Small birds were everywhere, especially the White Crowned Sparrow and the Song Sparrow, singing in the trees. I think they must have been having a battle of the songsters, to see who could sing the loudest and longest without stopping. We would see a White Crowned Sparrow in a tree as we started a hike, and he was still in the same tree when we came out over an hour later. The Winter Wren gave them a run for the money too.
Many birds were recognizable variations of Eastern birds. We heard one that sounded like a Nuthatch, and when we finally found it, it was in fact the Red Breasted Nuthatch. This bird can be found in the East, according to the book, although I've never seen one here. There were many Towhees, a Chestnut-backed Chickadee and a variety of Junco with rufous sides, identified by Sibley as an Oregon Junco. The Marsh Wren sang from the marshes waiting for the tide to come in, while the Winter Wren rivaled our backyard Carolina Wren in the volume of its song. Swallows twittered and darted about no matter where we went, ocean, forest or town. They seemed to love the seaside cliffs especially. Although I did not identify a Cliff Swallow, we photographed the Barn Swallow and Tree Swallow when they stopped flying for a minute's rest.
Happily, we saw some of the more Western birds as well, including both Gray and Stellar Jays, and Clark's Nutcracker, which looks more like a Mockingbird in size and coloring. Like Jays everywhere, they have a reputation as a camp thief and signs warn people not to feed them, or the gulls. One clever sign warned the animals not to accept handouts from people who give them food unfit for animals to eat! The Rufous Hummingbird darted at us from behind a huge tree in the rain forest. I'd never really seen Hummingbirds except around feeders. The biggest thrill in our birding was at the beach. We noticed a shadow of something overhead, looked up and saw a juvenile Bald Eagle swoop down to the water, not 10 yards away, grab a large fish in it talons, and fly back up to the cliffs to have lunch. When is someone going to invent the camera that fits in your eye glasses and activates instantly!

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