Swainson’s Thrush photo: Joe Meche
by Joe Meche
Spring will officially begin on March 20, at 3:29 a.m., PDT. For many of us, it can’t come soon enough. Given the climate, both physical and political, we need a break. The ice and snow over the Valentine’s Day holiday slowed everything to a typical crawl for most ‘hamsters, since we’re never prepared for weather that includes slipping and sliding. Rain on the other hand … we’re used to rain and we’re able to continue our normal routines despite the wet conditions. Nevertheless, spring really is right around the corner and the tempo of the birding scene will change accordingly. Spring is our annual reward for perseverance.
Back in November and December, we were very excited to welcome the species that traditionally spend the winter in local waters, woodlots, and backyards. And now, after almost four months of time in the field with the birds and capricious winter weather, it seems that everyone is ready for the seasonal pendulum to swing in our favor. While it seems that we’re never out of the woods with rainy days in the Northwest, we’re prepared for a little color in the landscape when March rolls around. Winter often seems like a study in black and white.
Winter birds that don traditional cold weather plumage will slowly but surely begin to change into their breeding finery. The changes in plumages of particular species of water birds like grebes and loons will make field identification a bit easier for most. Numerous birds that have wintered here will provide us with wonderful views of their respective plumage changes before departing for their breeding grounds to the north and east. I was taken slightly aback in mid-February to encounter a common loon in Blaine harbor that was already changing. To me, this seemed a little early, perhaps a harbinger of the effects of global climate change.
As our winter birds begin their respective departures between April and May, the seasonal overlap begins with the arrival of our own breeding species. When I was writing this column on the second-to-last weekend in February, I was prepared for the first reports of the bird that I consider to be the true harbinger of spring — the tree swallow. This is the first of the seven swallow species that return to breed in Whatcom County every year, including the largest member of the family — the purple martin. One of the great things about these birds is that their primary source of food is flying insects, and that’s very beneficial to our enjoyment of the warmer days to come. Since several of the swallows adapt readily to man-made nesting boxes, build and install a swallow box or two in your backyard and you’ll have built-in pest control throughout the summer.
The local rule-of-thumb has the tree swallows returning around the traditional Washington’s Birthday of February 22; violet-green swallows are here by St. Patrick’s Day; and barn swallows return on or around April 15 — tax day. The other swallow species follow in their wakes until all of our pest control friends have arrived. Swallows follow their food sources north in spring and have been one of the most reliable of all bird species when it comes to the timing of seasonal changes.
While the swallows always seem to lead the avian invasion in early spring, the Neotropical migrants are not far behind. Many birdwatchers focus much of their time on the arrival of these birds for a variety of reasons, including their lively songs and bright colors. Daylight Saving Time (DST) begins on March 12 this year, further adding to the level of excitement that builds in the community of avian aficionados. With the days being longer and warmer, these Neotropicals enliven our time in the field with their breeding songs and colorful displays during courtship.
Birdsong in springtime is among the most evocative when it comes to memories of places and times in our lives. In my own experience, the very distinctive song of the red-winged blackbird always takes me back to the rice fields of southwest Louisiana where I spent a lot of time in my formative years. In many cases, it’s the song or the call that alerts us to the bird’s presence. Learning to identify birds by ear is a lifelong pursuit, especially if your sense of hearing is up to the task. I know two birders who are the perfect match as a team – one is legally blind but has an excellent ear for bird song. The other has excellent eyesight but his hearing is challenged. They rely on teamwork and nothing gets past these two. Regardless of your own level of competence, birding by ear adds to the enjoyment of time spent outdoors and away from everyday distractions.
Some of the most recognizable and anticipated songs in spring include those of black-headed grosbeaks and Swainson’s thrushes, along with the variety of warbler species that nest locally. If you’ve had your fill of polar temperatures and politics, make plans to get into spring birding and while you’re at it, bid farewell to our fantastic winter birds. Birds provide a welcome antidote to the relative insanity of current events so turn off the television and play outside more.
15th Annual Wings Over Water
The Northwest Birding Festival in Blaine, Birch Bay and Semiahmoo will be held on March 10-12, 2017. Birding festivals are a great way to enjoy bird watching in fantastic settings. They offer the added bonus of meeting people who share your passion for our winged wonders. Birding festivals began not only as a way to celebrate birds but also as a means to increase public awareness of birds and the need to protect and conserve the critical habitats necessary for their survival. In 2001 a small group of local birding enthusiasts met to consider the idea of a birding festival in Blaine. The importance of the area as a gathering place for thousands of wintering birds was realized when Drayton Harbor/Semiahmoo was designated as one of 53 Important Bird Areas in Washington state. Shortly after that, the same locale became the anchor leg of the Cascade Loop of the Great Washington State Birding Trail. With significant data to support our efforts, in 2002 a festival was born.
In fifteen years, the Wings Over Water festival has grown to include an array of events and activities to suit bird watchers of every age and level of expertise. There are field trips and excursions led by knowledgeable birders that include a day trip to the George Reifel Migratory Bird Sanctuary in British Columbia; a two-hour open water cruise on the 50’ Salish Sea; and shorter cruises on the Plover ferry from Blaine harbor to Semiahmoo. For those wishing to stay closer to the heart of the festival the All Day Birding Expo will feature photography workshops, arts and crafts exhibitions, and kids’ activities. The festival opening and artist reception will be at the Semiahmoo Resort on Friday evening, with the featured keynote speaker on Saturday evening at the Blaine Performing Arts Center.
For a complete list of activities and events or to register for one of the field trips, visit the festival’s website at www.wingsoverwaterbirdingfestival.com.
Joe Meche is a past president of the North Cascades Audubon Society and was a member of the board of directors for 20 years. He has been watching birds for more than 60 years and photographing birds and landscapes for more than 40 years. He has written more than 150 articles for Whatcom Watch.