Winter Birds of Whatcom County

With Hats Off to Roger Tory Peterson

Great Blue Heron                                                                                                    photo: Joe Meche

by Joe Meche

By the time you read this column in early December, most of our winter birds should be well situated in their respective habitats. Another seasonal transition is behind us, and, for the most part, the birds that we see every day are locked in for the long haul through the colder months. I always wonder how our resident birds handle the seasonal changes in their respective neighborhoods. In winter, they experience the flip side of the southern migrants that arrive in spring and leave as fall and cooler weather return. Getting back to the present, it’s time to don appropriate layers to enjoy our winter visitors. Before we venture outdoors, it might be fitting to know what’s out there, so let’s have a look.

Whenever I put together a list of birds that I might see on field trips throughout the year, I utilize Roger Tory Peterson’s guide to birds, which follows the taxonomic order of most field guides, but sorts them into groups of similar birds based on behavior and habitat. Not only is this the best tool for learning about birds, but it’s also a more sensible approach to what you could see depending on the habitat. The Peterson system quite simply divides birds into eight visual categories, which are keys to field identification. After you’ve used this system for a while, it’s easy to see the connections within each of the categories. Utilizing this system, let’s take a look at the birds we might expect to see locally in the coming months.

This first group includes all of our waterfowl species, like ducks and duck-like birds, loons, grebes, scoters and other sea and bay ducks. Whatcom County has a veritable wealth of habitats that are ideal for waterfowl, ranging from protected estuaries and open expanses of salt water to freshwater lakes and ponds. Agricultural fields with post-harvest stubble are ideal for browsing species like trumpeter and tundra swans and at least four species of geese. The unique Pacific black brant is a regular winter visitor at Birch Bay and Semiahmoo. Long-tailed ducks frequent the deepwater channel between Tongue Point and the Blaine waterfront. The Semiahmoo Spit remains the single best location in the county to view all of our swimmers in a single outing, so pack a lunch and spend the day at one of our premiere birding hot spots.

We have a variety birds that fit into this category year round, most notably the gulls. Our most numerous species is the glaucous-winged, which are always present when it seems nothing else is around. Gulls in general provide the classic challenges in field identification, as their plumage evolves from juvenile to adult, and winter plumage adds to the intrigue. Other reliable winter sightings are the ring-billed and mew gulls.

Long-Legged Waders
This is an easy category to fill because our choices are very limited. In fact, the great blue heron is the only one to include here, with the possible exception of an occasional sandhill crane or two. Easily one of our most recognizable birds, great blues are unique in that they can be found in numerous habitats pursuing a variety of prey. With the ongoing success of the nesting colony on Bellingham’s Southside, we’re never at a loss to spend time with these magnificent birds throughout the winter. They’re always a welcome sight and a joy to observe as they go about their day, mostly unaffected by the watchers.

Black Oystercatcher                                                                                            photo: Joe Meche

Small Waders
As winter moves in, excitement builds when the flocks of shorebirds like dunlin arrive in numbers that are often difficult to comprehend. Very few winter bird sightings warm a birder’s heart more than the seemingly choreographed flight of thousands of dunlin eluding birds of prey, like falcons. Western sandpipers, sanderlings, plovers, and black turnstones are other small waders that are commonly found on the cobble beaches of our winter shorelines. A notable member of this group to check for on open beaches is the inimitable black oystercatcher.

Fowl-Like Birds
This is another small group of prospects that must include introduced wild turkeys, especially since there are small populations of wild birds in the foothills. As elevation increases, opportunities exist to see ruffed and sooty grouse, while white-tailed ptarmigan can be found on the snowy slopes of the high country. Snow shoes or cross-country skis will get you into their realm.

Birds of Prey
One of the highlights every year is the infusion of raptors that winter in Whatcom County. Birds of prey generate as much excitement as any other group of birds. Eagles, hawks, falcons, and owls always seem to be the main focus for many birdwatchers, and rightfully so in winter when their numbers increase substantially. Large gatherings of bald eagles that feed on salmon runs on the Nooksack River warm the cold days of December and January. After the salmon runs, the same eagles flood into the lowlands prior to departing for their nesting grounds in early spring. Owls are good sightings year round, but no other species is more exciting than the snowy owl. Avid birders will abandon the comfort of hearth and home for a glimpse of a snowy.

Non-Passerine Land Birds
This is another broad category that includes a mixed variety of birds that are here throughout the winter. Our common rock pigeons and mourning doves have been joined by increasing numbers of Eurasian collared doves throughout the county, and the hardy Anna’s hummingbirds stay with us throughout the coldest days of winter. The overall numbers of Anna’s have increased as more people become aware of keeping feeders from freezing. Belted kingfishers are common sightings in appropriate habitats, as are our resident woodpecker species. Northern flickers frequent open woodlots and grasslands while downy, hairy, and pileated woodpeckers favor forested areas like Whatcom Falls Park.

This is the most widely represented of all the categories, regardless of the time of year, but our resident birds are joined by a few notable visitors. Crows, ravens, and jays represent the Corvid family and are familiar to most birders, as are the overly abundant European starlings, American robins, and house sparrows. Varied thrushes flood into the lowlands when deep snow covers the ground in higher elevations.

If you have feeders in your yard, you will have passerines. These are generally the smaller perching birds that are quite common throughout the year, like chickadees, bushtits. and nuthatches. Appropriate feeders also attract a mixed bag of non-passerine species like woodpeckers and hummingbirds.

As far as locations where you might see all of these birds, visit the website of the North Cascades Audubon Society (NCAS) at Under the Birding menu click on Locations to find a county map of the best birding spots, along with the species you might find in each location. I put this map together when we created the first NCAS website at least 20 years ago, and it still works today. The map and location descriptions are available in printable versions.

Despite the obvious challenges of winter, this is one of the best seasons for birding in Whatcom County. Overall, bird numbers are at their highest levels and birds will be there! Nothing makes the home fires and a warm beverage taste better than a day of birding in the winter fields. Remember the winter birders’ mantra …LAYERS!

Bellingham Christmas Bird Count
In continuous operation since 1967, this year’s Christmas Bird Count will be held on Sunday, Dec. 15. If you would like to participate in the count, contact Doug Brown at (360) 647-1657 or at Christmas Bird Counts are widespread and a good way to get involved with the longest-running citizen science effort in history. Plus, you get to spend the day birding with a purpose.

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 over 190 columns for Whatcom Watch.