Shorebirds at Ocean Shores. photo: Joe Meche
by Joe Meche
As you’re reading this column, the first day of spring is behind us and the profusion of greenery is everywhere. We’re also seeing and hearing the transitional phases of our migratory birds. The birds that have spent the winter with us are feeling the instinctual pull of their northern and eastern breeding grounds. At the same time, we’re beginning to see the arrival of birds that have wintered farther south, like swallows and even rufous hummingbirds.
For many birders, and I include myself in this group, there’s a bit of seasonal nostalgia to deal with as our winter birds depart. It seems that the majority prefers fair weather birding of spring and summer over the capricious weather of Pacific Northwest winters. Truth be known, I side with the winter birds, especially when I consider the large numbers of accessible birds like snow geese and swans. As I watched and heard several flocks of northbound trumpeter swans overhead during the first part of March, I felt that spring really was on the way.
I know from previous experience that as the world turns, so should I, albeit reluctantly. I’ve always enjoyed the concept of going into any kind of weather and becoming one with the birds. Part of me will miss the cozy layers that allow me to be out and about in relative comfort, and there are usually fewer humans to contend with when I’m there. I guess the best thing for me to do is to shake off those feelings and look forward to the birds that are on the way here to enliven the spring and early summer days. As the loons out on saltwater habitats are beginning to don breeding plumage, Anna’s hummingbirds are already nesting. Meanwhile, great blue herons and bald eagles are busily reconstructing their large nests to accommodate the newest arrivals.
So, what do we expect to see and where are the best places to go to soften the blow of the seasonal changes? As always, Cindy and I look forward to the traditional opening of the North Cascades Highway as the beginning of spring and summer birding for us. A month before that happens, however, I plan to make a solo journey/escape to the southwest coast to greet the spectacular shorebird migration. The end of April into the first part of May is generally considered the peak time for this major movement of birds heading to northern breeding grounds.
Despite the wind and rain last year, there were enough weather breaks to sneak in good blocks of time at several spots along the coast. From Tokeland on the south to Cape Flattery on the north, my days were filled with good birds. The great thing about the northbound movement in spring is not only the large numbers of birds, but also the beautiful breeding plumage they’re sporting. Field guides fall a little short in conveying the real beauty of these birds. On a sunny day on the coast, the colors of shorebirds are simply beyond description and must be experienced first-hand.
The beach at Ocean Shores seemingly goes on forever and it’s easy enough to drive for miles and miles to find the birds. During spring migration, however, certain sections of the beach are closed to vehicular traffic. That’s when you don your surf boots and walk as far as you wish. If, as I have done in the past, you choose to camp at Ocean City State Park, you can simply walk to the beach from the campground. I prefer to cover more ground so I simply use the campground as a base of operations.
As damp as it is on the coast, the perfect remedy is to follow up in late May and head for the drier side of the Cascades. We intentionally plan to go at least a week before Memorial Day. The crowds won’t be there, yet, but the wonderful late spring weather will be. Wildflowers will cover the hillsides and eastside birds will be well into the nesting season. Our most frequent location to set up for our stay is the Pearrygin Lake State Park. The campground is clean and orderly and serves as a perfect base camp. From here we can take off and hike or bike into the Methow Wildlife Area or take our bikes and ride into Winthrop for the day. And of course, the lake is outstanding for kayaking. Our reserved site this year is right on the water so we’re pretty excited.
Part of one day is always set aside to drive to the veritable birder’s paradise that is the Beaver Pond, above Patterson Lake on the way to the Sun Mountain Lodge. This ideal location for birding features a number of trails, including one that makes a complete loop around the largest beaver ponds I’ve ever seen. Warblers and woodpeckers, nesting waterfowl and a variety of passerine species surround an osprey nest that serves as a perfect centerpiece for this ideal habitat.
After a couple of excursions, it’s easy enough to get back into the swing of things. Having found the cure for the seasonal transition blues, we can return to the west side of the mountains and fall in line with the resident birds and neotropical migrants that have traveled great distances to raise the next generation of birds, right here in our backyards. I look forward to the morning chorus of birds in places that have been silent through most of the winter. In winter there is usually more activity on saltwater habitats along the county shorelines, but the pace in woodland habitats increases in spring as the sounds of courtship are prevalent. The frantic pace of nest building is followed eventually by the more frantic pace of feeding demanding young birds.
As temperatures moderate and trees begin to leaf out, long walks or bike rides on shaded trails become the most popular form of activity for humans. I highly recommend taking advantage of Bellingham’s extensive park system. Whatcom Falls Park and Cornwall Park are two of the city’s oldest parks and both offer unique birding opportunities. One of my favorite things to do is to take the bus to Bloedel-Donovan Park on Lake Whatcom and walk the Whatcom Creek Trail all the way to the downtown waterfront. Over the years I have recorded almost 120 species of birds along this perfect stream.
Whatcom Creek so perfectly mimics a mountain stream that we have year-round activity of American dippers. Formerly known as water ouzels, dippers were a favorite of John Muir when he explored the wilderness of the Sierra Nevada. These birds create unique nests and are absolutely fearless when dealing with waterfalls and whitewater streams. In one season I’ve observed as many as six nesting pairs on the creek. Whatcom Falls Park is also the best place to see and hear nesting barred owls. When there are owlets to be fed, the activity of the adults is beautiful thing to watch.
As you can tell, by the time summer arrives, it becomes easier and easier to transition into the birds of spring and summer. So get out and explore to find locations that appeal to you and know that the birds will be there. Of course, as the dry and dusty August days roll around I begin to think ahead to the birds of winter! I don’t know if anyone else feels the effects of the seasons the way that I do, but it’s a vicious cycle and someone has to do it.
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 170 columns for Whatcom Watch.