Bird Sightings -- Winter, 2004-2005By Bob Boekelheide
It looks like winter 2004-2005 will go down in history as one of the driest ever for the north Olympic Peninsula. It’s so bad that experts are comparing this year with 1977 and 2001, legendary drought years in the Pacific Northwest. The snows that fell last Jan. 7 and 8 are long gone, decimated by sunshine and warm temperatures. Snow pack measurements in the Olympics and the Cascades are a mere fraction of normal, which will certainly lead to low stream flows this spring and summer. It’s eerie looking up at the Olympics at the end of February and seeing rocks instead of snow.
Even though this is a fairly weak El Nino year in the central Pacific, weather patterns in western North America are more in line with larger El Ninos, splitting the jet stream and bringing drought to the Pacific Northwest along with torrential rains into California. Some areas of California and Arizona have recorded three times normal rainfall in the last few months, apparently only the fifth water year on record in which Los Angeles has received more rain than Seattle. Temperatures have also been up and down, including a new high temperature for Jan. 19, when the River Center’s thermometer hit 69oF.
Despite drought conditions, Song Sparrows, Hutton’s Vireos, Black-capped Chickadees, Dark-eyed Juncos, and Bewick’s and Winter Wrens sing their lovely spring songs right now. It’s clearly time to tune in to bird songs, which will reach full-throated bliss in the next couple months. Unfortunately, drought years are usually poor breeding years for songbirds, so the upcoming breeding season may be brief. By July the songs will be over and we’ll grieve for the ones we missed, so get out there now and listen up.
Time to look up! Early spring migrants like Turkey Vultures and swallows will be here at any moment. Who will win the first swallow award this year? White-crowned Sparrows, undoubtedly rained-out at their California wintering grounds, should arrive in the next few weeks, along with Savannah Sparrows in the last week of March. If you’re lucky enough to have Western Bluebirds nesting at your house, such as Bob Hays up O’Brien Road, you may already have seen these special visitors. Bob reports the first bluebirds visited his nest boxes on 2/5, with at least 4 more prospecting boxes on 2/16.
Rufous Hummingbirds also arrive soon, so it’s time to wash out those feeders and hang them up when the little rascals knock at the window. Many people claim that the first hummers fly to the exact spot where their feeders hung last year, as if the same birds expect to find the feeder ready to go. Curiously, Ken Wiersema reports a Rufous male at his home near Dungeness on 1/30, suggesting that this bird may have wintered over somewhere around here. Some wintering Anna’s Hummingbirds still remain, including one at Maggie Walthall’s home in Dungeness and Ed and Linda Holden’s home by RR Bridge Park.
I’ve had many reports about Trumpeter Swans in the last month from places like Port Williams Rd., Schmuck Rd., Woodcock Rd., near 3 Crabs, and in the pond at the base of Bell Hill by Hwy 101. Thanks especially to Mike Crim, Don Myers, Jack and Pat Fletcher, Les Jones, and Nancy Kohn for the swan reports. High counts at each location have only reached 8 or 9, not a good showing compared to some winters when we have 15 to 30 in the area.
If you haven’t heard, as many as 1,300 swans have died in Whatcom County and southern British Columbia during the past five winters, likely victims of lead poisoning, according Martha Jordan of the Swan Society. As reported in the last issue of the HH, we missed Trumpeter Swans on this year’s Sequim-Dungeness Christmas Bird Count, the first time that has happened since 1988.
Irving Warner and Kim and Patrick Loafman reported three Snow Geese traveling with 40 or so Canada Geese in Port Angeles during early January, seen at Civic Field on 1/3 by Irving and near the Nippon mill on 1/9 by Kim and Patrick. The only different ducks I’ve heard about this winter were two male Redheads seen by Gene Kridler at Washington Harbor on 1/2.
Patrick and Kim Loafman saw a Green Heron at the Elwha River mouth on 1/9, always a good bird around here. Need some help in the garden? Terry Vogel looked out her window just east of the Dungeness River on 1/13 to see a huge bird flying by with a weirdly-shaped bulbous head and long trailing plumes. After fetching her binoculars, she discovered that it was a Great Blue Heron with either a vole or a mole still struggling in its mouth, along with strands of vegetation hanging down to the ground.
The male Northern Harrier with the white “L” tag on its right wing, first seen here on our Christmas Bird Count on 12/20/04, is still around; last seen on 2/4 by Sue and Carl Christensen near Marine Drive in Dungeness. As reported, Jack Bettesworth tagged this bird as a chick at the Oak Harbor sewage lagoons in 2001. It bred there in 2003, then began wandering, seen at Padilla Bay and the Skagit River mouth before appearing here last fall. Please take close looks at all male harriers you see, and let me know if you see white “L” again.
Stefan Schlick and Mike Fleming birded Port Townsend and Diamond Point on 1/29, seeing 11 Ancient Murrelets off Fort Worden and 6 Marbled Murrlets at Diamond Pt. The Ancient Murrelets are trickling back to their northern breeding islands right now. Those rascally Pigeon Guillemots are back in black breeding plumage, cavorting in Sequim Bay and off Port Williams where they nest in the cliffs.
I’ve received essentially no reports about shorebirds lately. It seems like we’ve just had the usual wintering species this winter – Black-bellied Plover, Sanderling, Dunlin, Black Oystercatcher, Black Turnstone, and Killdeer.
There are lots of Thayer’s Gulls at the mouth of the Elwha River right now, so take a lovely drive there before they leave. The best gull report from the Elwha comes from Bob Sundstrom, who, with his Victor Emanuel tour on 2/8, saw an Iceland Gull there. The bird was either an adult or third-winter almost-adult. He said the gull was very pale, so possibly not a Kumlien’s type Iceland Gull, the Canadian arctic subspecies which is likely to be here in winter.
Sheila Joyce heard a Western Screech Owl quietly tooting by the Dungeness River near RR Bridge Park on 1/31. Not far away, one and possibly two Great Horned Owls hooted on the north side of the park on 2/3. Look out screech owl! The 2/5 Owl Prowl in the Olympics turned up two talking Northern Saw-whet Owls along Woods Rd., and a distant Barred Owl hooting near the Dungeness River. The Dungeness River Audubon Center staff, along with home school students from Port Townsend, dissected about 20 Barn Owl pellets from Ben Crusan’s barn on 1/25, finding only vole (Microtus) bones in all of them.
Steve and Lois Siebersma, lucky enough to live in a forest on Forest Ridge, spotted a wonderful winter flock of Townsend’s Warblers on 1/10, counting up to 10 traveling together through the firs. While snow was on the ground in mid-January Kassandra Kersting had a Townsend’s Warbler eating suet in her yard for several days, reported on 1/16.
This has been a low year for some finch species, particularly Red Crossbills and Evening Grosbeaks, which are very spotty. Even House Finches and Pine Siskins are very low. Dave Shreffler took great pictures of over 20 Evening Grosbeaks at his feeder on Lost Mountain on 2/11, the most I’ve heard of this winter. Mary Robson has the best finch sightings, however, seeing 5 Common Redpolls along the Waterfront Trail in Port Angeles on 1/8 with a group of Pine Siskins. The birds have apparently remained through the winter, as Mary saw them again on 2/10.
Early spring migrants will be here very soon, so now’s the time to get ready. Who will see the first Turkey Vultures, Savannah Sparrows, swallows, Orange-crowned Warblers, and Common Yellowthroats? Put out your hummingbird feeders. Clean out your bird boxes. Remember your bird songs. Take a spring bird class at the Dungeness River Audubon Center. Please call Bob Boekelheide at 681-4867 (h) or 681-4076 (w) (email at firstname.lastname@example.org) or Bob Norton at 928-3053 (email at email@example.com) when you see something interesting or unusual. Thank you very much for your sightings.