Friday, April 27, 2012

Similk Bay Shorebirds

I have been beachcombing as long as I can remember.  My grandparents spent summers on the Washington coast and I would stay with them sometimes for several weeks.  I was only four or five years old in my earliest recollections.  I have salt water and sand in my blood.  Now, I am fortunate to live on one of the finest beaches of Puget Sound.  I can hike east or west, at least two miles in either direction.  To the east is Similk Bay, the northern-most reach of Puget Sound.  Here seen in springtime haze, Mount Baker stands enduring watch over Similk.

We believe that life began in water.  Scientists, the Book of Genesis and the Quran are in agreement on this point.  I'll bet you didn't realize that.  If you pay attention, you will find evidence of "the moving creature that hath life" every where you look on the beach.  Let's see what we can find along the western shore of Similk Bay.

Gulls are the most common shorebirds in the bay.  With pink legs, red beak spot and black wingtips, these appear to be Western Gulls (Larus occidentalis).  They might also be Western x Glaucous-winged hybrids which happens around here.  As usual, please correct me if I am wrong.

Eelgrass beds and shallow tidal pools are attractive feeding sites for Great Blue Herons (Ardea herodias).  The herons that visit South Fidalgo are probably members of the March's Point Heronry nearby.

Hiking further into Similk Bay reveals a wild and primordial environment.  The high bluff along the western shore limits easy access by humans.  Sediments washing off the bluff nourish the beach.  It is a rich and fertile environment for wildlife.

Like a flotilla of submarines, periscopes  raised, a "swim" of Cormorants passes by.  Although seen in silhouette, these appear to be Double-crested Cormorants (Phalacrocorax auritis).  The light colored throat is a characteristic of younger birds.  Altogether, there were twenty to thirty birds in this group.  They passed by smoothly and swiftly, diving and reappearing like a choreographed water ballet.  There was a rhythm in their diving as if they were following music.  It was the first time I witnessed this behavior.  It was an amazing sight.

I have mentioned before a difference I have noticed between city gulls and country gulls.  Similk and South Fidalgo have country gulls. They are quiet and peaceable, dignified, admirable birds.  When I go into town, I find city gulls.  These birds are noisy and aggressive.  They perch on rooftops and call incessantly.  It's an unhappy sound.  You might find them hanging out at dumpsters.  I always enjoy watching my country gulls.

Did you know that because of their webbed feet, gulls can't perch like other birds.  They must stand on flat surfaces.  The foot of a perching bird will automatically grasp a twig or branch tightly.  Gulls cannot do this.  This may be why they are comfortable on the flat, horizontal surfaces of our cities.  In the air, sea and on land, however, the athleticism of gulls is unsurpassed.

Are crows considered shorebirds?  Around here they are.  The Northwestern Crow (Corvus caurinus) is associated with tidal areas and makes its living as a beachcomber.  Like the gulls and herons, I see them almost daily, the year around.

The Killdeer (Charadrius vociferus) is a member of the Plover family.  It is a common bird throughout North America.  Inland, it prefers open, grassy fields, but here it is a shorebird.  It nests in a hollow depression in the rocks on the beach, out in the open.  If this bird hadn't been calling, I would not have spotted it.  If they sit still and quiet, they are invisible.  "Vociferous" is a good name for them, since they are rarely quiet.  I think this is the bird that made the tracks in the sand above.

Of course, we can't forget the Bald Eagle (Haliaeetus leucocephalus).  We see them frequently perched along the shore where they can spot fish out in the bay.  We might also catch one with the gulls and crows attending carrion on the beach.  While their nests are in more secluded spots, they will always be within easy reach of the seashore.

"Let the waters bring forth abundantly the moving creature that hath life, and fowl that may fly above the earth in the open firmament of heaven."
-Genesis 1:20

"And from water we made all living things."
-Sura 21:30

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Good Morning

This proves leaving the big trees in my yard was a good decision.  While they make gardening a challenge, they are definitely attractive to wildlife.  Two of the Douglas Firs have hunting perches at the top allowing the Bald Eagles to look out over Skagit Bay.  I always look forward to their morning greeting calls.

Saturday, April 14, 2012

Visiting Old Friends

I was back on Kiket Island today and I knew exactly what I wanted to see again.  I think the Black Oystercatcher (Haematopus bachmani) has become my favorite shorebird.  I headed straight across the island and out to the spot where I saw them last summer.  With a high tide this time, I wasn't sure if my quest would be successful.

But I was successful, spotting this pair resting in almost the same place I saw the birds last year.  I have a hunch this could be the same pair.  They form long-term bonds and are known to return to the same feeding and nesting territory year after year.  Last year, the pair was nesting on the edge of Flagstaff Island which is attached to Kiket by a tombolo.

The preferred habitat is a rocky beach where they can feed on mussels and limpets.  I found these examples in stony tidal pools on the beach nearby.  The Oystercatcher's beak is tailor-made for opening mussels.

Across Skagit Bay, this is my view of Kiket Island and her little companion Flagstaff Island on the right.  Access to these islands has been limited for many years and a unique, pristine environment has resulted.  They are now protected as part of the Kukutali Preserve, a venue of Deception Pass State Park.  Two hour guided visits are available on some Saturday mornings.  Reservations may be arranged by calling 360-661-0682.

I spotted the birds on the rocky outcrop jutting from the south side of Flagstaff Island.  To the west, Deception Pass is in the background.  If you visit the islands and spot the Oystercatchers, please be respectful.  They are laid back and easy-going birds tolerant of visitors, but remember that this is their home.  Keep your distance and only approach them with binoculars and zoom lenses.

For more about this visit to the Kukutali Preserve, see "Gardens of Kukutali" at Fidalgo Island Crossings.

Friday, April 6, 2012

A Couple Hours at Deception Pass

The weather started to look more spring-like this week.  With a day off and a pause in the rain, I decided to see what was going on at nearby Deception Pass State Park.  First, I crossed the bridge to Whidbey Island to check out the sand dunes at West Beach.  The Northwestern Crows were out and about raising a ruckus as usual.  This one paused to catch a drink from Cranberry Lake.

Next came a stop at Bowman Bay on Fidalgo Island.  This pair of Canada Geese was feeding on the lawn next to the parking lot.

The American Robins were still hunting earthworms in the picnic grounds, as we saw last month.  I didn't spot anyone who appeared to be full of eggs this time.

Among the spring flowers in the lawn, several Dark-eyed Juncos were foraging with the Robins.  Also spotted, White-crowned Sparrows that were too quick for my camera.  Everybody was singing in their individual voices.

I set off on the trail to Rosario Beach and found the Red-flowering Currants in full bloom.

Along the trail, check out the rocks out in Bowman Bay.  You can pretty much count on seeing Cormorants resting, preening and drying their feathers after feeding in the bay.  These appear to be Double-crested Cormorants and a couple of Gulls are enjoying their company.

When I arrived at Rosario, I found this Douglas Squirrel getting some vitamin C from the last of the Nootka Rose hips.

California Quail were also out feeding, making their chortling noises.  It won't be long before they will be shepherding dozens of tiny chicks while they feed.

The highlight of the morning was spotting this resting pair of Harlequin Ducks.  Can you see them camouflaged in the Rockweed?  Standing atop Rosario Head, I almost didn't notice them over on Urchin Rocks.  I have seen a lone drake diving in this area all winter, but I can't be sure if this is the same fellow.  If it is, it looks like he now has a mate.  According to the books, they don't breed in this area, so they will probably be moving on soon.  If this pair hasn't read the books, maybe they'll stick around.  Once the eggs are laid, however, they will split up leaving the hen to raise the ducklings on her own.

Eating, drinking, singing, resting, blooming and courting, all in a day's work during spring at Deception Pass State Park.