Weekend Trip Reports

February 27, 2016: Port Susan Snow Goose & Birding Festival, The Nature Conservancy Port Susan Preserve Birdwalk

Trip Report, Analysis, and Commentary by Jonathan Blubaugh

The views expressed in this article are mine alone. By way of disclosure I am a member of the Pilchuck Audubon Society and am given to volunteering to lead bird walks for them.

After having been on a year's sabbatical from leading bird walks due to my unpredictable weekend schedule at Boeing, I have decided to come back. So I decided to join Pilchuck Trip Leader, Virginia Clark, on an outing for the Snow Goose and Birding Festival. I believe it was at least the sixth time I have led this outing. It has given me a bit of a historical perspective.

First, we must thank the Nature Conservancy for allowing visitors to their Port Susan Preserve. It is private property and year after year they have thrown open the doors for us. The secret is out. I counted thirty people at the Preserve with us.

As we approached the Preserve near the end of Boe Road we encountered a traffic jam. Seemed a bit unusual on such a bucolic country road. The reason was obvious. Thousands of snow geese had waddled up to the edge of the road, grazing. We stopped the car, mesmerized by the sight and sound of the huge flock-and so very close. There were about half a dozen vehicles and the bus had not even arrived yet. It got us off to a great start. We saw over thirty species including an estimated 10,000 Snow Geese, three spectacular “blue geese,” ninety Trumpeter Swans, five Tundra Swans overflew and were identified by Virginia by voice, three Gadwalls, ten American Widgeons, ten Mallards, nine Northern Pintails, ten Green-Winged Teal, four Great Blue Herons, a Northern Harrier, four Bald Eagles, heard a Red-Tailed Hawk, a Rough-Legged Hawk, heard a Virginia Rail respond to Virginia’s recording, a Killdeer, a Greater Yellowlegs, about 5000 Dunlin engaged in “Over Ocean Flocking” during high tide, five Glaucous-Winged Gulls, a couple of Short-Eared Owls, an American Kestrel, a Peregrine Falcon, a Northern Shrike, seven Tree Swallows, heard a couple of Marsh Wrens, a couple of Golden-Crowned Sparrows, heard a Savannah Sparrow, a couple of Song Sparrows, heard a Lincoln’s Sparrow, six Red-Winged Blackbirds, a couple of Brewer's Blackbirds, and two Harbor Seals.

What a lot a changes we have seen! In the last ten years, momentous changes have taken place at the Nature Conservancy's Port Susan Preserve. As early as the winter of 2008-2009, storms had damaged, if not breached, the former perimeter levy. Flooding had knocked out the de-watering pumps. Afterwards we could only walk partway around the site, whilst before it was possible to walk the levy all the way around a three mile loop. Later the Conservancy built a sturdy inner dike and new flood gates. Most recently, the Conservancy has had a major portion of the old, damaged outer levy removed. The former farmland is no more. But the site is still in transition. It currently seems to me to retain some qualities of an impoundment varying with the tide and, possibly, intermittent high discharge from the southern distributary of the Stillaguamish River known as Hat Slough.

During the research for this article I realized that a couple of my hypotheses about areas where these levies have been removed are disproven. I thought it was possible that the area protected by the former levies was used by shorebirds more so than after the breaches. My own data from a handful of outings to the Port Susan Preserve prior to the breaching of the levy fails to support my hypothesis because on those outings very few shorebirds were recorded. At several other sites where the levies came down, especially Nisqually, freshwater vegetation from grass to bushes to huge cottonwoods has quickly died off. My other disproven hypothesis was that saltwater marsh vegetation might become established where the freshwater plants had thrived. In fact, the land is reverting to unvegetated tidal flats.

Up and down Puget Sound levies have been removed with the stated goal of helping salmon. Snohomish and Skagit Counties are at the heart of this huge experiment with removal of levies in the Snohomish, Skagit, and Stillaguamish estuaries completed, underway, or planned. Upcoming is the partial removal of the levies around the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife's Leque Island site. PAS volunteers have been asked to help enumerate the birdlife on the island prior to levy removal to compare to bird populations that may use the site afterwards.

Federal funding of near-shore salmon restoration efforts is provided through the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Environmental Protection Agency, and the US Fish and Wildlife Service. This federal grant money is administered by state agencies. The WDFW created the Estuary and Salmon Restoration Program to do so. It works with a host of state agencies including the Department of Natural Resources, the Puget Sound Partnership, and the Recreation and Conservation Office. State and local funds for levy removal are used to leverage FEDERAL SALMON RECOVERY funds.

The Nature Conservancy and the state appear to be working to benefit salmon by engineering the safe removal of the obsolete levy whilst protecting neighboring property with their new inner levy and flood gate.

Unfortunately, the same federal agencies that provide the funding for removal of levies and estuary restoration to protect salmon in the Salish Sea are slaughtering thousands, if not tens of thousands, of native Caspian Terns and Double-Crested Cormorants in the Columbia estuary. They claim native bird predation on the salmon is threatening their survival, ignoring their own scientists who refute it. The problem is not native birds. It is dams, levies, inadequate fish ladders and overfishing. I don't care if we're talking about recreational, Indian, or commercial fishing. The answer to helping endangered salmon is to reduce fishing, and remove dams and levies, not annihilate native birds. the Audubon Society of Portland is fighting them tooth and nail in the courts. So far the feds have overwhelmed the Audubon Society in court. Another court confrontation is scheduled this month.

Thus, I recommend that the Pilchuck Audubon Society and Audubon Washington join the Audubon Society of Portland in their legal struggle against the slaughter of native Washington and Oregon birds by the federal government in the Columbia River estuary.

October 18, 2015: Scriber Lake Park

By Terry Nightingale

On October 18, I led a bird walk in Scriber Lake Park with Rosamaria Graziani and the students of her non-profit English school, who are of various ages and come from Snohomish County’s Hispanic community. Rosamaria acted as interpreter, translating the student’s questions and my answers. They were very curious, sometimes asking questions beyond my ability to answer, such as, “What type of bushes are these next to the trail?” We had a close encounter with a Spotted Towhee eating berries, got to hear the song of the Pacific wren, and watched a mixed flock of kinglets, bushtits, and chickadees pass by us foraging for small insects and grubs. The participants’ response was overwhelmingly positive and as a follow-up I am working on ideas for a winter waterfowl outing after the holidays.

January 24, 2015: Seward Park

By Terry Nightingale

On Saturday, January 24, twelve birders converged on southeast Seattle for a relaxing walk around the Bailey peninsula, better known these days as Seward Park. This gem of a park covers 300 acres on an undeveloped peninsula that juts out into Lake Washington, and includes a 2.5-mile flat, paved walking and biking trail around the peninsula's outside edge. For a future trip we'll plan to explore the forested interior of the peninsula, but for this trip we followed the outer trail that kept us close to the water.

Arriving at the parking lot, we immediately noticed the abundant waterfowl visible on the lake. Gadwall and Mallards were swimming close by the shore, and just a little farther out were four beautiful Common Goldeneye drakes, and a total of six Barrow's Goldeneye. It was a real treat to see them so close to one another and compare their similar plumage, including the white “swoosh” on the faces of the male Barrow's, in contrast with the white dot on the common goldeneye males. From a distant dock a group of Canada Geese began honking loudly, which was when we noticed the Bald Eagle flying away from our direction and toward the geese. In this case the eagle just kept on flying past them, but it was easy to understand why the geese might have been concerned.

Scanning a bit further out on the water with our scope, we found three Hooded Merganser females, and a handsome Common Merganser drake hanging out with two hens of his species. Double-crested Cormorants, one of them perched on a buoy in typical cormorant fashion, were also enjoying the lake's bounty, as were the five Horned Grebes we found first with the scope before one of them swam close enough to give us very nice views.

This first leg of the trail was also a nice place to observe the gulls. In addition to the most common gull in our area, the Glaucous-winged Gull, we found a group of fifteen Ring-billed Gulls, and two Mew Gulls, these last two species noticeably smaller than their glaucous-winged cousins.

About this time was when we realized we had wandered into what my colleague Jonathan calls a “chicklet flock”--that is, a flock of small, leaf-gleaner birds like kinglets and chickadees. Our first clue was the Downy Woodpecker, whom we first heard pecking on a tall tree by the lake and then spotted as she made her way up the tree. Walking down the trail a bit further, we heard and then saw Ruby-crowned Kinglets, Golden-crowned Kinglets, Black-capped Chickadees, Chestnut-backed Chickadees, Dark-eyed Juncos and a Red-breasted Nuthatch. Many of these common forest birds did something uncommon, which was to pass by us in the low bushes near the water, giving us close looks in our binoculars.

As we rounded the north end of the peninsula, we were able to look toward I-90, and noticed there were Buffleheads diving to feed and popping back up to the lake surface. Nearby them were beautiful Ring-necked Ducks. Again we spotted distant grebes and scoped them out, this time finding Red-necked Grebes. The waterfowl junkies among our group (your correspondent included), were delighted to see these additional and quite lovely species.

A few more forest birds awaited us as we made the final leg of our journey, among them a Brown Creeper, a Pacific Wren, and a Bewick's Wren. Soon after a flock of Red Crossbills flew overhead, we noticed a large raft of American Coots near the lake shore at a scope-worthy distance. Closer to us, in a protected cove, a Pied-billed Grebe was doing his best to hold still while perched on a log, doing his impression of a red-eared slider turtle like the one about three feet away from him on the log.

After a quick scan of the bird feeders at the Audubon Center, and a quick visit inside to chat with Gail Gatton, the director of Audubon Washington, and Joey Manson, the director of the Seward Park Audubon center, about half our group descended upon Seattle's International District for some Chinese cuisine.

All in all, a pleasant day with only a few sprinkles from the sky!