Category Archives: Birding

The Arrival of Our Songbirds

by Ken Wilson

April is perhaps the most dramatic transition month for birds and birders. Between the beginning of April to the end of the month, there is probably a fivefold or tenfold increase in songbird numbers. This abundance continues into May, declining quite a bit as the migrants continue onward, leaving a still substantial number of songbirds that will breed here. Most of these spring migrants are our ‘neotropical’ birds, mostly smallish songbirds that spend more of their lives in Central and South America than they do in our Pacific Northwest.

Orange-crowned Warbler

But why the late April arrival? Birds time their breeding cycle so that their food supply, often the juicy caterpillars that nestlings digest easily, is most plentiful when the parents have nestlings to feed. By arriving in late April and early May, the birds have available the intervening weeks for establishing territories, mating, nest-building, and incubation. These migrants arrive on schedule, plus or minus a week or so. They are cued more by daylength than by the unpredictable fluctuations of temperature from one day to the next. Go for a walk in late April and May when birdsong occupies nearly every habitat. It’s not essential to identify each song because the enjoyment itself is worth it. But an absolute must is to download an app called Merlin Bird ID. It enables your smart-phone to listen to singing birds and is astoundingly accurate in identifying each individual. Merlin will permanently change your relationship to birds. And not just in April. Enjoy.

Wilson’s Warbler

Bird Migration

By Jackie Canterbury

Imagine the brilliant Rufous Hummingbird during a summer moment, resting in your yard after sipping flower nectar, preparing to migrate across several states. Or the Violet-green Swallow flying low over an open field in search of insects with her flock maneuvering to keep the pace, fattening up for the long journey as far south as Costa Rica where she will spend the winter. Or the Western Wood-Pewee tucked in our PNW forest sallying for insects and bound for northern South America. Tonight, the conditions are perfect for the flight south, the route ingrained. In the West, mountain ranges funnel travel south to varied destinations. The Rufous Hummingbird makes a clockwise circuit moving up the Pacific each spring and as early as September, fliessouth down the chain of the Rocky Mountains, headed for Mexico. For most songbirds, this takes place under the cover of darkness which provides calmer atmospheric conditions and guidance from the stars. Raptors, cranes, and waterfowl travel by day.  

Rufous Hummingbird, photo by Jackie Canterbury
Western Wood-Peewee, photo by Jackie Canterbury

In North America, 70% of birds migrate. Some traveling from the Arctic to the southern tip of South America.  The bird that has the honor of being the longest migrant is the Arctic Tern, who travels 25,000 miles every year from the highest to lowest latitudes. 

Violet-green Swallow

Why do they do it?  Over millennia, birds have evolved patterns and timing mechanisms that stimulate them to fly. As daylight hours shorten and food resources dwindle, hormonal changes urge them to migrate. A pattern called Zugunruhe, a German word for migratory restlessness, has been observed in captive birds for hundreds of years. Caged birds would predictably become restless just before the time they would begin their seasonal migration.

Arctic Tern, in Iceland

Scientists are learning more about migration as a result of advances in the use of weather radar which produce images of millions of birds during migration. BirdCast is a dashboard that explores nightly migration in each state. Here’s Jefferson County’s: This is a critical time for conservation. Some three billion birds have disappeared from North America in the past 50 years, and migrant species have suffered significant losses, no doubt due to their perilous migratory journey and habitat loss in both breeding and wintering areas. We can all help birds by keeping outdoor lights out during both spring and fall migration. Artificial light pollution can attract, confuse, and disorient them. We can also plant for wildlife and provide water features and a hospitable environment for our feathered friends.  Where would we be without them?


By Wendy Feltham

Have you noticed how birds become so round on cold days? During our latest snowstorm, I saw spherical birds sitting in the vine maple tree outside our window, taking turns at the sunflower seed and suet feeders. I posted a photo of a Varied Thrush on iNaturalist and noted that she was puffed up to keep warm. Someone commented, “What a borb!” I asked if he meant completely round, like an orb? He replied, “Exactly!” and sent a link to a long piece in Audubon magazine:

Varied Thrush
Fox Sparrow

If you’re like me, you aren’t following memes on social media and don’t have an account on Twitter or Reddit. That means I never knew that “birb” has been “affectionate internet speak for birds,” especially round ones, for years. It turns out that “borb” refers to the roundest birds. 

Song Sparrow

If you use a down jacket on winter days, you experience first hand the superb insulation feathers provide. On the Smithsonian website, Peter Marra, head of the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center at the National Zoo, explains, “Feathers are incredibly specialized structures that serve many purposes including, for many species, keeping them warm.” He says birds fluff up to trap air in their feathers, since the more air they trap, the better insulated they are. You may have seen birds standing on one leg in winter while tucking the other leg into their feathers to keep it warm. What I’ve never seen is something else Marra mentions— small birds, like our Black-capped Chickadees, “gather in large groups at night and crowd together in a small, tight space to share body heat.”

Chestnut-backed Chickadee
Pacific Wren

Resident Winter Songbirds by Jackie Canterbury

Winter is a time of transition to colder weather, and many birds respond by flying south to warmer areas with more abundant food. There are, however, a suite of birds that remain with us and fill our landscape with sound. The sounds are not the familiar, complex sounds of spring, but one syllable calls to communicate about food, territory, or predators.

The Song Sparrow does not migrate south, but instead remains to defend its winter territory with two or three individual birds. Winter territories are defended by these small groups who use a sharp ‘chip’ call to communicate with one another. The familiar song is not heard until spring, when warmer weather and longer days break the patterns of winter.

The more common resident birds that fill our winter landscape are the: Bewick’s and Pacific Wren, Chestnut-backed and Black-capped Chickadee, Dark-eyed Junco, Spotted Towhee, and Song Sparrow.

Watching Birds in Fall

Here are recommendations from our Guiding Committee for watching birds this fall:

Dave Rugh:
As the sun dips lower with autumn’s arrival, many birds look south, flying to warmer, brighter lands. You can catch glimpses of these travelers from many strategic viewpoints, such as headlands, beaches, lakes, or ponds. Within short distances around Port Townsend, you could try Point Wilson, the beaches on either side of Point Wilson, Point Hudson, Kah Tai Lagoon, North Beach, and Fort Worden.

Ken Wilson:
It’s a nice break in the day to take in a bit of nature when you’re doing a few errands. Here are some specific suggestions.

If you’ll be near Safeway, Henery Hardware, or the Food Co-op, walk across the street, and saunter your way along Kah Tai Lagoon. Bird life changes during migration even from one day to the next. Keep your binoculars in the car, so you’re equipped for these spur of the moment walks. And it’s always relaxing to sit on the bench for a few minutes, frustrating the mallards who want to be fed. Do this venture BEFORE you have frozen food defrosting in your car.

Alternatively, on the other side of Sims Way, walk a short stretch of Larry Scott Trail from the Boat Haven parking lot. Always a few birds on the shore or on the water, or songbirds in the brush.

At the other end of town, when you’re on Water Street, walk out one of the docks. Especially as we get later into October and November our wintering waterbirds are arriving. Surely you have time to walk to the end of a dock!

Even more fun for a plethora of various gulls, sandpipers, and often oystercatchers, is to enjoy the spit at Point Hudson. You’ll see the unique Heermann’s Gulls, often a hundred or more — they fly here  from their breeding grounds in Baja. Definitely worth 15 minutes to be blissfully enjoying the water and the views as well as the birds.

Lots of possibilities wherever you are. I didn’t even mention —till now— Fort Worden, Anderson Lake, and absolutely the bird bonanza of Oak Bay.

Wendy Feltham:
For the past six years, I’ve volunteered with a team of birders for the Seattle Audubon Seabird Survey at Ft. Flagler, one of the best places to see birds in our county. When you drive into Ft. Flagler, turn left at the stop sign, and park near the campground. Walk out along the spit to the left, looking towards Port Townsend, and on the water you’ll see our resident Rhinoceros Auklets and Pigeon Guillemots, as well as many birds returning from the north for the winter months. Look for black and white Surf Scoters with their colorful bills, gray and white Horned Grebes with their red eyes, and Common Loons still in their beautiful breeding plumage in September. If you are lucky, you might see Marbled Murrelets and Red-necked Phalaropes. Sometimes a couple dozen Harlequin Ducks line up and paddle parallel to shore. There are always lots of cormorants, sometimes all three species, and frequently a Bald Eagle in this area. Also look on the inside of the spit, facing the dock, for seabirds on the water. All along the spit you may see scores of shorebirds. (Careful not to scare them!) Check the grassy area near the playground to the left of the parking area, and you will often see dozens of Black-bellied Plovers (but this time of year, without their breeding plumage, they should probably be called by their other common name, Gray Plovers). Sometimes other shorebirds, like Dunlin, mix in with them on the grass.