By GENE BULLOCK
November can seem bleak. The trees are bare of leaves and the flowers of summer have given up their last withered petal. But avid bird watchers are smiling because November can bring some of the best bird watching of the year. That’s when millions of Arctic birds find winter havens in sheltered coves and inlets along the Washington coast.
Of course, spring and fall migrations are a feast for eye and ear as tens of millions of birds filter through our forests, making their primordial pit stops along our Pacific flyway. But winter offers a six-month window on some of year’s best bird viewing. Rafts of marine birds linger all winter long, arriving in November and staying as late as May before heading for their northern breeding grounds.
To waterfowl and marine birds that breed in the Arctic, Kitsap looks downright tropical. Our waterways rarely freeze, and our 234 miles of saltwater shoreline are rich in shellfish and the mud-dwelling marine organisms they feed on. Unlike little birds that skulk in the bushes, marine birds feed within easy viewing, and don’t tend to hide if watchers stay at a “comfortable” distance. While winter weather can test your resolve, winter birding can be leisurely, giving birders more time to study differences in bill shape, winter plumage, size and behavior.
Kitsap shorelines and waterways host an amazing diversity of wintering birds, including up to five species of loons, six species of grebes, three species of scoters, at least six species of geese, more than a dozen species of gulls, and dozens of species of ducks and shorebirds. More than 300 species of birds have been seen in Kitsap County.
Wintering flocks can be found almost everywhere along our coastal waters. Point No Point County Park in Hansville is one of Kitsap’s premier bird watching locations because of the tidal currents in Admiralty Inlet. Tidal eddies form rip tides that churn the water, bringing up nutrients that attract sand lance and herring. The swarming “bait balls” of forage fish lure larger fish and hundreds of feeding birds. Spectacular “feeding frenzies” are a spectacle that bring bird watchers from near and far.
But Kitsap has lots of great vantage points for viewing winter birds, such as Salsbury County Park near Port Gamble, Old Mill Park on Dyes Inlet, the Port Orchard waterfront and, my personal favorite, Lion’s Field on the Port Washington Narrows. Kitsap Audubon has a brochure on “Where to Find Birds in Kitsap County” that can be downloaded from their website at www.kitsapaudubon.org.
Backyard bird watchers relish the winter procession of birds seeking handouts at local feeders. The backyard bird conventions can also bring surprise visits from Sharp-shinned and Cooper’s Hawks, which make a meal of small birds attracted to feeders.
Ten years ago, Anna’s Hummingbirds were rarely seen in winter; but as more and more people leave their feeders up all winter, the Anna’s have thrived. An Anna’s Hummingbird weighs less than a nickel, and can hover and fly forward, backward, even upside down, at speeds reaching 40 miles-per-hour, with hearts beating up to 1220 times a minute. They require a lot of calories to maintain their phenomenal energy output.
Once the more aggressive Rufous Hummingbirds migrate south in early August, they are quickly replaced by Anna’s that will visit all winter long if feeders are left up and kept full. Sometimes it means bringing feeders in at night to prevent them from freezing, or keeping a second feeder ready to swap if one starts to freeze. Wintering hummingbirds outside your window can be a daily delight; but please don’t go away for long winter vacations and leave feeders unfilled. Once they learn to depend on your feeders in the winter, they need a dependable supply to survive. Ask a neighbor to replenish feeders while you are away.
Winter birding can provide some of the most varied and dependable wildlife viewing of any season of the year.
— Gene Bullock is newsletter editor for Kitsap Audubon. Contact him at email@example.com