Exciting summer gives way to interesting fall, winter | WHIDBEY BIRDING

Finally, I have time to write after a very busy summer seeking out, enjoying and monitoring birds. And spending time with family.

Early last summer my husband and I added seven new bird species to our list while bicycling in Provence, France. Highlights were a sacred ibis, red-crested pochard, European bee-eater and hundreds of greater flamingos.

Near the end of the summer we spotted common eiders, black guillemots along with cardinals, wrens and blue jays while vacationing in Maine. Closer to home we enjoyed magpies, wild turkeys and a ruffed grouse on several trips to the Ellensburg area.

But, most of the summer was consumed right here on Whidbey Island with the Whidbey Audubon Pigeon Guillemot breeding bird survey, a project that has spanned more than a decade. Guillemots are black seabirds with bright-white wing patches and fire-engine-red feet and legs. Every spring, approximately 1,000 of these engaging seabirds settle into the waters around Whidbey and claim burrows high in our steep, erosional bluffs.

Beginning in June, about 50 volunteers weekly monitor the 25 bluff colonies where these birds gather to lay eggs and raise their young. They spend one hour per week quietly sitting on the beach noting bird activity. This year those volunteers watched about 260 burrows, recording when the birds enter and leave. After the eggs hatch, the volunteers observed the fish delivered to the burrows as food for the young.

Most of those fish are large-headed sculpins (what we called bullheads when I was a kid) or longer, sleeker members of the gunnel/prickleback families.

Gathering all those data together we’ve determined that over the past 10 years our guillemot colonies are holding strong; we have seen no statistically significant change in populations and number of burrows with fish deliveries.

Perhaps you remember the article in The Record last summer announcing that guillemots were spotted hanging around the Langley Marina? We were not able to verify any nesting there, but are hopeful that a small colony may develop in the next few summers.

Guillemots often sniff out unusual places to breed. They need a burrow that will protect their eggs and young from predators, and have acclimated to manmade nesting boxes.

One adventurous pair spied an open porthole in a sailboat moored in Holmes Harbor and deposited two eggs inside the boat before the owners returned and discovered the make-shift nesting burrow.

If you’d like to learn more about these birds and locate a guillemot colony near where you live, check out our general website www.pigeonguillemot.org or for a recap of the data, www.pigeonguillemotdata.org.

Although most of the guillemots exit our waters in the fall, they are replaced by a large number of other seabirds — loons, ducks, mergansers, geese, scoters and grebes. These birds spend their breeding season in Canada and Alaska, then many of them pour into our protected Puget Sound waters to feed and spend the winter.

This is an excellent time of year to wander out to our beaches and do some seabird watching. Two of my favorite places are Deer Lagoon (both inside the lagoon and along the outer beach) and the spit at Crockett Lake.

If the weather turns bad, take your binoculars to the Ott & Murphy Winery tasting room in Langley and enjoy their view out over the Langley harbor. The numbers of birds won’t be as dramatic as the ones seen along our west side beaches, but it’s a good place to study the flocks of American wigeons, mallards, and grebes that gather there.

Oh, and all those black, duck-like birds that hover in the water around the Clinton Ferry Dock? Most are surf scoters with a few white-winged scoters mixed in.

Frances Wood can be reached at wood@whidbey.com and Craig Johnson is at backyardbirds@whidbey.com.