November has arrived and so have the hundreds of ducks, geese and seabirds that winter in the waters around our island.
For this, the next installment of my exploration of places to bird on South Whidbey, we move out of the forest and onto the beach.
Open vistas allow better views of the birds and the species are larger and less flighty than woodland birds. Those “sitting ducks” may be vulnerable to predators, but they also grant us birders good, long looks.
Last week, the Thursday morning South Whidbey birding group visited two of my favorite nearby beaches, Dave Mackie County Park off Maxwelton Road and Possession Point State Park, way at the southern tip of the island. Later I stopped by the Clinton ferry dock.
Dave Mackie Park is better known for summertime parades, picnics and ball games. On this cool, cloudy November day, we birdwatchers were the only people there. As we stepped from our cars, a belted kingfisher flew over our heads and protested with a loud rattling call.
Three species of gulls snoozed on a sand bar as we set up our bird-watching scopes at the boat launch. The glaucous-winged and ring-billed gulls were no surprise, but seeing a flock of a dozen Heermann’s gulls caused us to stop and wonder.
“Aren’t those Heermann’s supposed to be back in California by now?” someone asked.
I admired the distinctive dark grey plumage and red bills and asked myself the same question.
“Guess they haven’t read the field guide,” another birder retorted.
A black-bellied plover scooted along the shore near the gulls.
We scanned south with our scopes and counted seven double-crested cormorants poised atop seven pilings. Beyond them, buffleheads, horned and red-necked grebes and a single common loon bobbed in the waters of Puget Sound.
After leaving the park, a 10-minute drive took us south on Possession Point Road nearly to the end of the road and to Possession Point State Park. For a small park, this hosts a variety of habitat and boasts a surprising number of unusual species. I enjoy this park any time of year.
As we ambled from the parking lot toward the beach, a resident Anna’s hummingbird zipped by and a varied thrush dove into a thick evergreen tree. A tight flock of about 50 tiny pine siskins bounced through the air, finally alighting on a tall dead tree. American robins searched for the last of the season’s blackberries.
At the beach a flock of 25 red-breasted mergansers flew by low and close to the shore. We watched them wing east before settling on the water. At this time of year, the males, females, young and adults all look pretty much the same as they swim and forage in shallow water along the shore.
A bald eagle perched on a piling ripping apart and consuming its lunch, which may have accounted for the lack of other small ducks and seabirds.
My last stop was the Clinton ferry dock. I parked at the small park north of the dock and scanned the bay. When I spotted my first common goldeneye of the season, it felt like an old friend had just returned from a long trip.
The large flock of mainly surf scoters hovered near the end of the dock; another winter-only birding pleasure. You’ve likely seen that seabird flock from the ferry. They dive under the water to forage for the vegetation clinging to the dock’s supportive pilings.
Various gulls capped the dolphins, those metal pilings that guide the ferries into the docks.
I crossed the loading dock to peer south catching sight of a pigeon guillemot in winter plumage and more cormorants.
I’d hoped to see the Brant geese that winter around South Whidbey. Brant geese are darker and one-third the weight of their Canada geese cousins. They have dark heads, throats and backs with a white chinstrap.
This flock of perhaps 60 to 80 Brant forages for aquatic plants, particularly eelgrass. Because of their selective diet and pressure on their Arctic breeding grounds, the Brant are considered a species of concern. Hopefully someone will let me know when they arrive.
In roughly three hours I visited three beach parks, tallied 35 species and didn’t feel a drop of rain.
Birding always brings me closer to the amazing rhythms of the natural world. And I’m reminded once again why I love our Whidbey Island beaches.
Frances Wood can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.