The Audubon Society recently published a Bird Trail Map of the Puget Sound Loop, which includes several birding locations on Whidbey Island. This is part of a national project to encourage birders to explore different regions of the country and help them locate birding hotspots.
That, along with the fact that I’m often asked where to go birding on South Whidbey has inspired me to write about our local birding hotspots. Beginning with this article and continuing for the rest of 2012, I’ll focus on specific birding locations, with information on when best to visit and what you are likely to find.
Today let’s consider Deer Lagoon, my favorite South Whidbey birding location. Deer Lagoon is a tidal estuary at the northern head of Useless Bay. Long north/south dikes bound both sides of the lagoon, creating wetland and marshland to the east and west. The county owns 379 acres between the estuary and Double Bluff Road. The marshland to the east is private property.
I take both beginning and experienced birders there because the two dikes offer good visibility over marsh, tidal and brackish lake habitats and because the area offers a wide assortment of species at any time of year. Over the years I’ve seen rare and unexpected birds there including tufted duck, golden eagle, great egret, American bittern, peregrine falcon and merlin.
I also go there to see species that were formerly common on South Whidbey, but are now more difficult to find. For example, it’s a good place to find California quail, which used to frequent my yard, but haven’t for years.
The lagoon is such a popular place for both resident and migratory birds that it was designated an Important Bird Area by the National Audubon Society and a Habitat of Local Importance by the Island County Critical Areas Ordinance. More than 170 species of birds, 70 species of plants and 11 mammals use this wetland and marsh.
On Aug. 2, I stopped by the lagoon for a short walk out the west dike around 11 in the morning. The tide was minus-1.9 and it was slightly overcast. Although not prime birding time — earlier is always better for seeing birds — I identified 35 different species during my 45-minute walk.
The pathway begins through woods beside a cattail marsh. There’s lots to see and hear along this part of the walk, so don’t rush it.
I heard Pacific slope and willow flycatchers calling as well as the expected assortment of chickadees, nuthatches, sparrows and swallows. A yellow warbler sang from the alder grove and I spotted a brown creeper right next to the pathway. A visit in the spring would bring a chorus of warblers, finches and sparrows.
Greater yellowlegs, tall shorebirds that prance through the shallow water, called from the lagoon. Mallards and gadwalls snoozed nearby while a Belted kingfisher hovered and then plunged into the water. It returned to a perch and called with a staccato rattle.
When I reached the dike, I scanned the saltwater shoreline with my binoculars and delighted in seeing several species of southbound shorebirds. Western sandpipers, semipalmated and black-bellied plovers, and whimbrels probed for food. The mournful calls of black-bellied plovers floated over the tide flats. In another month shorebird numbers will grow and you might experience the amazing phenomenon of clouds of shorebirds undulating through the air above the lagoon.
Caspian terns squawked overhead while great blue herons stood quietly on the shore, in the grass and atop pilings. Crows pestered a red-tailed hawk sitting in a Douglas fir tree and an osprey floated off over the marsh.
I walked out the dike through clouds of gnats, taking care to keep my mouth closed and my sunglasses on. The brackish lake to the right was about 50 percent covered with vegetation and the winter ducks and waterfowl haven’t yet arrived. But at the far end of the dike I was rewarded with clear views of a red-necked phalarope, a small whitish shorebird that was feeding erratically on insects, plucking them from the surface of the pond.
Even without seeing the phalarope this would have been a most delightful mid-day walk. I encourage you to check out Deer Lagoon and if you do, let me know what birds you see.
Directions to the west dike at Deer Lagoon: Take 525 to Double Bluff Road and turn south. Turn left on Millman Road and right on Deer Lagoon Road. Follow it to the end and park on the side of the road respecting private property. At the gate, take a short path around it on the left and then follow the dirt road to the dike. Walk the dikes to the end and then return the way you came.
Frances Wood writes for BirdNote, a two-minute radio program about birds and nature, which can be heard daily on KPLU public radio or at BirdNote.com. She can be reached at email@example.com.