WHIDBEY BIRDING | Wayfaring stragglers provide plenty of entertainment

While birding last week at Deer Lagoon with a group of friends, I was surprised to see an Osprey perched on a bare tree branch watching the shallow water for prey. This migratory raptor should have been halfway to South America by now. Likely this late traveler came from as far north as northern Alaska, and was resting and feeding briefly before it continued south.

It wasn’t the only migrating straggler we saw that day. A lone Bonaparte Gull mixed in with a large flock of Black-bellied Plovers.

Early migrants such as Osprey and Bonaparte Gulls are usually gone by now. Later migrants including robins, waxwings and thrushes are still coming through in large numbers. We watched a flock of Yellow-rumped Warblers wafting through alder trees looking for insects and grubs.

Next we noticed two Belted Kingfishers calling sharply over the lagoon. Their antics at first brought to mind spring mating behavior. But when the birds took to the air and chased each other in tight circles, rattling their horse staccato warnings, it became clear that they were two males with something other than reproduction on their minds.

After several moments of aerial combat, the warriors settled on beach logs, faced each other, spread their wings and raised their crests in fearsome stances.

“That’s odd behavior for autumn,” someone said.

Then we realized that these two males were fighting over winter feeding territory as ferociously as they might fight over spring breeding territory. Prime feeding spots, like the calm water of Deer Lagoon where kingfishers can see underwater to spot their prey, are hard to find on our island. These two kingfishers were dueling over their chances of surviving the winter.

Later that night after returning from his home office out in our shed, my husband asked, “Why are the owls hooting back and forth? Don’t they know it’s fall, not spring?”

We stepped outside into the beautiful moonlit evening and listened to two Great Horned Owls hooting a duet. One owl called from the fir trees near the house, another returned the amorous greeting from a dead spire in the ravine. The more elaborate, richer, deeper and more mellow hooting of the male, and slightly higher, simpler hooting of the female continued with the same intensity as spring songbirds.

Those passionate owls aren’t confused; October courting is normal owl behavior. Pair bonding begins now so that the owls are ready to nest in January.

We watched the female lift off the spire and silently joined the male in the fir trees lost to our vision by the dark foliage.

Then a third owl called from another fir tree, with the hawk-like piercing scream of a juvenile owl. It’s normal for young birds to stay with the adults, still begging for food through the fall until the adults are preoccupied with the next brood in January.

We walked back inside reflecting on the diversity of bird behavior. The simplified notions of spring singing to attract a mate and establish territory, summer breeding and orderly fall migration, don’t account for the variations of nature.

These infinitely complex avian patterns are one more reason to protect critical habitat year round.

For good reason, National Audubon has designated Deer Lagoon as an “Important Bird Area.” And the Island County Critical Areas Ordinance has identified it as a “Habitat of Local Importance.”

I commend the Island County commissioners for banning the use of firearms and duck hunting at Deer Lagoon. Not only will we humans feel safer, the bird community will benefit from year-round peace and safety.

For some birds, the chances of successfully migrating south and retuning to breed here again, even in the best of conditions, are only about 50 percent.

By eliminating hunting, we’ve upped their chances of survival. And improved the odds that we’ll continue to be blessed by their beauty, song and behavior, for many years to come.

Frances Wood is the author of “Brushed by Feathers: A Year of Birdwatching in the West.” Check out her new Web site; click here.

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