“What’s all that nuthatch fuss?” A group of us birders stood in the parking lot of South Whidbey State Park watching several red-breasted nuthatches. The birds flitted in the branches of a Douglas fir tree next to Smuggler’s Cove Road and then flew over our heads to the trunk of a much larger fir at the edge of the forest.
“They’re collecting seeds from the fir cones and then cashing them in the deep crevasses of the trunk,” another birder explained.
“Storing food for the winter.” It felt like we were standing in the middle of a tennis volley as the birds sallied back and forth.
We’re an informal group of south Whidbey Audubon members who get together every other Thursday morning to visit our local natural areas. We call ourselves BINS (Birding In Neighborhoods). Anyone can join us by meeting at the Bayview Park and Ride at 8 a.m. Check the Whidbey Audubon website to get more information. Some days we have a specific task, for example to carry out a bird survey, other times we just go where the spirit calls us.
That morning, the early October sun shone in a deep blue sky and the smell of dry conifer needles filled the air. The BINS’ task was to help me research for this article, the third in a series of places to go birding on South Whidbey.
The habitat of South Whidbey State Park is mainly forest with a stand of old-growth trees. The park reaches down the bluff to the beach with an opportunity to view sea and shorebirds, but in this article I’m focusing on the birds we find in the forest. Trustlands Park and the new Trillium Community Forest both off Highway 525, the Chinook Lands off Campbell Road and the large combined parks of Saratoga and Putney Wood likely have similar bird species.
Whenever I walk into the forest at South Whidbey State Park the first thing I notice is the soul-enriching quiet. The trees muffle sounds from outside the forest and the deep layer of needles under my feet soften sounds from inside. The quiet seems to amplify the birdsong.
Birding in the deep forest is more challenging than in open areas or along the shores, where birds are easily seen. Most birding in forests is done “by ear” listening for songs and calls. In fall many of our forest songsters, particularly the warblers and flycatchers, have migrated away. And the resident birds are quiet and less active than during the busy nesting season. Perhaps because of this, the birds we see and hear attract more of our attention and appreciation.
On this fall day we enjoyed the long, melodic trill of a Pacific wren. (That’s a recent name change given to the winter wren.) Song sparrows chipped in the shrubs, pine siskins chattered from the canopy and a common raven croaked as it flew above.
We all stopped in our tracks when the metallic sounding monotone of the Varied Thrush pierced the silence. The return of this bird is a sure sign of fall and this was the first time many of us had heard the thrush this fall. A barred owl silently swooped past and disappeared into the dense trees.
At this time of year, several species of forest birds join into foraging flocks and you might find yourself surrounded by 10- to 30 birds chattering through the trees. The Black-capped and Chestnut-backed Chickadees and Ruby-crowned and Golden-Crowned Kinglets flock together prompting Steve Ellis, an excellent Coupeville birder, to call these flocks “chicklets.” A downy woodpecker and dark-eyed juncos may join them.
As we found with the nuthatch activity in the parking lot, some of the more productive forest birding is on the edges of the forest or in clearings within the forest. While watching the nuthatches we also saw an American robin, brown creeper and a flock of red crossbills. Bewicks wrens, purple finches and fox sparrows also inhabit forest edges.
Nowhere on South Whidbey are you far from a forested area, be it public land or your own private lane or neighborhood road end. I invite you to take a fall forest walk looking and listening for birds. Even if the birds are few and far between, your soul will be refreshed.
Frances Wood can be reached at email@example.com.