Counting on the wing

Early on a recent Saturday morning, Bob Merrick looked over Crockett Lake with a critical eye. He ignores calls from robins and red-winged blackbirds. He didn’t admire the sunrise or ferries and barges plying Admiralty Inlet. Merrick focused on migrating shorebirds.

This year is his eighth season of counting and recording data on shorebird populations the International Shorebird Survey.

“There’s a good selection of shorebirds this morning,” Merrick said, focusing his spotting scope on Crockett Lake’s mud flats. “I see eight yellowlegs and a bunch of dowitchers. And peeps all over the place.”

Crockett Lake and the adjacent Keystone Spit attract many bird watchers, not just Bob Merrick and other members of Whidbey Audubon. Audubon groups from all over Western Washington regularly post notices of birdwatching trips to Whidbey in Seattle publications.

“Crockett Lake is a combination motel and restaurant for migrating shorebirds,” Merrick said.

But shorebirds aren’t the only birds lured to the shallow Central Whidbey lake. A heron rookery borders the lake. Raptors — among them eagles, northern harriers and peregrine falcons — find regular meals at Crockett Lake.

It’s also great winter habitat for ducks and in marsh grasses, songbirds nest and swallows dine.

The area provides little elevation for birdwatching vantage points. State Parks will remedy the area’s relative flatness this summer. An old section from a boat dock float has been hauled to Milepost 14 on Highway 20. These vantage points will give birders excellent spots to use spotting scopes and binoculars. Another elevated area will be established closer to Keystone Ferry landing.

Habits, feathers help identify

Yellowlegs and dowitchers are long-legged, elegant waders. Their long bills can probe deep into mud and reach far under water. The birds’ height (14 inches for yellowlegs, 11 inches for dowitchers) makes them stand out, so Merrick counted these birds first. Peeps are smaller shorebirds and may join mixed flocks of sandpipers, dunlin, semipalmated plover, sanderling or phalaropes.

After estimating the number of peeps, Merrick began the delicate identification process. While he knows characteristics of each species as well as plumage, the birds’ small stature — 8 inches tall or shorter — and high speeds make identifying from a distance tricky. Mid-August is early for sanderlings and dunlin, Merrick said.

From experience, he knows many of the peeps will be Western sandpipers and semipalmated plovers. Distinctive feeding techniques also aid Merrick. Phalaropes spin like tops in the water, their churning legs kicking up insects which the birds pluck from the foam. Plovers dart over sand, stopping now and again to jab in the mud.

Because birds are so far out in Crockett Lake, the best light is needed to see plumage variations for identification as well as to count accurately. Even with high-powered spotting scopes, heat ripples cloud the view not long after sunrise.

No fog, haze or heat distortion marred the view of Crockett Lake Aug. 14. Merrick said it was an ideal morning for counting shorebirds. These often long-legged birds with long bills specialized for probing mud and shallow water for food migrate from Alaskan shores to Southern California and on to Central and South America. Crockett Lake gives these birds a needed stop to rest and refuel. In essence, the lake is a truck stop on the flyway for these long-ranging birds.

“It’s serious business for them,” Merrick said as he watched sandpipers feeding. “They’re building up fat supplies for their trip south.”

Counting peeps, watching falcons

From July 11 through at least Oct. 31, Merrick surveys Crockett Lake three times a week from four vantage points. He doesn’t look for beach glass or driftwood. Instead, he counts the number of shorebirds while observing weather and water conditions.

In morning’s strong light, Merrick can analyze the birds’ plumage and determine ages of the avians: mature or immature.

The bellies of immature Western sandpipers, he explained, aren’t as spotted and streaked as those of adults. And in August, mature birds will still bear russeted breeding plumage on their wings, necks and heads. This year, noting numbers of immature birds of all species will be important. Researchers have reported poor bird conditions in breeding grounds. In some tundra areas, snow and ice never cleared.

Merrick, a Coupeville resident, said population counts have long fascinated him.

“I have a propensity to keep track of what I’m seeing,” Merrick said.

In addition to the International Shorebird Survey, Merrick has coordinated bird counts in Ebey’s Landing National Historical Reserve and Falcon Research Group’s mid-winter hawk count in Skagit Flats. And he’s been integral in helping Jack Bettesworth’s team wing tag and band northern harriers on Whidbey Island. Through 2002, Merrick coordinated Whidbey Audubon’s Christmas Bird Count.

Each of these counts requires time, paperwork and dedication to detail.

Bud Anderson, who runs Falcon Research Group in Bow, said bird counts like the ones Merrick performs provide biologists with a wealth of information.

“Population counts give a base line on what’s here now,” he said. “Each species is a gem.”

Anderson said knowing which species — from birds and mammals to insects, fish and plants — populate a specific area is key to conservation.

“To preserve species, you have to know what you have,” he explained.

Bird counting may not be physically taxing, but it requires mental acuity and dedication — qualities Merrick possesses, Anderson said.

“Bob Merrick’s one of the finest people I’ve ever met. He works hard and loves what he does,” Anderson said. “He’s a pleasure to work with.”

Habitat falters, numbers fall

Over time, Merrick has seen Crockett Lake’s shorebird populations decrease. Other surveyors have noted decreases in populations worldwide. While Merrick said no one knows the exact reason for such a drop, loss of habitat can’t be ruled out.

Whidbey Island residents can maintain feeders for songbirds with seeds and thistles and nectar feeders for hummingbirds. But shorebirds dine on invertebrates in mud flats. Feed and hardware stores don’t stock such victuals.

Merrick said residents can help shorebirds by maintaining mud flats and

shoreline habitat.

Feeding and adding fat stores are critical for the birds surviving their flights between summer breeding areas in the Arctic to wintering grounds far to the south.

As Merrick moves between established counting sites at Crockett Lake, he avoids over counting and double counting shorebirds. He’ll retrain his spotting scope at areas already counted to see if certain birds might have flown into a new counting area. Merrick said he tends to underestimate numbers, and if he’s not positive of a species, he’ll add that number to the peeps.

Determining counts for species isn’t easy when small, distant birds dart about mud flats or fly from one end of the lake to the other.

While waiting for shorebirds to land and settle their ruffled feathers can take time, Merrick finds reason to enjoy the respite. Many times, the shorebirds are wheeling from predators — usually their most feared hunter, the peregrine falcon.

Before beginning shorebird surveys, Merrick said he thought sighting a peregrine falcon on Whidbey was unusual.

“Now,” Merrick said, “I know a regular stream of falcons follows shorebird

migration on Whidbey.”

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