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Some birds walk on snowshoes and others sleep in snow caves

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ISLAND BIRDING

By FRANCES WOOD

I wasn’t out birdwatching, just driving over Snoqualmie Pass returning from Eastern Washington. Several feet of snow blanketed the ground and weighed down the Douglas fir branches.

There in the median with the eastbound and westbound lanes of I-90 thrashing along beside it, I spotted a blue grouse. The plump, 18-inch, chickenlike bird with long neck and relatively small head stood in the snow, a dark gray shape against the bright white background.

Many birds spend the summer in the Cascade and Olympic mountains. Some remain through brief periods of snow, but only a few species achieve the status of hard-core, winter mountaineers. These birds, like the blue grouse, have adapted to survive in high mountains where snow accumulates and stays for months.

The key for them is finding food when the ground is covered with snow or adapting to the food that is available.

With so many Whidbey Islanders heading to the mountains to downhill and cross country ski, snowmobile, or just travel across the passes, this seems to be a good time for a discussion of winter mountain birds.

Some species of birds common to us lowlanders also survive in the snowy mountains. The most commonly seen species is the common raven, similar to but larger than a crow. These large, black birds fly over the trees and call a loud “croak, croak,” attracting our attention. Once, while riding the chair lift at Crystal Mountain, I watched a raven fly parallel to the string of chairs and suddenly flip over upside down for a split second then flip back again.

These acrobatic fliers travel long distances scavenging for meals, which might consist of road kill or garbage.

Both the black-capped and mountain chickadees survive in snowy climes, but they manage by dogged preparation. During the fall when the ground is clear and seeds are plentiful they stash thousands of extra seeds in the bark of trees. When Ol’ Man Winter covers the ground with snow, the chickadees sustain themselves with the hidden tidbits.

Cross country skiers may be familiar with the gray jay, sometimes nicknamed the camp robber. This mountain species seems to appear out of nowhere when skiers stop for lunch.

The jay’s soft fluffy feathers not only keep them warm but also allow the birds to fly practically silently as they brazenly dart in to pick up dropped crumbs.

This bird has special glands that produce sticky saliva. The saliva is used to attach bits of nuts and seeds to tree branches, which it does well above the height of deep snow.

But the ultimate snowbirds are members of the grouse family, often called snowshoe birds. These birds survive high in the mountains, up to 10,000 feet elevation. Their legs are feathered to the tips of their toes for insulation. Small, feathered webs between their toes — their snowshoes — help them walk on deep snow.

Most grouse spend the breeding season, May through August, in lower open valleys. During September and October they walk (thus the need for snowshoes) up to 30 miles into higher elevations to spend the winter.

Although they can fly short distances, grouse are well designed for terrestrial life, with strong, well-developed legs.

Their diet changes from leaves, berries and insects while in the lowland to only conifer needles in the highland. As their diet shifts, the bird’s gastrointestinal tract changes to be able to digest conifer foliage.

Ptarmigan, the smallest members of the grouse family at only 12 inches, have several adaptations for living in deep snow. They change plumage from mottled brown and white during the breeding months to pure white for camouflage in the winter snow.

The ptarmigan — the name comes from the Gaelic for “mountaineer” — burrows into loose snow to sleep. Two feet down in snow the temperature may be 25 degrees Fahrenheit, while the air above may be as low as minus 50 degrees.

These mountain species have adapted to survival in the snowy months. Watch for them as you spend time in the mountains this winter. At dusk they’ll be looking for a protected spot to roost for the night. Fortunately, we can exit the mountains and retreat to our warm, snow-free homes in the lowlands.

Questions or comments about birds can be sent to Frances Wood at wood@whidbey.com.

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