More in the mist than meets the eye | WHIDBEY BIRDING

Thick fog, like we’ve recently experienced, puts a real damper on birding. The birds hunker down and avoid flying, making them hard to see. Plus the dampness tends to keep me inside. So when the sun finally broke through around three o’clock a couple weeks ago, I grabbed a fleece jacket and set out for a walk. Within a half-mile I was engulfed in fog. A gray blanket settled around me, colors muted and the Clinton ferry horns sounded. Although I couldn’t see to the treetops and felt cocooned in stillness, I began to notice birds calling.

An adult Cooper’s hawk is photographed perched in a tree.

Thick fog, like we’ve recently experienced, puts a real damper on birding. The birds hunker down and avoid flying, making them hard to see. Plus the dampness tends to keep me inside.

So when the sun finally broke through around three o’clock a couple weeks ago, I grabbed a fleece jacket and set out for a walk. Within a half-mile I was engulfed in fog. A gray blanket settled around me, colors muted and the Clinton ferry horns sounded. Although I couldn’t see to the treetops and felt cocooned in stillness, I began to notice birds calling.

A northern flicker shrieked from an unseen height, a spotted towhee “meowed” from a nearby mound of blackberries, and a Pacific wren sounded its chip call. As I strode along, kinglets whispered from nearby shrubs and a black-capped chickadee called from the alder trees.

I’ve often walked this same stretch of county road in fall and barely heard a cheep. I began to wonder if the fog caused the birds to vocalize in order to keep track of each other. It certainly helped me become aware of their presence.

When I returned to the house and the sunshine, my husband showed me a couple of photos he’d just snapped of a juvenile Cooper’s hawk that had perched on our deck about two feet outside the living room window. It seemed odd for that raptor to have alighted so close to the house. Was it enjoying the warmth and protection given the proximity to the house?

Later we located the Cooper’s hawk on the south side of the house, sitting atop a fence post in a patch of bright sunlight. It appeared to snooze, keeping one eye closed.

Crow-sized woodland raptors in the accipiter family, Cooper’s hawks prefer deciduous and mixed forests. They can be secretive and inconspicuous, so I set up my spotting scope to get a better look. The mottled brown juvenile was likely waylaid from its southbound migration by the fog.

The bird’s powerful rounded wings and relatively long tail are adaptations that allow this species to dart through forests in hot pursuit of birds and mammals. In Washington state, about 90 percent of the birds’ prey are jays, robins and other forest birds. Chipmunks and rodents are also captured and consumed.

By the following day the fog had lifted, although a thick cloud cover filled the sky. I took the same walk at roughly the same time of day, wondering if I would again hear the birds that were so chatty in the fog.

Crows called from the bluff and I heard a raven way off in the distance, birds likely grounded by the fog the previous day. A couple robins feasted nosily on madrona berries by the side of the road.

But, with the exception of a Pacific wren chip, none of the lower canopy and ground-loving birds vocalized. The forest section of my walk was virtually soundless.

Of course two days doesn’t give enough data to warrant making any generalizations, yet I came away from these walks with a new awareness. Even though birds tend to hunker down and avoid flying in the fog, the birding can be interesting in other ways. And paying close attention to nature usually brings new insights.

One sure-fire way to brighten your November with some sunny bird images is to attend the showing of Craig and Joy Johnson’s new film called “Birds, Backyard Habitat and Beyond.” It will be presented at noon and at 2 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 10, at the Clyde Theater in Langley.

Admission is free.

The film includes footage of the Cooper’s hawk in Craig’s photo illustrated here and many more Whidbey birds.

 

Frances Wood can be reached at wood@whidbey.com and Craig Johnson is at Craigjohnson@whidbey.com.

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