First, there were the whales, then the deer, then the rabbits. Now, Langley may have pigeon guillemots as one of its resident species to adore.
Four juveniles were spotted hanging out around the old Nichols Brothers Boat Builders dock on the city’s waterfront. Govinda Rosling, who works in Langley, is an avid bird watcher and a co-coordinator of the Guillemot Research Group, who spotted the birds about a month ago and has since snapped several pictures of them hiding under the dock.
“I’m just excited to have them so close to my work,” she said.
The birds are an annual occurrence around Whidbey Island and typically nest in bluff burrows and other areas from which they can hunt for gunnels and sculpin and other small, bottomfeeding food near the shore.
Frances Wood, who writes the Whidbey Birding column for The Record, is an amateur naturalist and an organizer of the Whidbey Audubon Society, a co-coordinator of the Guillemot Research Group and a member of the Island County Marine Resources Committee. She said the news that pigeon guillemots may be nesting in Langley is exciting.
“We’ve just been recently seeing them in Langley,” she said via a phone interview while driving west from Walla Walla. “This is cool. This could be Langley’s bird if we wanted it to be.”
Langley Mayor Fred McCarthy, who has championed various wildlife seen around the Village by the Sea, said the city had not heard any squawking about the guillemots.
“I haven’t heard that one,” he said Monday afternoon. Under McCarthy’s leadership, the city has tried to become a whale tourism haven akin to the San Juan Islands, highlighting its annual visits by gray whales and orcas to its shoreline. Making the guillemot the city’s next mascot, or perhaps its air mascot, wasn’t a high priority task.
When asked about the recent bird sightings, he was mostly concerned if there was some kind of controversy, such as netting or where the birds were nesting.
The small seabird is featured in the Whidbey Audubon Society’s logo, with its distinct bright red-orange feet and beak visible against its stark black-and-white body.
For the past 12 years, volunteers have monitored the guillemots (pronounced like gill-a-motts) as they bred along the bluffs. Wood said they have counted a population of about 1,000 of the birds that nest around Whidbey. Wood and birders like her relish the opportunity to watch them breed, nest and care for their chicks.
“What’s really cool is to watch adult birds deliver food to the young in the burrows,” she said. “They’re catching fish underwater and loading them to the young, one at a time.”
“They’re very watchable wildlife,” she said.
Added Rosling: “They are very comical and entertaining birds to watch. They fly around and belly flop into the water.”
“I think it could be exciting to anybody that wants to take an interest,” she said.
They are also valuable to environmentalists, akin to a canary in the coal mine. According to the Puget Sound Partnership, a state agency that coordinates work toward the recovery of Puget Sound’s ecosystem, identified the guillemot as an environmental health indicator species. Basically, if the pigeon guillemot is not doing well, Puget Sound as a whole is not doing well. In a report jointly prepared by the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife and Puget Sound Partnership, the pigeon guillemot is one of three species recommended as a spring/summer at-sea indicator.
“These species are highly dependent on the marine environment of, and breed in, Puget Sound and Strait of Juan de Fuca,” the report states on page 3.
Wood described the guillemots as an easily scared species, and strongly encouraged people to keep their distance from them.
“Let them be. Don’t fuss around and disturb them,” she said.
Anyone wishing to aid in monitoring the seabirds can visit http://pigeonguillemot.org.