By Richard Rowlett
Day 1 Thursday, 12 February 1998
The Skagit Conference was kicked off with an utterly fascinating post-dinner presentation by Bud Anderson (founder of the Falcon Research Group) and Arlen Fletcher: “A Review of Recent Great Gray Owl Information in Northwest Washington.” Fascinating indeed! This was probably the single strongest drawing card for me to attend this convention. For the skeptics, including myself initially, who got caught up in the controversy over trapping and radio-tagging the infamous and highly publicized Ovenell Road (Skagit County) Great Gray Owl in the winter of 1996, the upshot and results of that effort have long since exonerated Anderson and his dedicated assistants. These guys were more than just ‘lucky’; their utter dedication by ground and by air, using the best in current scientific sophistication for a scientific cause, resulted in a remarkable contribution. Through their efforts, we glimpsed the timing and route of a Great Gray Owl migrating from its wintering grounds on the Skagit to the remote and rugged hinterland in the vicinity of Kamloops, south-central British Columbia.
The 1996 bird wasn’t a one-time lucky shot, as a second (unpublicized) bird, also from Skagit County, was similarly tracked in 1997. This owl was followed from the moment ofIift -off (one year plus one day after the 1996 departure date) and was last detected in the same general area of Kamloops. One doesn’t have to be a rocket scientist to see how challenging and difficult tracking a Great Gray Owl in migration really is. Just look at relief map of British Columbia! These radio tags, by the way, were not the dreaded collars draped around the bird’s neck, as many first envisioned. They are simple tiny devices (6 grams) attached to a tail feather and shed when conference, from page 1 the bird molts. The signal can not be located if some terrain happens to block a direct line between the bird and the receiver, but if there is no blockage the signal can be received many miles away. The migration of these two birds, both in early April of 1996 and 1997, consisted of short nightly hops to the north-northeast. Soon it became possible, by plotting the migration trajectory, to ‘predict’ where the bird might be on subsequent nights and then be at the ‘predicted’ spot the next night. Amazingly, observers could be right on target, seeing the migrating owl fly right over the radio receiver!
The presentation consisted of a sophisticated mix of current media aids-slides on one screen with simultaneous computer graphics on another, followed by a 1O-minute video. Brilliantly done for a bird that I hold in such spirit-like awe, the ‘gray ghost of the northern forest.’ In the trembling wake of this presentation, anything and everything else that happens at this conference will just be gravy.
The first night of the WOS Convention was far better attended then I would have ever expected for a Thursday night-at least 125 people attended. Otherwise, the day got off to an ominous start, with much rain and wind. Last I heard was that the post program ‘owl prowl’ went off anyway after the rains had abated. However, *if* the owling really did happen, participants had to be totally die-hard hopefuls going off into the teeth of god-awful windy conditions gusting 40+mph. Owl-prowl update: Two Saw-whets, only because they were stake-outs. Otherwise, it was a ‘blow’ -out.
Day 2 Friday, 13 February 1998
A blustery but rainless day across much of the Skagit area, but windy conditions were often localized at exposed areas while protected areas were calm and pleasant. Deception Pass boat trip (40 species): Most of the usual expected waterbirds and a spectacular ride through the pass and environs.
Skagit/Samish: Gyrfalcon, Peregrine, and Prairie Falcon; “Harlan’s” Hawk (2); Black-crowned Night-Heron; Harris’s, Whitethroated, and American Tree Sparrow; no sign (yet) of the Greentailed Towhee.
North Whidbey Island (75 species): Nothing unusual, but a great experience observing the loon action at the top of the outgoing tide at Deception Pass. A hundred or more loons, mostly Red-throated, repeatedly flew inbound and rode out on the current. Timing is everything here and the bird action is definitely a worthy event to observe. The time to be there is between 30 minutes before and an hour or so after high tide. An impressive gathering of about 25 Black Oystercatchers massed on the nearshore rocks here. Everyone had great opportunities to see Harlequin and Long-tailed (Oldsquaw) Ducks, and all three scoters at various stops-and a great mass of Black Turnstones and Surfbirds at Coupeville.
One of the highlights of this trip was having guided access to the Whidbey Island Naval Air Station (NAS), which is usually closed to the public. Our leader, Matt Klope, has been the civilian biologist at the NAS for the past 9 years and has done great things with the area. The NAS Whidbey Island bird checklist, which is the result of a partnership between the U.S. Navy and the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, is one of the most attractive and well-done checklists that I have ever seen.
The speaker tonight was Dr. Fred Cooke (Simon Fraser University, with a slide and video presentation on his work with Harlequin Ducks around wintering areas along the southwest British Columbia coast nesting areas in the interior. These birds spend 8 to 9 hours actively feeding each day, only during daylight (they are inactive at night). Harlequin Duck pair bonding takes place in early to mid-winter, after which the pair migrates together to breeding areas along clean, whitewater streams as far inland as Jasper and Banff National Parks. Nesting streams have to be just right, containing clean, rapid, and turbulent water, exposed rocks for roosting and resting, and sufficient cover on the banks for nesting. Finding all these conditions together is far less common than one might think.
Also interesting, and rather disturbing, was to learn that the ‘relic’ and disjunct population in eastern Canada has been in a steady and drastic decline for the past 20 years for unknown reasons. The western Canada (and Washington) and Alaskan populations are still doing well but show a declining trend as well.
Owl-prowl: Participants were treated to a calm full moon-lit night and several Saw-whet Owls calling in the woods and flying about and silhouetted in the moonlight. Also Great Homed Owls were heard, while Barn, Barred, and Short-eared were reported from around the area by various independent observers. There was an unconfirmed report of a very difficult to see and far away Snowy Owl on a distant dike between Edison and the West 90 which perhaps can be updated today.
Day 3 Saturday, 14 February 1998
A high, bright overcast sky, mild temperatures, and calm winds brought enjoyable and pleasant outings for everyone.
Deception Pass boat trip: Much the same as yesterday.
Johnson/DeBay Swan Reserve: This wildlife management area, created for wintering Trumpeter Swans, is not yet open to the public. A big busload of us, under the guidance of Martha Jordan, had the good fortune to preview it. The reserve is about 3 miles northeast of Mount Vernon, on and around an oxbow slough and nearby Skagit River. I’m impressed by what this 290-acre area will have to offer the swans, as well as birders, hunters, and other visitors.
Don’t cringe at the thought of hunters. Development of this area is a labor of love by Jordan and organizations such as Washington Duck Hunters, Inc., Trumpeter Swan Society, state resource-management agencies, private landowners, and several conservation groups. The reserve is being designed so a variety of groups will be able to enjoy it without compromising the safety and security of the swans. This area is not just being slammed together by the Washington Department of Fish Wildlife “thinking” it knows all that is best. Martha Jordan and others involved are seriously recruiting suggestions and input from birders. They Skagit/Samish Flats: The highlight was confirming the Snowy are considering roads (open or closed? what’s best for swans and birders ?) parking areas, trails, photography and viewing blinds, nest boxes (Wood Ducks, Barn Owls, others), and managing the area for other birds that can be viewed throughout the year. A feedback form was distributed to everyone on the trip, and Martha stressed how important it is that we contribute our suggestions. If you haven’t been to this area yet, you should go take a look. The interior is closed the public at the moment but you can still get a terrific overview just by being on the fringe and along the DeBay Slough (DeLorme page 95, T34N, R4E, Section 2). Try Francis Road, which runs along the east side of the slough, for several hundred roosting Trumpeter Swans at dawn or, even more impressively, in the late evening when swans return to roost in the slough. Lots of Bald EAgles to be seen around here as well. Then send your comments and suggestions to Martha Jordan, The Trumpeter Swan Society, 14112 – 1st AVe. W, Everett WA 98209.
About 150 people attended the banquet, where Dennis Paulson and Bill Tweit awardd Terry Wahl the second Zella M. Schultz Lifetime Achievement Award for his contributions toward advancing knowledge of Washington seabirds and bird life during his many years as an “amateur” ornithologist.
Terry was also the keynote speaker. He reviewed seabird trendds based on over 200 Westport pelagic trips over 25+ years. In general, the diversity is still present, but high numbers of some species seen during the early years have shown a steady and “alarming” decline in the 1990s. Most notably among those in decline include Sooty Shearwater, Common Murre, Marbled Murrelet, Cassin’s Auklet, and Tufted Puffin, while Rhinoceros Auklet, Brown Pelican, and California Gull have shown an upward trend.
Considering the nature of pelagic trips, it’s hard to draw any definite conclusions about how serious the environment may currently be compromised. When a species appears to be declining, we tend to draw worst-case conclusions, when more favorable environmental conditions and food sources simply may have shifted somewhere else, out of the range of occasional one-day pelagic trips. The departure of the large foreign fishing operations has likely lowered the numbers of pelagic birds. Looking at the Westport pelagic trip results and trends from another angle, perhaps those highly rich trips of the 1970s were an anomaly. Just because Sooty Shearwters aren’t being seen by the hundreds of thousands to millions, as they were a few years ago along some parts of Washington (and California), there is no evidence that massive die-offs have ever occurred. Breeding colonies in New Zealand and southern South America maintain levels and I continue to see huge localized concentrations of Sooty Shearwaters off parts of southern Alaska and even locally (around Swiftsure Bank) at times.
These comments are in no way intended to slight Terry Wahl, whom I very much admre for all his wonderful work, achievements, and advancement of Washington ornithology. Rather, they are presented as a perspective from someone who shares Terry’s love and enthusiasm for seabirds, but views them from the global perspective of an observer who lives as an “itinerant” marine wildlife biologist roaming the high seas, usually beyond localized areas off Washington
Day 4 Sunday, 15 February 1998
Skagit/Samish Flats. The highlight was confirming the Snowy Owls — not one, but two. Both were seen on a dike at an area known as the “East 90” and easily visible from the main road. Where’s that, you wonder? Well … east of the West 90, of course. It’s simple enough (DeLorme page 109: T35N, R3E, Section 5), 1 mile west of Edison on Bayview Edison Rd. at the first hard left 90-degree turn. A Prairie Falcon was also seen here. One wonders where these birds came from so late in the winter. This area is birded so heavily during the winter that it is hard to imagine that they’ve gone overlooked this long. Another interesting note is that one of these Snowy Owls has a yellow wing (?) tag, so it is one of the birds captured, banded, and taged by Bud Anderson during last winter’s great invasion.
North Whidbey Island and Naval Air Station: Pretty much the same complement of birds as the Day 2 trip.
Deception Pass boat trip: A delightful 5-hour afternoon excursion under sunny skies and mostly light winds. The trip through the Pass and under the bridge is an exquisite thrill, with its gorgeous scenery and fast swirling currents. A Peregrine perched atop one of the tallest snags at the cliff edge in the Pass in full sunlight wasn’t a bad touch; it conjured a sense of being in sheer wilderness. Two pairs of Marbled Murrelets just west of the bridge cooperated and provided lengthy and excellen tviews. Bald Eagles were scattered throughout, including a pair already sitting atop their massive nest platform. Great Blue Herons werre gathered in groups of 16 (in the trees) and 25 (like stumps on the shore). A River Otter seen munching down a sculpin or rockfish on the rocky shoreline was splendid.
The Viking Star, skippered by Ken (Captain Mac) McDonald is a delightful little boat and perfect for up to 49 passengers wishing to experience this scenic area without getting seasick. Only about 14 of us went out today, so we had lots of room for everyone up on the bow. Captain Mac is friendly and knowledgeable about the birds, whales, and other wildlife, and clearly takes pride in sharing this wonderful area with visitors.
Day 5 Monday, 16 February 1998
Boundary Bay and Reifel Sanctuary: All five target birds were nailed down and easy pickins, requiring little effort or patience. Whiz, bang, tick, and back on the bus please! Much of this good fortune was the results of our onboard leaders (Hue MacKenzie and Brian Self) and the advance squad of scouters sprinkled along the route.
The weather was perfect — warm, springlike, sunny, little or no wind, and clear views of all the surrounding mountains, from Mt. Baker to all th ose snowy ones way up north on Vancouver Island.
About 60 participants packed the large bus to White Rock, where we were treated to a Yellow-billed Loon along the beachfront. This clearly as the A-1 highlight of the trip and the weekend! Good heavens, what an accommodating bird! I have never seen a Yellow-billed Loon so close, so well, so long, and in such complete feather-by-feather detail. It was a first-winter basic-plumaged bird, with lots of variable basic-plumaged Common Loons around for direct comparison.
The George C. Reifel Migratory Bird Sanctuary on Westham Island in the Fraser River delta is a bizarre birding site. Everything is so tame here, almost zoo-like, and wild birds that are hard to find elsewhere can be seen up close, strangely undisturbed by the hordes of visitors. Gazillions of Mallards are underfoot and Black-capped Chickadees feed out of your hand, but perhaps the funniest residents are three Sandhill Cranes that will follow you around.
John Ireland led us into a closed portion of the sanctuary where four Long-eared Owls roost during winter in a dense tangle of scrubby hawthorne, brambles, and other brush. John spotted one owl almost immediately — just how, I shall never know. Talk about cryptic! I had no idea that a “west side” Long-eared Owl roost would be in such a dense tangle of this stuff. Considering the Long-eared Owl’s wintering habitat preference at Reifel, there could easily be hundreds scattered all over western Washington.
Another of those weird Reifel birds was the easy-as-pie Saw-whet Owl, tucked away under a pine bough, sleeping soundly yet hopelessly conspicuous right over the trail. A couple of mousy squeaks woke this sleepy-eyed little guy briefly, but long enough to yawn and nibble on its foot before dozing off again. Cute.
The 10th annual conference of the Washington Ornithological Society was a terrific success. A deep sense of appreciation and sincere gratitude must be extended to Jan and Keith Wiggers and the many volunteers and members of Skagit Audubon who made this such a memorable event. I can hardly begin to imagine how much time and effort is involved in setting up and coordinating one of these things. The Mount Vernon venue was seasonally perfect, the program was excellent, the informatio packet complete and thorough, and even the dinners were tasty.
Field trip leaders were excellent, knowledgeable, and helpful. A special thanks must go to those coordinated volunteers in British Columbia for making the Day 5 Canada trip so successful.
I was especially pleased to see a few young birders in attendance. Let’s give the kids a lot more encouragement!