Fall means time to welcome new flocks of birds

  • By Mike Benbow Special to The Herald
  • Friday, September 20, 2013 12:47pm
  • Life

I hate to jinx the spectacular summer we’ve been having, but the calendar says it’s about to come to an end.

Although we can get some great days in October, September is typically the last gasp of summer. And even if we don’t want to acknowledge it, the birds certainly are more pragmatic.

If you’re a birder, September signals that some big changes are afoot.

Herons, eagles and many other birds are year-round species, but others will be saying goodbye, and new ones will be saying hello during fall and winter.

Hummingbirds and many songbirds are among those that will be leaving this month. Ditto for some of the Canada geese, although more of them are becoming full-time residents.

A few of the hummingbirds have taken up residency in Western Washington as well, so it’s time to make a decision whether or not to continue to feed them through fall and winter. Experts at the Seattle Audubon Society say hummingbirds should be fine without supplemental food during our mild winters, but they note that if you do decide to feed them, be consistent about it.

While I hate to say goodbye to all the sunshi ne we’ve enjoyed, I’m actually looking forward to fall and winter from a bird-watching perspective.

We may lose some Canada geese this fall, but we’ll gain thousands of snow geese.

The Silvana-Stanwood area and farther north in the Skagit Valley is the fall and winter home to some 35,000 snow geese. They breed each summer on Russia’s Wrangel Island in the Arctic Ocean north of Siberia and then fly 3,000 miles to winter here.

Our area is also the winter home to thousands of trumpeter and tundra swans, the largest birds in North America. Trumpeters have wings that can span 8 feet and are truly majestic.

But the bird I really hope to see this fall and winter is the snowy owl.

With their golden, luminous eyes and mostly white feathers, snowy owls are among the most beautiful birds on the planet, as well as among the most mysterious.

Also denizens of the Arctic, there are some 400 breeding pairs on Wrangel Island, snowy owls survive there nearly entirely on lemmings.

They’re infrequent migrators, so most portions of the lower 48 states see them only every five to seven years or so. Experts used to believe snowy owls headed south only when there weren’t enough lemmings, a rodent whose population can fluctuate dramatically.

They now believe the opposite; that a surplus in lemmings causes owls to bear more young, forcing the youngsters to find new feeding territory.

Whatever the reason, Western Washington has seen good populations of snowy owls each fall in the past two years. They’ve shown up in urban and rural areas, but they seem more at home in farm fields along the shoreline.

Will they be here again this year?

That’ll be something to look forward to as we shift to a new season and a new lineup for bird species.

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