Birding in the Time of Covid-19

Bonaparte’s gull                                                                                                      photo: Joe Meche

It seems that it’s been a long wait for spring birding and the wait increased slightly with the arrival of Covid-19. This pandemic created a major disruption in our everyday activities, from work to recreational pursuits. However, spring birds are arriving, their schedules unaffected by the current health crisis. While we’re all cognizant of the situation and doing our respective parts to stay healthy and be safe, it is possible to do so without compromising any warnings or your own personal health. I go out daily since my post-surgery exercise regimen includes walking, but I don’t leave the house without a mask. No matter if it’s a grocery run or a short drive to a birding site to maintain my mental health, I do go out. These are different times than most of us have seen in our entire lives, so it’s important to pay attention to the focus on social distancing, as painful as it might be.

Since I do most of my birding alone, social distancing hasn’t been terribly difficult for me, and it shouldn’t be for anyone who wants or needs fresh air and exercise. State parks and wildlife areas have been closed to public access and it’s just a waste of time to cross gates that have been closed for everyone. Access to many places is available without being a scofflaw, no matter how minor you think your transgression might be. I’ve put together a short list of local places you might consider if your focus is on birds with an eye toward distancing yourself from other users.

It probably comes as no surprise that I would recommend the Semiahmoo Spit as a haven for social distancing as well as for good birding. Most of the larger wintering flocks of waterfowl and seabirds leave for their breeding grounds from mid-April through the first part of May. This coincides with the time that shorebirds like dunlin, western sandpipers, and black-bellied plovers gather along the beaches to await their turn to migrate. After these northern breeders have departed, there is still avian activity in the form of black oystercatchers, double-crested and pelagic cormorants, and a variety of gulls to occupy your time on the spit.

The Blaine waterfront has some of the same potential for watching birds and maintaining the crisis protocol of distancing. The Jorgensen Pier at the end of Marine Drive offers expansive views of the active channel between the waterfront and Semiahmoo. The back and forth traffic from the large cormorant nesting colony on the harbor breakwater offers a unique opportunity to view both double-crested and pelagic cormorants. When there are young to be fed, this colony remains extremely active into the summer months. An open trail follows the shoreline through Marine Park so there’s plenty of room to stretch your legs.

There is a large nesting colony of great blue herons on the hill above Drayton Harbor so you can expect a lot of heron flyovers when there are hungry nestlings waiting to be fed. Similar in many ways to the smaller version at Bellingham’s Post Point Lagoon, this colony might have as many as 200 or more herons fishing on the tide flats. Bald eagles also nest around the perimeter of this large estuary so the potential for excitement is always there in spring. Caspian terns also began arriving in mid-April so there’s the addition of their raspy calls.

Farther to the south, the campground at Birch Bay State Park is closed with locked gates at both entry points but the main drive along the shoreline remains open. This is more than likely due to the large number of residents that live south of the park and use this as their main access to the town itself. With this road open, there is ample space to spread out along the cobble beaches that host large, foraging flocks of Pacific black brant, as well as numerous gull and waterfowl species. Early May is the time for large flocks of Bonaparte’s gulls and common terns to forage in the bay.

Back in Bellingham, Whatcom Falls Park is now and has always been an oasis for birders and urban hikers to be alone. The wider trails are ideal for distancing and the smaller ones are easily avoided. The park offers numerous entry points into the 247 forested acres. The birdlife potential within the park covers a wide range of habitat types from the cattail wetland at Scudder Pond to the riparian corridor of Whatcom Creek that meanders through the entire park.

Early spring at Scudder Pond offers a variety of passerine (perching) birds, and waterfowl. A big attraction is the variety of secretive marsh birds such as Virginia rails, Wilson’s snipe, and soras, as well as great blue and green herons. Bushtits, song sparrows, American robins, red-winged blackbirds, and cedar waxwings are regular nesting species at the pond. Violet-green and tree swallows fly their insect-hunting sorties over the cattails throughout the day, it seems. This particular site has long been cherished as an urban gem within Bellingham, and rightfully so. It was owned and managed for years by the North Cascades Audubon Society until the city parks department took over a couple of years ago.

The trail from Scudder Pond leads into what could be considered a maze of trails that parallel Whatcom Creek on its way to Bellingham Bay. You can walk comfortably into the deep forests of large Douglas firs and western red cedars on fairly level terrain in search of woodpeckers and owls, a variety of wood warblers, and one of the most inimitable bird species of all … the American dipper. Whatcom Creek so perfectly resembles a mountain stream that dippers are year-round residents within the park. They nest along the fast water, preferably near the numerous waterfalls that are one of the assets of this park. I counted four nesting pairs in the park last year.

The entire Bellingham Bay shoreline and its parks remain open and accessible from Zuanich Point on the north end to Marine Park on Southside. A new shoreline trail connects the two and goes through the new Waypoint Park as well as the established Boulevard Park and the popular Taylor Street boardwalk. Though the loons and other water birds have migrated, there are plenty of other birds on the bay throughout the spring and summer.

Bellingham and Whatcom County are blessed with numerous trails and parks that provide open space with ample room for social distancing. We should all adhere to posted guidelines as long as we’re directed to do so to slow the spread of Covid-19. No matter which of these places you choose to get fresh air and exercise and maybe see a few birds, they will all fit the bill for the times. While you’re out, do whatever you need to do to stay safe and stay healthy. Otherwise, stay home and read past issues of Whatcom Watch online at www.whatcomwatch.org.
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Joe Meche is a past president of the North Cascades Audubon Society and was a member of the board of directors for 20 years. He has been watching birds for more than 60 years and photographing birds and landscapes for more than 40 years. He has written over 190 columns for Whatcom Watch.

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