Onward to the Equinox

by Joe Meche

Common loon
photo: Joe Meche

Cindy and I have lived here for a combined total of 98 years and we can’t think of anyplace we’d rather be. However, this winter has encouraged us to consider our options. Maybe it’s a part of everything you’ve ever heard about the golden years or maybe this past winter seems to have been darker and colder than most. But then, we were all at the end of dealing with covid-19 for two years and were just tired. Though we were both vaccinated and boosted twice, we succumbed. We recovered, and, ever the optimists, we hung in there like everyone else. And just like that spring is right around the corner.

The vernal equinox arrives this year on March 20 and it’s none too soon. I could be wrong, but, in all of my outings since winter weather set in, even the birds seemed a bit disgruntled. Not sure if that’s a trait only experienced by humans, but the birds seemed to be hiding out or somewhere else. Except for the quasi-invasion of varied thrushes during the big pre-Xmas snowfall, overall avian activity was slower than usual. The five counts that I’ve done for the Puget Sound Seabird Survey since October have been slow with fewer birds to report from past years. 

Before getting too deep into doom and gloom, I should point out that I’m looking ahead with great enthusiasm and even a bit of optimism for the birds of spring to begin filtering in from their winter retreats. As we watch our wintering birds like loons and grebes slowly changing into their breeding plumage, the magic of migration will be evident in many venues around the county. While our winter migrants will be following their urges to head north and east to their breeding grounds, our resident birds will be joined by the neotropicals that come here to nest and raise their young of the year.

To me, the beauty of it all is to experience the magic of overlapping species coming and going, just as regularly as they have been long before we began to understand it all. A big part of me often wonders how our resident birds handle the constant flow of migrating birds. Do the house finches see the migrants as competition, or, to wax anthropomorphic, are they like humans when new neighbors pop in and then leave six months later? Of course, we have our own version with the snowbirds who spend their summers here and their winters in Arizona. There are so many ways to analogize human behavior with that of other members of the animal kingdom.

Getting back on track for the arrival of spring in the Pacific Northwest, today’s surprise hailstorm was the perfect example of the capriciousness of nature. A sunny morning in Blaine for filming a video promotion of the upcoming Wings Over Water festival turned into a very dark day at Semiahmoo before I fled the scene. However, the usual activity was unraveling in the channel into Drayton Harbor and along the cobble beaches as I drove away. Numerous gulls and cormorants had discovered a moving mass of prey fish and the feeding frenzy was on. 

I was interviewed as part of the video that’s destined for YouTube sometime soon. In retrospect, my own answers to most of the questions made me consider how blessed we are to have such a rich and diverse avian variety that winters here through the colder months and into spring. As if on cue, while the interview was taking place, the tide was going out and numerous surf and white-winged scoters were paddling in right behind us, almost confirming my answers about our winter birds.  

Since I’ve been visiting the Blaine-Semiahmoo area for more than 45 years and actively promoting it for the past 25 years, it was easy to reel off the top wintering birds that attract people to the area. Leading the list, of course, were the inimitable long-tailed ducks, followed by the usual suspects like loons and grebes as well as the formidable list of dabbling and diving birds. As I toured the area before and after the interview on the Jorgenson Pier, the list practically created itself in all the usual locations.

At the public boat launch area of Blaine harbor, greater yellowlegs were working the soft mud on the ebb tide alongside green-winged teal. Northern pintails and American wigeons were on the shoreline, of Marine Park following suit with the usual numbers of our favorite shorebird, the dunlin. Along the Semiahmoo shoreline black oystercatchers, sanderlings, and black turnstones were foraging on the leeward side of the spit.

It was a good day to promote the area and the upcoming Wings Over Water festival for more exposure. We did the PR work while I was confirming for myself that all I’ve heard and said about the best winter birding in Washington state is true … right here in Whatcom County.               


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 200 columns for Whatcom Watch.

Common loon

photo: Joe Meche

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