by Joe Meche
From a song of some renown by Pete Seeger:
“To everything, turn, turn, turn
there is a season, turn, turn, turn
and a time to every purpose under heaven.”
Except for the phrase, “turn, turn, turn,” and the last line, Mr. Seeger was quoting directly from Ecclesiastes, as found in the King James Version of the Bible, and written in the 10th century, BCE. If you take time to read the full lyrics, you’ll see that it’s all so true in the ways of today’s world, even in the world of birds and bird-watchers. It might be a bit of a stretch, but the seasons of birds are as much a part of life as any natural phenomenon or manmade milestone used to mark the time of year. It seems that ardent bird-watchers become as seasonal as the birds in their comings and goings.
I’ve always seen the end of August as the end of summer for all intents and purposes. While the residual heat of summer might linger into the early part of September, it’s obvious in so many ways that the old seasonal pendulum is in full swing. This was always a time of welcome relief when I lived in the South. Traditionally, school always started after Labor Day and cooler mornings and evenings sealed the deal. For our seasonal getaways over the past thirty years, pre-Memorial Day and post-Labor Day have been magic markers on our annual calendars.
On the birding front, there’s a noticeable awakening of sorts in the community of watchers. We’ve gone through spring and early summer enjoying the arrivals of the Neotropical migrants and marveled at their songs, as well as their courtship rituals and nest-building efforts. Eventually though, summer heat crept in to slow us and the birds down to a lackluster pace. I, for one, start and stop early on days like we had in mid-August. There is a noticeable shortage of trees in the wide open spaces like Semiahmoo and mosquitoes rule the wetlands.
All of these musings bring us back to September and the days ahead when the weather cooperates and the northern breeders slowly begin to trickle back in, whether they’re early scouts or just passing through on their way farther south. No matter the circumstance, it seems our collective bird-watching consciousness becomes more alert at summer’s end. A perfect example as I look back through my own records is the gap between whimbrel sightings at Semiahmoo. Their time lapse is from mid-May to late August. In migratory birds, you can look at species by species accounts and note their arrival and departure dates, from northbound to southbound. The same reference can be applied to the handsome Bonaparte’s gulls, which were on the beach at Birch Bay State Park in late August. Almost inherently you can tell the time of year without looking at a calendar.
In recent postings on social media, many folks are already adding photos and tales of winter birds they’re looking forward to seeing again. Is it just the particular bird or birds they’re anticipating or the changing season? I’m always happy to know that I’m not the only one who lists summer as my least favorite season. I’ve turned into a real shade seeker as I’ve aged and cooler just works better for me.
As we look ahead to more suitable weather to pursue our passion for observing the feathered ones, and with all due respect to our resident birds, it’s important to draw a distinction between migratory birds. I alluded earlier to migrants that might be passing through, like several species of shorebirds. Though there might be a straggler or two left behind, black-bellied plovers are reliable sightings at Semiahmoo in spring and again in late summer and fall. Their numbers tend to range between 500-800 individuals, with numerous young birds making their first trips southward.
One of the most exciting parts of observing these large flocks is the blind-luck opportunity to pick out birds of different species that accompany the plovers. I’ve observed red knots, western sandpipers, short-billed dowitchers, dunlin, and American golden plovers mingling with the black-bellieds on the cobble beaches in September. These smaller migrants often have the company of larger shorebirds like godwits and willets, along with the whimbrels that I mentioned earlier.
Keep in mind that these early migrants are here at this time of year because they still have a long way to go to get to their wintering grounds. Even more exciting to me are the travelers that are coming here to spend the winter in local waters. In the coming months, bodies of salt and fresh water will be hosting a myriad of wintering birds spanning the range from loons and grebes to mallards and wigeons.
Adult birds will arrive with the young of the year in tow from points to the east and northeast, as far away as Alaska and the Canadian prairies. In the 46 years that I’ve lived here, I’ve marveled at the abundance of birds that rely of the food-rich environs and safe havens like Drayton Harbor and even Bellingham Bay. The Fourth Corner is alive with birds that arrive in late summer and early fall and stay around until April and May before starting the process all over again.
I must confess that my favorites in saltwater settings are the diving ducks. They do their hunting below the surface and a fun challenge is to try to guess where they’ll surface. This is especially challenging for the photographer trying to get the perfect shot. I recommend the Jorgensen Pier at the Blaine waterfront where you have a wide angle of view across the channel to Semiahmoo. You can also reverse the process by shooting from Semiahmoo. I try to spend an entire day on the border sampling both points.
Of all the seasonal migrants that arrive in September, my personal favorites are the common loons. After spending time on fresh water with nesting pairs on secluded lakes in the high Okanogan, I marvel not only at their beauty and their eerie songs, but at the tenacity they show by flying so far inland to nest … only to return to winter on salt water. Loons are heavy, diving birds and just to think of their flight over the Cascades to reach their seasonal destinations leaves me a bit awestruck.
Other social media posts go on about the longing of some folks to hear and certainly see the first returning snow geese and swans. It brings out the impatience of some who find less to appreciate with the birds that are here. But again, I think it has more to do with the weather than anything else. I do know that, when September, is in the rear view mirror and we segue into October and November we’ll lose a few watchers because it’s “too cold!” I try to do my best not to complain about the weather … I just dress accordingly and get on with my day.
Despite failed back surgery, torn rotator cuff(s), and the challenges of peripheral neuropathy, I’ll be out there one way or the other. Just remember that September is the springboard for great things to come and that the season of many birds will be here before we know it.
Turn, turn, turn!
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.