On the Wing


Comings and goings

Spring migration has come to the Pacific Flyway, the north-south route that migrating birds follow along the west coast of the Americas. A busy time in the skies overhead and in our bays, woods, fields and backyards! Birds arriving, others leaving for the summer, many simply passing through, adding to our year-round resident population, much to the delight of local birders.

Migration to warmer regions in the fall helps many species survive during the winter months and gets them back to their breeding grounds for the summer. Migrating birds are guided by Earth’s magnetic field and by the position of the sun if they fly by day or the moon and stars if they fly at night. They also use geographical as well as man-made landmarks, often ending up exactly where they bred or wintered the previous year. Exhaustion and bad weather do take their toll, and many die or get lost along the way. Migration is a risky undertaking, but its persistence suggests that its survival benefit outweighs the risks.

Some of the longest-distance migrants that breed in our area are swallows, martins and swifts, according to Seattle Audubon. You’ve probably seen them by now: violet-green swallows, back from their winter in Southern California and Mexico; barn swallows, back from Central and South America; cliff swallows, back from South America; Vaux’s swifts, back from Mexico; and purple martins, back from the Amazon Basin in South America (Migrated-the-Farthest award!). Rufous hummingbirds, house wrens and orange-crowned warblers have also returned from their winter grounds in California and Mexico.

Case and Carr Inlets are winter homes to surf scoters, buffleheads, American wigeons, common loons, Brandt’s cormorants, common and Barrow’s goldeneyes and common mergansers, among others, all ready to head north now to their breeding grounds in Canada and Alaska. Their numbers swell before they leave as they are joined by conspecifics (members of the same species) that had dispersed farther south and are now stopping here to rest and refuel on their way north. Reunion time!

Not all birds migrate long distances. Dark-eyed juncos and Steller’s jays are considered resident in our area, but some will migrate over short distances or between higher or lower elevations in search of food. The red-shafted form of the Northern flicker is resident and breeds here, migrating shorter distances to higher or lower elevations, while the less common yellow-shafted form is primarily a winter visitor, breeding in Alaska and the Northern Rockies, according to Seattle Audubon.

And many species don’t migrate, having adapted to our relatively mild climate and availability of food, on land or in the water: bald eagles, Western gulls, double-crested cormorants, belted kingfishers, killdeer, pigeon guillemots, and of course our Northwestern crows in coastal areas and American crows inland. There are smaller birds in this category too: chestnut-backed and black-capped chickadees, Bewick’s wrens, Anna’s hummingbirds, white-breasted nuthatches, spotted towhees and many woodpeckers.

For more information, go to allaboutbirds.org or birdweb.org, and of course your field guides or birding apps.

Or just hang a feeder or two in your backyard, grab your binoculars and enjoy the show!

Joseph Pentheroudakis is an artist and avid birder. He lives on Herron Island.