Across my street, on the roofs of three over-sized, developer-templated new homes on a cul-de-sac, are perched approximately 200 glaucous-winged gulls. In winter, they like to hang in our river valley, making use of available roofs and abundant garbage cans. Between our winter squalls, they come to these suburban places to wait for the wind and rain to sweep off Puget Sound.
Every morning in winter, too, the crows leave their roosting places just south of us, from the river valley where green spaces and warehouses provide the perfect place to spend the night. At barely sunrise, these erratically-flying specks fill the skies with croaks and caws, deploying to their various hunting territories. It’s said a crow will remember your face. I like to think the group who spends the day foraging in my neighborhood are the same guys every year.
Last spring we had a bumper crop of Steller’s jays. In a nest hidden in one of our trees, the jay parents successfully raised 3 chicks. The family quintet filled our garden with noisy strife and play, yelling at the crows, dropping empress-tree seeds onto the sidewalk. They’re all still around this winter.
Then there’s the winter robins. I’ve learned that there are more robins around in fall and winter, here in the Pacific Northwest. This is certainly true here. It’s the holly’s fault—and only our backyard hollies. Three trees were happily growing when we bought this place, and only last year I learned these are considered invasive. Who knew? Except true, I find holly striplings all over the garden. And try to cut one down without digging up the roots. I’M BA-ACK. However, the fall robins mob the holly berries November through January (thus the source of the numerous holly striplings). They also favor my bird bath, the big one, with the warmer in it. It’s a favorite of the robins, jays, starlings and the spotted towhee and is right under my front window from which I spy on them as they bathe and drink.
So this wordy (birdy—oh ick) prologue brings me around to what I did last Saturday (December 29th). My friend and I joined two experienced birders and a small group of others for the Audubon Christmas Bird Count. On the wettest, windiest day, I opted to go with those who would be counting along Alki Beach, a Seattle neighborhood on Puget Sound. Along with fabulous views of downtown Seattle across Eliot Bay, complete with frequent ferries, Akli hems the east, north and western borders of West Seattle.
In spite of the sideways rain and wind, it was a fabulous day. I wanted to see sea and shore birds and learn how to tell the difference between a double-crested and a Brandt’s cormorant. There were mew gulls, glaucous-winged gulls and glaucous gulls (yes, they are different, according to the experts), grebes and numerous ducks: Barrow’s golden-eyes, harlequins, common mergansers, buffleheads and scoters. Two bald eagles made a brief appearance (yawn—they’re everywhere, but, don’t get me wrong, still the most beautiful sight you will ever see). Our birder expert was most excited to see Eurasian collared doves, a transplant whose empire is expanding. We stood in eye-stomping rain and wind to see the harlequins, and spend the last moments a neighborhood pond. In the wind and rain.
I knew I was wet. I did not wear rain pants—I don’t have any, actually, but I will now—but I did have my REI raincoat on. But when I peeled off my layers when I got home after eight hours in the weather (with a lunch-break at a Starbucks, where we occupied a round table, binoculars placed in a circle in the middle like a weird ritual.), my skin was damp—all layers saturated. My clothes fell to the floor with a plop and that hot shower saved my life.
Still I won’t trade the sight of dozens of turnstones and surf-birds waiting out the weather on the rocks below the path, so enamored I forgot to take a photo of them. I swear they knew the wave from the ferry-wake was coming, because for no reason they woke up chattering and flitted away from the water’s edge moments before the wave hit.
How did they know?