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Audubon Society birders count the wings around Whidbey

December may be the season for partridges in pear trees, but on Dec. 15 people will be scanning Whidbey’s skies, water and woods for all manner of birdlife.

It’s time for Audubon Society’s Christmas Bird Count. And birders are more likely to see eagles in fir trees than partridges in pear trees. It’s not the season for geese to be a-laying but they could be a-flying. There’s an outside chance of seeing seven swans-a-swimming.

Next Saturday’s bird count will be the 15th on Whidbey. It’s the 102nd for the National Audubon Society. Groups of birders will be assigned to different areas on Whidbey. It’s up to the group to spot and identify the species of birds and keep a running total of the number of birds spotted.

Binoculars and spotting scopes will focus on every type of habitat and every size of bird from great blue herons to tiny winter wrens. Late in the day, tally sheets will be combined for the final report. Last year, Whidbey’s count totalled more than 20,000 birds with 112 species represented.

On a late November day, Bob Merrick and Don Knoke gave a preview of the count during an Audubon Society field trip to Crockett Lake.

Merrick had been out earlier listening for short-eared owls and counting shorebirds.

“I didn’t hear any owls. But thought I saw all three mergansers,” Merrick said. Common, hooded and red-breasted mergansers can be sighted on Whidbey. Common mergansers usually winter a bit farther south, Merrick said. In winter red-breasted and hooded mergansers prefer salt water; common mergansers like fresh water. Crockett Lake gets fresh water from rain and runoff and salt water from Admiralty Inlet.

Like the rest of the island, the Central Whidbey lake attracts a large variety of birds from ducks and shorebirds to raptors to song birds. On Nov. 27, a pair of trumpeter swans glided regally on the lake’s north end. Knoke said the big white birds probably “flew over from the Skagit.”

Merrick’s love of birding started on the East Coast where he watched raptors in North Carolina. When he moved to Whidbey, he got interested in raptors’ prey which included shorebirds.

Merrick and Knoke spent several minutes peering through a spotting scope and discussing the finer points of differentiating between greater and lesser scaup.

“What color is the head?”

“I’m waiting for the right light to hit it.”

“There. Does it have a greenish or a purplish head?”

“Maybe we have both in here. That’s the coward’s way out.”

Merrick said “birding came as a late vocation” to him. “If I had realized how much fun birding is, I would have been a wildlife biologist instead of a soldier.”

All interested persons are welcome to join the bird count. Who knows, maybe you’ll find a pear tree with a partridge in it.

Community Events, April 2014

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