Archive for December, 2019

Dec 19

Visitors from Mexico

Heermann's Gulls roost on the rocks by Edmonds Pier. (Thomas Bancroft)

Heermann’s Gulls roost on the rocks by Edmonds Pier. (Thomas Bancroft)

“What are those seagulls?” came from behind me, “They’re a lot darker than our ones back east.” Half a dozen birds stood on the gray rocks. Their bills were tucked under back feathers, and their eyes shut.

“Heerman’s,” I said, “visitors up from Mexico. They come up for the summer and fall.”

“Wow, so they are not Herring Gulls,” one of the three women said. It was the common gull near their New England home. They watched for another few seconds and then wandered on toward the Edmonds Pier. I probably should have pointed to the Glaucous-winged Gull that was on a different rock, but these Heerman’s had captured my imagination.

What possessed them to come north. These looked like adults. Their heads were heavily mottled, bill red with a black tip, typical winter plumage. Their dark gray backs and lighter gray undersides blended in with the rocks that had been used to make this seawall. I hadn’t noticed them when I first walked up the ramp. 

They were mostly sleeping. Occasionally, one would pull its bill out from under back feathers, look around a little and then tuck it back in, closing its eyes. They looked comfortable, content, with not a care in the world, while I wore a heavy sweatshirt, wind jacket, gloves, and was definitely cold on this November day.

In the breeding season, their head would be pure white, and a bright red ring would surround their dark eye. Maybe I’ll see breeding condition birds when I go to Baja in March. Over 90% of the world’s population breeds on one island, Isla Raza, in the Gulf of California. In much fewer numbers, a few nest on other islands in the Gulf or along the Baja Peninsula. So far, they have never successfully nested in the United States. But they sure like to move north following breeding. They come up the Pacific coast as far as British Columbia and even loop down into Puget Sound, staying into the fall before heading back south. Early November seemed late for them, and these individuals might soon have a yearning for more southern weather. 

During the breeding season, most are offshore feeders, chasing schools of herring, joining cormorants, pelicans, and boobies. They are excellent kleptoparasites, even grabbing a fish out of a pelican’s mouths. They must find something to eat here in Puget Sound, but I’ve only ever seen them roosting or cruising along the shoreline. Perhaps, they find schooling fish offshore here, too.

Three of them woke and took off, heading out over the water. The other ones looked around for a minute before they too left. 

Heermann's Gulls roost on the rocks by Edmonds Pier. (Thomas Bancroft)

Heermann’s Gulls roost on the rocks by Edmonds Pier. (Thomas Bancroft)

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Dec 19

The Butcher Watchman

Movement caught my eye, and I glanced up through the windshield. The flight seemed labored, heavy, something a little different, unusual in this robin-sized bird. The individual was 15 feet above the ground and flew across the grass field along Rawlins Road. It came right over the car. Maybe, it was headed for a large bush behind me. I stopped in the middle of this dead-end road on Fir Island, jumping out.

Sitting on a top of the bare bush was the unmistakable silhouette of a Northern Shrike, a plump body, a big head, upward stance. It glared out across the fields, moving its head back and forth. Last week, my birding group had found a juvenile individual along the dikes, not a quarter-mile from this location. I moseyed back along the road, keeping my eyes averted. 

Sure enough, dark eye mask, the bill with a stout hook and a large tooth, black wings, scalloped cream breast feather, this was a perfect plumage juvenile. It was alert, hunting, but seemed to be ignoring me. This was my fifth trip to the Skagit in two weeks, and on each trip, we had spotted a Northern Shrike. On one trip, it was at Wiley Slough, on another at Hayton Reserve, once in the Samish Flats, and then here. These were probably four different individuals, and all had been juvenile birds. Possibly, this was turning into an irruptive year for shrikes.

These birds nest across Northern Canada and Alaska, coming south in winter. Most winters a few can be found in Washington, but in some years, vast numbers will come south. Perhaps, this happens when they have had an exceptionally successful nesting year or when northern winters become particularly hard, or food supplies low. 

These are voracious predators, capable of taking small birds and mammals. They store prey by sticking it on thorns or barbwire, coming back later to eat more of it. Often, they sit and wait for a prey item to show itself before darting off the perch. This species occurs in Europe and Asia, too.

The bird bolted from the branch, dropping down to just above the field and flying rapidly away from me. I couldn’t tell if it was chasing something or just heading to another hunting spot. It probably makes the rounds of a series of good lookouts. Their scientific name is Lanius excubitor, which translates as “Butcher Watchman.”

The scaupy cream plumage of the young Northern Shrike showed clearly as it sat erict, hunting from the top of the bush. (Thomas Bancroft)

The cream plumage of the young Northern Shrike showed clearly as it sat erect, hunting from the top of the bush. (Thomas Bancroft)