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Kitsap bird migration is a movable feast | Kitsap Birding

Heerman’s and Glaucous-winged Gulls gather near Point No Point.   - Don Willott / Contributed
Heerman’s and Glaucous-winged Gulls gather near Point No Point.
— image credit: Don Willott / Contributed

BY GENE BULLOCK

Migration is a movable feast that bird watchers and wildlife lovers eagerly await each fall. Pushed by seasonal cycles in food and weather, some birds are driven by a deep instinct to migrate or die.

For bird watchers the best windows are prime stopovers and confluences along the Pacific flyway where birds are funneled through narrow corridors formed by mountains and open water.

The Point No Point county park in Hansville is a pausing point where rich habitat and open water hold migrating flocks within easy view. Transient flocks of common terns, red-necked phalaropes, Bonaparte’s gulls and the predators they attract turn Point No Point into a fall showplace.

Parasitic jaegers and peregrine falcons perform aerial acrobatics as they prey on smaller terns and gulls. The jaegers are content to bully smaller birds into giving up their meals; while the falcons hope to make a meal of the birds themselves.

The Pacific flyway is a veritable highway in the sky, with way stations all along the coast, where migrating birds stoke up for the next leg of their annual journeys south or rest up before and after flying long distances over open water.

For many species, migration begins almost as soon as the young are on their own. Our rufous hummingbirds left early in August. At many feeders, they’ve already been replaced by Anna’s hummingbirds that may breed at higher elevations, and descend to lower elevations along the coast for the winter. These tough little birds will come to hummingbird feeders all winter long if you keep them thawed.

When nighttime temperatures dip below freezing, it’s important to take hummingbird feeders in at night, and keep an extra feeder handy when the other one freezes. Some speculate that Anna’s hummingbirds are thriving because more people are feeding them. But once they depend on your feeder, it’s important to keep it filled – especially on icy mornings when these high metabolism birds have limited options and little energy to spare.

Dark-eyed juncos reappear for the winter from wilderness nesting areas not far away, joining the resident finches and foraging flocks of pine siskins. Together, they can challenge you to keep your feeder full.

Some believe our overwintering populations of common Canada geese are descended from domesticated decoys used by market hunters before the practice was outlawed more than a century ago. The liberated decoys became a population of geese that had lost their instinct to migrate.

These prolific birds are abundant everywhere, to the dismay of those who maintain lawns in public parks and golf courses. Other subspecies of Canada geese still migrate, but they’ve been so heavily hunted some are struggling to survive.

Our “string of pearls” of national wildlife refuges has been essential to the survival of migratory geese and waterfowl.

Birds migrate by whatever route requires the least effort. On sunny days, hawks can travel for miles without a wingbeat by taking advantage of thermals. Warm air expands and rises. When the sun heats a patch of ground, a rising column can extend upwards hundreds of feet. Hawks can fly into such a column and spiral upward. Once it reaches the top, it can glide until it finds another thermal.

Red-tail hawks tend to be short-distance migrators, sometimes just indexing one or more territories south from their summer digs. But a few species of hawks migrate all the way to the southern tip of South America. The southbound river of raptors becomes concentrated at locations along the flyway. The best place in Washington to see migrating raptors is the Chelan Ridge Raptor Migration site. Each day in September and October, biologists and volunteers count and identify hawks, eagles, falcons, and vultures that soar nearby.

Chelan Ridge welcomes visitors to their field station to count hawks with the biologists and learn more about trapping and banding. Last year some 2,000 hawks were counted here.

The most famous annual confluence of raptors takes place in Veracruz, Mexico, where more than four million migrant birds of prey are counted each year.

But you don’t have to journey to Mexico, or even to Chelan, for a lively display of migrating birds. Point No Point County Park is just a short drive for those who live in Kitsap County. As fall merges into winter, many of the migrants will move south; but others will arrive and settle in for the winter. Kitsap’s surrounding ocean and 234 miles of shoreline are irresistible to a large variety of wintering waterfowl.

Coming close behind the fall migration, it’s an encore that will last until spring, when the migration reverses directions and our summer birds return.

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