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Fall and winter flocks

Last winter I saw a mixed flock of shorebirds, a hundred or so black-bellied plovers and dunlin, feeding in a field near the Dungeness River. The tide on the nearby Strait of Juan de Fuca was high, no longer exposing a nutrient rich area of shore, which explains why these birds were feeding well inland from the water's edge. Suddenly some birds took flight, quickly forming as a cohesive flock. They whirled around the sky like a drill team, banking and turning in unison, a flight pattern typical of shorebirds. Looking closely, I realized that all the dunlin had taken flight while all the plovers remained calmly feeding on the ground. In an instant, some unknown trigger had effectively split a mixed flock into two single-species flocks.

Flocks of birds abound in the Sequim area in the colder months. It can be rewarding to pay close attention to the makeup of these flocks. On our regular Wednesday morning bird walks in fall and winter, we look and listen for mixed flocks of small birds. Birds that normally would stick with their own species - "birds of a feather flock together" - typically band together in fall and winter for safety from predators. In such flocks, we usually find golden- and ruby-crowned kinglets, black-capped and chestnut-backed chickadees, and red-breasted nuthatches - along with an occasional brown creeper, Townsend's warbler and downy woodpecker.

Some bird species almost never join mixed flocks. Among the small birds, bushtit flocks typically number several dozen birds. Trumpeter swans congregate in flocks of one to two dozen swans. Look for them in fields this winter along Schmuck Road (west side), and the northern stretches of Towne Road and Sequim-Dungeness Way. A dozen or more red-breasted mergansers often will swim together and playfully chase each other on the strait. Pacific loons, as social as their loon cousins seem to be anti-social, can be seen floating on the waters of the strait in flocks of several dozen. Flocks of California quail also are common, usually comprising a single family or two merged families.

Other birds alternate between mixing with other species, sometimes at backyard feeders, and sticking with their own species, particularly in flight, as do pine siskins. Some of the sparrows - dark-eyed juncos, golden-crowned and house sparrows - flock in numbers up to a dozen or so. Ditto house finches. In the extended assemblages of local gulls, grouping by species is the general rule. Flocks of dark birds feeding in lawns are usually all European starlings, but some of them also will perch on wires amid Brewer's and red-winged blackbirds.

Some fall flocks are strictly migrants, stopping in our area for refueling before traveling farther south. We've seen unusually large flocks of greater white-fronted geese this fall - several hundred in some sightings. Presumably most of them are headed for their normal wintering grounds in the central valley of California. We'll be watching our Christmas Bird Count data the next few years to see if their numbers increase, perhaps as a byproduct of global warming. CBC data is available in the Birds section on our Web site, www.olybird.org.

Comparisons of that data with similar counts during breeding season in May (see Birdathon results in the same section on the Web site) give us a measure of the magnitude of some winter flocks compared to year-round residents. While American wigeons, for example, typically have numbered several hundred across Clallam County in May each of the past few years, their CBC numbers have exceeded 10,000 just in the local 15-mile-diameter count circle each of the past few years. A few other ducks, notably mallards and northern pintails, are far more numerous in winter than in breeding season. So are American robins. Watch for a comical fall highlight - a flock of robins tipsy after eating fermented berries.



Author Dave Jackson is "Our Birds" series editor and webmaster. Send comments to him at editor@olybird.org or 683-1355. Olympic Peninsula Audubon meets at 7 p.m. tonight, Nov. 19, at the Dungeness River Audubon Center. James Cambalik will speak about the Puget Sound Partnership action agenda. All are welcome. The Christmas Bird Count takes place Monday, Dec. 15. To participate by counting birds at a feeder or joining a team in the field, contact Bob Boekelheide, River Center director, at 681-4076. Details on Web site www.olybird.org.



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