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February 2004 Issue (vol 35, number 2)
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FEBRUARY General Membership Meeting

Tuesday, February 24, 7:30 PM
Bellingham Public Library Lecture Room
PROGRAM: Birds in Motion II

Bellingham photographer Joe Meche, a member of the NCAS Board of Directors, will present the much-awaited sequel to last January’s Birds in Motion. The new one-hour video will include recent footage as well as highlights that were excerpted from more than 160 hours of video spanning the past 13 years.

Enjoy close-up views of Short-eared Owls and Great Blue Herons; Barn owlets in the nest; sweeping vistas and thousands of Snow Geese and Sandhill Cranes at the Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge in New Mexico; sure signs of spring at the George Reifel sanctuary in British Columbia and in south Bellingham; and perhaps a surprise or three. There will be video of several species of birds as well as the possibility of a mammal or two thrown in for good measure.

Some of the segments were shot from stable platforms such as tripods, table tops, bean bags, and fence posts. Other segments were shot hand-held in a variety of less-than-stable situations such as small boats in large oceans, canoes, and in gusty winds. The contrast between the two will be obvious&#;.and fun!

Joe has been photographing and videotaping birds for over 20 years and also serves the chapter as newsletter editor and Birding Programs Coordinator. He is also a member of the Board of Directors of the Washington Brant Foundation and writes a monthly column about birds for the Whatcom Watch.

As always, meetings of the North Cascades Audubon Society are FREE and open to the public. Come one&#;.come all!

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2nd Annual Washington Brant Festival

April 17-18
Blaine/Birch Bay/Semiahmoo

Events, activities, programs, and much more&#;.not to mention lots of birds and NCAS viewing stations! For more information on this year’s festival, call Joe Meche of the Washington Brant Foundation at 738-0641, or visit the foundation’s website at http://www.washingtonbrant.org.

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Feeding Birds

Editor’s note: If a big part of your winter schedule involves feeding birds, you are not alone. A 1997 report from the Kaytee Avian Foundation estimates that 43 percent of US households, or about 65 million people, provide food for wild birds. Setting up backyard feeders and providing food for wintering birds makes their lives easier and offers us hours of enjoyment.

If you provide food for birds in the winter, it is essential that you keep your feeders clean to prevent the spread of avian diseases and reduce the risks that birds face when domestic predators are about.

A discussion took place recently on the Tweeters list serve — tweeters@u.washington.edu — and quite a few of the postings were enlightening, to say the least. The following were two of the best on a subject that is near and often dear to most of us.

To Feed or Not to Feed

Two years ago, I tended to write off feeders as just another alteration to a hopelessly altered urban environment. Now, I live six miles from a small city (Pullman) with only three neighbors within a one-mile radius. I am certain that my closest neighbor doesn’t feed birds; I’m fairly certain that a second neighbor doesn’t; and I don’t know about the third.

House Finches are one of the most feeder-dependent birds. They can’t survive a Palouse winter without a winter subsidy and they are not in my yard on bad weather days. Yet, like many finches, they roam far and wide in search of food. The Palouse, even before it was turned into mostly wheat fields, is an unproductive environment. It’s hard to believe that the swarms of House Finches, subsidized all winter with a magical, never-ending supply of seeds and then spreading out in spring, don’t compete with other seed eaters of the Palouse that aren’t as adept at taking advantage of feeders. The influence of birds whose populations are maintained at feeders in the city spreads beyond the city.

House Finches are apparently the cause of the drastic decline (about 50%) in Purple Finches in the northeastern US and southern Canada in recent years. And what influence might House Finches be having on the plant species they eat? We know what happens to vegetation when deer or wild horses or other herbivores are fed through the winter. The plants they prefer get grazed out of existence. A lot of temperate plants depend on the periodic harsh winter to reduce the populations of herbivores. The fate of plants whose seeds are preferred by feeder birds that are subsidized all winter, every winter is unresearched and extremely difficult to research.

I don’t mean to pick on House Finches. Their rapid spread has made their impact a little clearer than for other birds that benefit from feeders. The fact is we don’t know the impact of about a billion pounds of seed per year in plastic tubes, plus sugar water and suet. Rufous Hummingbirds are declining in much of their range. Is it because of the feeder-supported range expansion of Anna’s Hummingbirds, who don’t have to face the rigors of migration and who spread out into the foothills as the migration-weakened Rufous Hummingbirds arrive? Again, no one knows.

Suburban environments are altered in many ways. I don’t think feeders should be turned into the same scapegoats that cats have become. However, I don’t think the suburban environment can be made any better by hanging out a plastic tube filled with seed. A bird house or sloppy garden IS different than a pile of seeds. Plants produce a variety of food (seeds, fruit, and invertebrates that feed on live and dead plant material) in a seasonal pattern. Bird houses help to replace a natural habitat feature (snags) upon which many birds depend. It’s hard to imagine what natural feature of the environment is mimicked in a pile of seeds that is always in the same place and never runs out.

Creating habitat, instead of handouts, also means allowing some of the unpleasant harsh seasonality of a temperate climate.

Kelly Cassidy
Pullman, WA

Science and Feeding Wildlife

Nature is a very complex thing, and when the natural systems are altered, disrupted, or replaced, the consequences are often much more complex than humans can understand. We see far too little of the world, and know far too little of how it all interacts together. I live surrounded by 25 acres of native forests. I would suspect that the limiting factors on bird populations around me involve nesting space, predation, climate/weather, and food, to list the obvious ones. Food is the primary factor that I can influence.

I spend hours each week watching birds at the feeder out my window and I often come up with dozens of questions about the social interactions, the effects of feeding on the survival of direct and indirect species, etc., etc., etc. And I live with the frustration that few if any of my many questions will ever have definitive answers.

Science is the process of paying attention to the world and asking questions, and with a lot of patience and luck, at best a few partial answers emerge to a tiny handful of questions. So, I get edgy when people quote “science” to support a viewpoint. Data is better than none, but when you get into ecology, my learning is that extrapolating data to cause and effect is always done with a great deal of caution. Of course, people and their processes want answers&#;.clean and black and white. The scientist typically hedges, knowing how little any one set of data actually tells us about the complexity around us.

I read somewhere that more than 10 million people in America feed birds. That is a lot of food resources and I would think it would have all kinds of interesting impacts on all manner of species. Knowing if that impact is harmful to any particular species is something we might not ever be able to understand.

So, I mess with the natural systems by putting out food resources, knowing that in the final analysis, I cannot know the impact I am having, better or worse. But I do know that I feed birds primarily for myself, to draw wildlife close so I can comfortably view them, and I hope I am doing no large harm.

Rob Sandelin
Naturalist/teacher, Snohomish County

Editor’s note II: Feeding birds and other wildlife is something that seems to come naturally to many humans, whether it’s at a backyard feeder or at the beach. If you feed birds and would like to share your thoughts as to why you do, feel free to write or e-mail the editor with your thoughts for publication in this newsletter.

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A Golden Oldie

“Who killed Cock Robin?”
“I,” said the Sparrow,
“With my bow and arrow,
I killed Cock Robin.”
All the birds of the air fell a-sighing and a-sobbing,
When they heard of the death of poor Cock Robin.

Tom Thumb’s Pretty Song Book
Circa 1744

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Tennant Lake Interpretive Center

Adult Programs

February 7, Phantom Owls: Up Close and Personal.

March 6, The Natural and Cultural History of European Merlins.

Family Programs

February 13, Winter Owl Prowl.

February 27, Here Comes the Sun.

For details on these programs or to register, contact the Tennant Lake Interpretive Center at 384-3064.

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WA State Ferry CBC

by RB Porter

It was clear and cool and a great start to a fine day of birding onboard the ferry from Anacortes to Sidney BC for this year’s Christmas Bird Count.

We left the dock in Anacortes at 7:40 AM. Everyone was bundled up for a chilly wind that was expected. Unfortunately, we weren’t disappointed. Fording the Guemes Channel and moving into Rosario Strait left us with little but a harbinger of what was to come. We spotted a few Common Murres and Marbled and Ancient Murrelets. That was it, with the exception of handful of gnat-like Glaucous-winged and Mew Gulls looking for a handout.

We cruised our way through Grapevine Pass, increasing our count with the odd cormorant species here and there. We were delighted when we came across a dozen Buffleheads along the south shore of Obstruction Island. We had little else to record for the crossing of the expanse between Blakely and Shaw Islands and the move into Harney Channel and our approach to the Orcas Island dock. Last year at this point, we had observed over 500 Mew Gulls. This year we had only the occasional cormorant and gull species.

We left the Orcas dock and doubled back to go through the channel between Shaw and Lopez Islands and eventually into the San Juan Channel for our entry into Friday Harbor. The harbor, like last year, was abuzz with Red-necked Grebes, Common Mergansers, Buffleheads, and Brandt’s Cormorants. Crows and Rock Doves populated the ferry dock framework.

After our departure from Friday Harbor, we continued our journey north in the San Juan Channel and past Spieden Island, finding very few birds to count. The goats on Spieden were the high count of any species.

Passing Forrest Island and nearing our docking at Sidney, the count started picking up steam. Common Murres, Long-tailed Ducks, and Pigeon Guillemots were quite numerous, as in years past. We stopped here for lunch and were delighted by several pairs of Hooded Mergansers.

Our return voyage to Anacortes added very few additional birds to our meager count. In looking at our totals for the day, we were not surprised to find that this was the lowest count ever.

I would like to thank Debbie Harger, Lila Emmer, Kate Hanna, Donna Snyder, and Diana Christianson for enduring the cold and a special thank you to Katie Kauffman for staffing the other side of the ferry. In spite of the low count, we had a great day. The sun refractions over the Olympic Mountains were just spectacular, as were the views of the Cascades and the Canadian Coastal Range. A special thank you goes to the North Cascades Audubon Society for their funding support in this endeavor.

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7th Annual Great Backyard Bird Count

From February 13-16, 2004, bird enthusiasts are invited to take part in the Great Backyard Bird Count (GBBC), a project developed and managed by the National Audubon Society and the Cornell Lab of Ornithology with sponsorship from Wild Birds Unlimited owners and the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), a division of the USDA. During the event, everyone who enjoys birds will be able to submit their observations through BirdSource at http://www.birdsource.org. GBBC participants will help conservationists, ornithologists, and the rest of the world determine the status of bird populations continent-wide. At the same time, the project will teach participants how to turn their backyards into habitats for birds.

“Backyards are an important way to create greenways for birds between parks and wild areas,” said Frank Gill, Audubon’s Director of Science. “They allow for the cultivation of native plants and provide essential sanctuary to migratory and resident birds. Participating in projects such as the GBBC gives people a first-hand view of how important bird-friendly backyards are to many bird species.

The purpose of the GBBC is to track the abundance and distribution of North America’s winter birds, as a means to ensure that common birds remain common, especially during a time when birds face many environmental hurdles. The GBBC is a terrific way for individuals, families, schools, and community groups to contribute to a better understanding of birds. Another way is to create healthy backyard habitat, especially during this time of environmental challenges that include habitat loss and degradation.

Instructions for participating in this year’s GBBC can be found at http://www.birdsource.org/gbbc. There’s no fee or registration. Those who would like to participate but aren’t online can try their local library. Individuals, businesses, nature clubs, scout troops, and other community organizations interested in participating in or promoting the GBBS can contact the Cornell Lab of Ornithology at 800-843-2473 or the National Audubon society at citizenscience@audubon.org or by calling 215-355-9588, ext. 16.

The Cornell Lab of Ornithology is a nonprofit membership institution interpreting and conserving the Earth’s biological diversity through research, education, and citizen science focused on birds.

The National Audubon Society is dedicated to protecting birds and other wildlife and the habitat that supports them.

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Where Land Meets the Sea: Age-old Resources in Danger

*Edible Plants Workshop*

Chris Chisholm, Director of Wolf Camps and Curricula, gives a hands-on workshop on edible, medicinal, and utilitarian uses of shoreline plants and seaweeds.

Wendy Steffensen, North Sound Baykeeper, gives back-ground and commentary on the state of our shorelines and waters affecting those plants and their environment.

Saturday, February 28, 1-4 PM, Marine Park in Fairhaven.
$20 per person. Limited to 12 people. Register before February 25 by calling Wendy at 733-8307.

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Python Wisdom

from Mike Patterson
Astoria, OR

Half-a-bee, philosophically must ipso-facto half not-be. But half the bee, has got to be vis-à-vis its entity&#;d’ you see? But can a bee be said to be or not to be an entire bee When half the bee is not a bee due to some ancient injury?

Monty Python

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Lake Whatcom Watershed News

by Tom Pratum
Conservation Committee

The two issues which we have been talking about with respect to Lake Whatcom — changes to the development regulations (Whatcom County Code Title 20) and changes to county zoning in the watershed — have now BOTH been approved by the county council. On January 13, the council finally approved the partial downzone of the Lake Whatcom watershed (discussed in last month’s Avalanche) by a 5-2 vote. We should all thank our council members for this significant increase in protection for the lake.

These actions come none too soon, as two days later (January 15) the state Department of Ecology released its 2002/2004 list if impaired water bodies (the &#;303(d) list’). In it, Lake Whatcom is listed for four pollutants — phosphorus, mercury, dieldrin, and PCBs — in addition to the low levels of dissolved oxygen, under which it had already been listed.

While the passage of these two ordinances is a very good thing, they are relatively small pieces of a much larger puzzle that will need to be assembled in order to fully protect the most significant water resource in Whatcom County. One part of the development standards ordinance — that we opposed — passed in October and has allowed land clearing activities to occur in the winter months, even though it is well documented that such activities can introduce large sediment volumes into surface water bodies (for an example of what can happen when such activities are allowed, see http://www.northcascadesaudubon.org/php/esc_failure.php.) Sediment can release significant phosphorous into the lake, increasing its nutrient load and decreasing its viability as a drinking water source.

It is now up to our very understaffed state and county agencies to attempt to catch all the violations of water quality standards that might occur due to the weakness in the ordinance. However, you can help protect not only Lake Whatcom, but also Bellingham Bay and other significant waters by becoming a Stormwater Watcher. People for Lake Whatcom and Re-Sources are conducting a training session for people interested in learning about and helping reduce the impact of stormwater runoff. The schedule for the training is:

Indoor Education and Training: Thursday, February 26, 6-8 PM. Senior Activity Center, 315 Halleck Street.

Field Training: Saturday, February 28, 9 AM-12 Noon. Location TBA.

For more information regarding Stormwater Watcher training or to reserve a spot, contact the North Sound Bay Keeper, Wendy Steffensen at waters@resources.org or call 360-733-8307.

More information and updates on Lake Whatcom issues can also be found at the NCAS website at http://www.northcascadesaudubon.org/conservation.

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Winter Swan Update

by Tom Pratum
Swan Survey Coordinator

As of January 27, we have had nearly 300 of our wintering swan population die in BC and in Washington state (110 in BC, 152 in Whatcom County, 21 in Skagit County, and 11 in Snohomish County). Many of these swans have been lead-poisoned and have been the focus of ongoing studies by the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW), United States Fish and Wildlife Service, Canadian Wildlife Service, and other organizations, including North Cascades Audubon. A good bit of tracking data of collared birds this year will hopefully provide some clues as to the source of the lead shot they are ingesting.

The agency funding for this project at the state level was only provided for one year in last year’s biennial budget. Please contact our legislators and ask them to be sure that this project is funded next year, through an additional appropriation if necessary.

During our late December and early January cold snap, a number of swans that died might have been preyed upon by raptors such as eagles. WDFW is very interested in hearing if you have seen any eagles that appear to be poisoned. If you think you might have seen such a bird, please contact Mike Smith of WDFW at 425-785-8321.

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