Journal of the San Juan Islands


Bold, beautiful birds flocking here

November 23, 2012 · Updated 9:15 AM

Sea ducks called Surf Scoters and Black Scoters. / Contributed photo / National Parks Service

By Peggy Butler, Special to the Journal

There's something cool besides the weather at American Camp: bold and exotic looking bird species are flocking by air and by sea.

For the past two weeks, a colorful flock of bright Red Crossbill males with their yellow mates have been feeding near the parking lot at American Camp ranger station.

As you step out of your car, look up. With binoculars marvel at the unusual beak of these colorful, chunky looking birds. Their thick beak ends at the tip in a delicate double fishhook.

It looks like a mistake of nature; however, it is a clever tool. To eat, they maneuver their tightly closed beak-tips slightly into a fir cone and then open up. That action forces the seed pouch ajar. Their dexterous tongue slips into the opening and snags the seed, which they crack open, husk, and then drop the refuse.

On a quiet day you can hear the husks fall to the ground. According to the Cornell bird web, where you can watch a video showing a Crossbill eating in slow motion (http://www.birds.cornell.edu/roundrobin/2011/08/02/science-at-work-how-many-kinds-of-red-crossbills-are-there-anyway/), a single Crossbill can eat three thousand seeds per day. They have no trouble with food supply here since they are the only birds that eat the seeds inside fir cones. The plentiful food means that they can breed all year long, and may have a new family every month. Perhaps we will eventually see our skies filled with them.

Hike down to the coves or drive to South Beach. Look out across the water for a large raft of seabirds. Some of the flotillas contain hundreds of birds.

From a distance, the black swath of birds looks like a jumble of seaweed. But splotches of orange and red and yellow stir among the black.

With good binoculars, look again. At first you may think they are puffins of some type because of the large colorful beak. The bright-red bulb at the base of its white bill is startling on the Black Scoter, but on the bill of the Surf Scoter even the length of the bill is boldly spotted with orange, yellow and black.

These bizarre looking sea ducks called Surf Scoters and Black Scoters, nest in the Arctic all summer, then range along the coast as far south as the Baja peninsula during the winter. The San Juan Islands and the coast of British Columbia are favored winter forage sites.

Just as you get your binoculars or zoom lens focused the entire flotilla may vanish. Scoters dive for small marine crustaceans on the sea floor, diving all together into the surf. Keep watching and they will resurface for another good look at the unique and colorful sea ducks.

— Peggy Butler and family enjoy the many sights of San Juan Island, migratory and native. Read Butler’s two-part series on out-of-state license plates in the Sept. 7 and Oct. 19, 2011, editions of the Journal, and her tribute to the parental ingenuity of the Oystercatcher, Nov. 30, 2011, edition; or online, at www.sanjuanjournal.com


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