Contributed photo/Cornell University. Violet-green swallow.

Look and listen | Birding in the San Juans

Bird songs resonate through the islands during late spring and summer, especially in the early morning hours. While birds are fun to watch while soaring through the sky, perched or visiting bird feeders, do not take these gems for granted.

“We are concerned about population numbers declining, particularly the barn swallow,” said Barbara Jensen, president of the San Juan Audubon. One issue, she said may be that many songbirds winter in Central and South America, where their habitat is being threatened by deforestation. Coffee growers and cattle farmers are two of the culprits. Jensen suggests buying shade-grown coffee, and be for those people who eat beef, try to stick to locally farmed cows. Supporting organizations like the Nature Conservancy, who has bought thousands of acres of property, and of course Audubon Society, which focuses on public education and connecting people with nature, can also help songbirds survive for generations.

Below are some particular vocal and colorful breeds to keep an eye out for in the San Juans:

Red Wing Blackbird:

With their bright red and yellow shoulder patches against the rest of their pitch black bodies, male red-wing blackbirds are regal beings. They spend a majority of their day defending their territory, according to Cornell’s Ornithology website. The females, on the other hand, are a mottled brown and spend their day foraging insects.

Where to find: Meadows and marshes.

Listen for: A lilting trill that sounds like conk-la-ree.

Black Headed Grosbeak:

These flashy birds are frequent visitors to bird feeders, Jensen said. Males are a deep orange with a black head. The females are a more subdued brown. It is their thick beaks that are the giveaways, designed to crack the toughest of seeds. They, like many songbirds, do not mate for life. Grosbeaks have an incredible voice, which males use to serenade possible mates. Gross-beaks also tend to be mimickers, Jensen says, frequently imitating robins. If you hear what sounds like an over excited robin, it may be a Grosbeak.

Where to find: Woods and wetlands.

What to listen for: A longer, varied robin like trill.


Barn swallows, cliff swallows, tree swallows and violet-green swallows can all be found in the San Juans, according to Jensen. All are insect eaters, and can be found circling freshly mowed pastures, streams and lakes, anywhere insects may be found. All of these swallow types have a forked tail and sharply pointed wings, making them incredibly acrobatic, and able to catch prey mid-air.

Barn swallows: Orange chest, iridescent blue iridescent back and cap. Commonly spotted in nesting in barns and alongside houses or other building structures.

Listen for: A twitter warble, usually, according to Cornell’s Ornithology website can last about 40 seconds.

Cliff swallows: White chest, red face and blue cap and back. Can be found in marshland areas, commonly seen swooping above Hummel Lake on Lopez and Cascade Lake on Orcas.

Listen for: Soft chur.

Tree swallows: White chest and blue iridescent back and cap.

Listen for: A series of chirps.

Violet-green swallows: White chest with an iridescent green back and cap. The violet-green creates a fully enclosed nest, which can be found along sides buildings, rather than the cup nests of the barn and tree swallows.

Listen for: Short string of chee-chee.


The warble family includes a number of birds, here are some of the top three that can be found in the islands:

Swainson’s: Plain brown woodland bird, with an amazing flute-like voice. “It is the quintessential bird song,” Jensen said. It blends into low forest canopies, listening is the best way to identify this bird.

Listen for: A series of descending notes resembling “So so sweet to hear.”

Wilson’s: Small bright yellow bird, with a little black cap. These warblers are commonly found in forested wetlands, hopping through thickets in search of insects.

Listen for: A series of quick chips.

Audubon: Grey and white bird with a yellow cap and yellow rump. Has been frequently spotted at the National Park Visitor’s Center at American Camp on San Juan Islands. These birds also are common visitors to suit feeders.

Listen for: Whistling trill that rises or falls toward the end.

Western Bluebird:

Bluebirds are part of the thrush family. Males have brilliant blue wings, back and head, with a rust spot on its chest, while females are a lighter blue. They were thought to be common on San Juan Island in the 1920s, according to Kathleen Foley, who has been coordinating the reintroduction project for the San Juan Preservation Trust. As their favored habitat, Garry oak groves shrunk, the bluebirds also began to disappear. Since 2007, the San Juan Preservation Trust has been reintroducing them to the San Juans. According to Jensen, it has had a rocky start. This year looks promising. Foley explained the wet springs of 2013 and 14 were very hard on the bluebird chicks, discouraging adults to return to the area. The population has been slowly building since then.

“We learned a lot during that time, and we were able to form new management practices because of it,” Foley said, explaining that restoration takes time and patience. The trust is just now beginning to see the benefits of their hard work. Eight pairs were counted during Audubon’s annual Christmas bird count last year, Jensen said. Foley mentioned that two pairs have been spotted on Lopez, a historical breeding area. These birds were not brought there, they found their way, which Foley said is an exciting hopeful sign.

“They are beginning to act and function like they historically have in the islands,” said Foley, adding that the new birds have been mixing with neighboring populations, plus, some nearby birds have followed the relocated ones to the islands as they migrated back. She explained that behavior like this shows the bluebirds are accepting the area, and wanting to stay here.

“This project has been going on for 11 years. It is still very active and we are committed to helping these birds get a toehold in the islands,” Foley said.

Looking forward, Foley would like to see many more nesting boxes installed and an increased number of volunteers, especially on Lopez, to help watch for bluebirds and monitor nesting boxes.

What to listen for: A high pitched hesitant “kew” sound.

Where to find: Grasslands and Garry oak groves.

To learn more about the bluebird restoration project, contact Kathleen Foley at the preservation trust at

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Contributed photo (Cornell University). Swainson’s Warbler.

Contributed photo (Cornell University). Swainson’s Warbler.

Contributed photo (Cornell University). Tree swallow. Contributed photo (Cornell University). Tree swallow.

Contributed photo (Cornell University). Barn swallow. Contributed photo (Cornell University). Barn swallow.

Contributed photo (Cornell University). Cliff swallow.

Contributed photo (Cornell University). Cliff swallow.

Contributed photo (Cornell University). Wilsons Warbler.

Contributed photo (Cornell University). Audubon Warbler.

Contributed photo (Cornell University). Barn swallow.

Contributed photo (Cornell University). Male Black headed Grosbeak.

Contributed photo (Cornell University). Male Black headed Grosbeak.

Contributed photo (Cornell University). Female Black headed Grosbeak.

Contributed photo (Cornell University). Male red wing blackbird.

Contributed photo (Cornell University). Female red wing blackbird.

Contributed photo (Cornell University). Male red wing blackbird.

Contributed photo (Cornell University). Violet-green swallow.