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Count Shows Decline in Grebes

Photo by Jim Diers

On Sunday the 5th of January, the Vashon-Maury Island Audubon Society held its sixteenth Christmas Bird Count (CBC).  We’re still adding up the numbers, so the final word isn’t in, but so far it looks like it was a fairly normal year.  Some bird species were up slightly and many seemed somewhat but not excessively down.  There were a number of fun and exciting highlights and one big lowlight:  Western Grebes showed an all time, disastrous low.

Most of the fun and exciting highlights featured birds that we don’t see so often or every time on the count.  The Vashon South section saw one of the two Peregrine Falcon found on the count, two Dunlin (a rare in winter shorebird) and Yellow-rumped Warblers.  The Maury Island/Tramp Harbor contingent found the Yellow-billed Loon, a very rare species in King County as well as the more usual though fun to see Common, Pacific and Red-throated Loons.  They also discovered an Orange-crowned Warbler of which we have many in spring and summer but almost never observe in winter.  I found Virginia Rails at both the Portage marsh and the fields around Monument Road for the most locations and number of rails on the count in sixteen years.  The Quartermaster Harbor group totaled five shorebird species, which is pretty amazing for winter on Vashon, and 303 Bufflehead, the highest total for a single section of the count ever for Vashon.  The Vashon North section also spotted a Peregrine and an Orange-crowned Warbler and picked up the count’s only White-throated Sparrow and Western Scrub-Jay.  The Scrub-Jay is a big white and blue jay that’s been visiting the area of town between Kathy’s and Vashon Commons.

Unfortunately, we saw only 43 Western Grebes, the lowest count ever for the Christmas Bird Count.  Sadly, it doesn’t appear that this was just a bad day.  Observers throughout out the fall and early winter reported groups of only half a dozen and once a flock of about 20.  Counters noted one group of 42 in the usual area of Quartermaster Harbor and only one off Maury Island.  In most years, small groups are seen around the Island, a big group in Quartermaster Harbor and a medium to big group in Colvos Passage.

Western Grebes used to form large rafts of birds in Quartermaster Harbor every winter, hanging out mostly in the middle of the outer harbor between Dockton and Shawnee.  Dan Willsie performed censuses in the 1990’s, finding upwards of 5000 birds in Quartermaster.  When the Christmas Bird Counts started for Vashon in 1999, the winter population was already down to 1600.  The CBCs since document a steady decline, though over the last four to five years the decrease stabilized to 100-200 on Quartermaster with another 200 or so in Colvos Passage.  Vashon’s decline mirrors the decrease in Western Grebes throughout the Puget Sound region.  The species’ winter population fell 95% since the 1980’s.  Studies indicate that these lower numbers reveal an actual decline in the overall population as well as some birds from the Puget Sound area now wintering farther south.

If you have a question about Vashon birds or an interesting sighting to report, email me at edswan@centurytel.net or call at 463-7976.  My new second edition of The Birds of Vashon Island is on a ship as I write and will come into the Port of Seattle January 24.  You can order one now directly from me by emailing me or visiting my website www.theswancompany.com.  I’ll be signing and personally delivering books in the first week of February.