At the Grays Harbor National Wildlife Refuge, it’s hard to pick out individual shorebirds with the naked eye. Without the help of binoculars or scopes, the birds are a large, brown mass packed so closely together that it’s hard to see the mudflats they’re standing on.
But looking closer, one can see several species of birds — Western sandpipers, black-bellied plovers and short-billed dowitchers to name a few — rapidly jabbing their sharp beaks into the mud to feed on crustaceans and worms.
Raincoat-clad birdwatchers crane their necks and gasp as a Peregrine falcons swoops down for a snack. The shorebirds take flight together, moving as an amorphous blob as if taking orders from an unseen leader.
“If you see them take off like that, it means they’ve been invited to a dinner party by some sort of predator,” said birdwatcher Phil Kelley. “And they’re not the guest. They’re the meal.”
Kelley is a volunteer at the Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge and an expert birder. He leads the Grays Harbor Shorebird Festival fieldtrip to Ocean Shores. He said he’s drawn to shorebirds because of their unique migratory paths — as are the dozens of birders in town for the annual festival.
Spring is the best time to see the birds on Grays Harbor, as they’re on their way to nest in the Alaskan tundra. The birds lay eggs in the summer, and the males fly back to South America after mating. The chicks and mothers feed on newly-hatched mosquitoes until the females take off, leaving their young to fend for themselves. The fledglings fly to South America without parental guidance.
“There’s a joke that there’s a map of the world inside all shorebird eggs,” Kelley said. “Otherwise, how could they migrate down on their own?”
Volunteers and biologists from the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service track the shorebird migration as closely as possible, counting all of the birds that land at the Grays Harbor National Wildlife Refuge.
Jan Wieser, a 10-year birding veteran and Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge volunteer, spent her Saturday morning counting and re-counting the birds. On a first pass, she counted about 12,000 birds. But she said it’s hard to get an accurate number.
“You can’t count by ones, you can’t count by 10 and sometimes there are too many to count by 100,” Wieser said. “They lift off and move and you end up re-counting them some of the time.”
The birds aren’t predictable — there’s no guarantee birders will see any particular species. Kelley said this year has been uncharacteristically good for red-necked phalarope viewing. The birds have congregated in Ocean Shores, feeding in holes left by clam diggers.
“Of course, birds can’t read so they have no idea what they’re supposed to do,” Kelley said. “They come and go when they want. And that’s why this never gets old.”
The Grays Harbor Shorebird Festival continues today with fieldtrips, lectures, crafts and more. For more information, visit www.shorebirdfestival.com.