As autumn turns into winter, some familiar birds return. This year, we’re also seeing one of our most charismatic occasional visitors — the snowy owl — plus two species of crossbills, including one never before recorded here.
In the category of “familiar returnees,” trumpeter swans have been gracing our lakes since about mid-November. Currently, you can see them on Loomis Lake, Black Lake and at Hines Marsh.
Trumpeters are about 5 feet in length with a wingspan of nearly 8 feet. Adults are white with a long straight bill. Juveniles may also be seen. They wear a gray-brown look well into their first summer. Trumpeters are common during the winter on the Willapa National Wildlife Refuge and nearby environs. This migratory species winters here and generally gathers in flocks in its favorite places, such as Hines Marsh.
While these birds are “usual suspects,” they are most interesting to see.
Red-crossbills have been sighted on the Willapa National Wildlife Refuge, especially at Leadbetter Point. They are a little larger than a house finch, have a relatively large head and a short tail. Males are dark reddish over all or somewhat greenish looking. Look for foraging flocks in the evergreens on the Willapa National Wildlife Refuge and the Peninsula, where they can be seen feeding on conifer seeds. As their name suggests, their bills are crossed at the tips to facilitate extracting seeds from cones as they climb around them. Look for red crossbills near the tops of the trees where the cones are most numerous.
While the red-crossbill isn’t seen every year — it is generally seen every two to five years — its relative the white-winged crossbill has not been recorded on the refuge until this year, at least to my knowledge. It has been seen this month at Cape D by several birders. It is a little smaller than the red-crossbill and in general has a longer tail, smaller bill and a slender body. A key in its identification is the presence of two broad white wing bars. Both species are red, but the male white-winged has a more pinkish tone to its color, while the male red-crossbill wears a dull red. Like its relative, the white-winged crossbill hangs out in conifers. It is rarely seen in any other tree species. Both crossbills are often seen at feeders.
The most exciting sighting of late is the snowy owl. One was recently documented on the refuge at Leadbetter Point. Seeing a snowy owl is always a possibility in winter on the refuge, but like the crossbills, it is generally seen at intervals separated by a few years. The snowy owl is one of our region’s largest owls. It has a relatively small head and no ear tufts. It is mainly white at all times of year.
According to the Seattle Audubon Society, snowy owls are irregular winter visitors to Washington, with most sightings from November to mid-March, usually in Whatcom County on the Canadian border. They are occasionally seen in Pacific County, most often when about every few years a lemming population explosion in the Arctic stimulates a large reproduction of owls, some of which then wander south to find food. Looking back through the Chinook Observer archive, it appears one or more snowy owls were spotted on the Peninsula in 2012 and 2005.
Winter is the best time to look for “unusual suspects.” Know their habits and their locations and you may find them.