Drayton Harbor makes list of state’s top bird sites

Published on Thu, Jan 16, 2003 by Meg Olson

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Drayton Harbor makes list of state’s top bird sites

By Meg Olson

The state Audubon Society has put Blaine on the map as a critical area for birds, one bird watchers shouldn’t miss.

Blaine’s Marine Park and Birch Bay State Park are both listed among 68 of the top birding spots on the newly released map of the Great Washington State Birding Trail’s Cascade Loop. Blaine’s Drayton Harbor and the waters outside its entrance received further distinction, one of only four sites on the map designated as Important Bird Areas (IBA).

“An IBA is a site that has been identified as critical for bird conservation,” said Audubon Washington science director Tim Cullinan. He explained there were over 100 countries nationwide participating in the program, trying to identify and conserves areas that are of particular importance to birds. “It isn’t just something in Washington,” he said. “It’s global.”

So far there are 53 IBAs in the state and Cullinan said they are continuing to evaluate sites. “We use an objective standard, with set criteria. If the bird resources on a site meet those criteria it qualifies.” Criteria examined include numbers of birds at a site, how many of them represent threatened or endangered species and unique habitat resources. Drayton Harbor scored high in all three areas, but distinguished itself in sheer volume.

“That’s mainly why Drayton Harbor qualified,” Cullinan said. “It has a huge number of waterfowl and shorebirds. Sometimes there will be 20,000 ducks in and around Drayton Harbor.” In addition, he said, 5-7,000 shorebirds spend the winter here while even more ducks and shorebirds migrate through the area.

One species especially distinguishes Drayton Harbor. “During the winter it has such a high population of loons, especially the common loon which is on the state’s list of sensitive species,” Cullinan said. He said it wasn’t unusual to see hundreds of the birds in local waters. Other threatened and endangered species such as the bald eagle, peregrine falcon and marbled murrelet are also regulars in local waters.

Brant migrating through the area have already attracted the attention of the Washington Brant Foundation, who will hold their first annual state Brant festival in Blaine and Birch Bay in April.

Cullinan said the rich, warm, shallow waters found in Drayton Harbor, Birch Bay, and Boundary and Semiahmoo Bays across the line, formed perfect environments for overwintering. “It’s part of a rich ecosystem that is globally important, one of the most important in the world,” he said. “The combination of shallow waters, currents full of nutrients – it’s a very rich aquatic ecosystem.”

Identifying IBAs plays several roles, Cullinan said, and the first was targeting conservation efforts to those areas. “We try to get the word out to decision makers who influence what will happen in the area to put them on notice that this is a key area for birds,” he said. The Audubon Society and partners, including the state fish and wildlife agency, also use the information to help target conservation efforts, from public education to grants, “either to purchase property or put it in a conservation easement so it won’t be developed,” he said.

The communities surrounding IBAs and all the birding sites identified on the new map can earn an economic boost by spotlighting their unique natural riches,” Cullinan said. “Birders are an untapped market in the travel and tourism industry,” he said, elaborating on why the map was developed. “If you give them some direction they will come and they’re buying gas, buying groceries, dining out, staying in motels. In other states with these trails they have seen real economic increases.”

Besides marketing its tourism potential, the community can also be active in protecting and enhancing its bird-friendly habitat. “Avoid disturbing birds when they’re trying to stay alive,” he said. Keeping dogs on a leash around flocks of migrating or wintering birds, slowing boat traffic around them and generally steering clear of their habitat when possible were several suggestions. “As long as the land is kept in a condition where it doesn’t disturb the birds they’ll be O.K.,” he said.

“One of the key things is maintaining water quality,” Cullinan said. “If the water stays in good shape the aquatic ecosystem will pretty much take care of itself.” He suggested communities publicize best management practices for keeping water clean, from picking up pet waste to not pouring toxics on the ground.

“Another threat creeping its way up the coast is the invasion of non-native plants and animals,” Cullinan said. In areas like Willapa Bay and Grays Harbor he said an invasion of cordgrass was choking local waterways. If invasive plant species were to take over an important part of Drayton Harbor, he said, “that would do away with the shorebirds and the shellfish. It changes the way the sediment flushes through the bay.” To keep local waters free of unwelcome visitors, Cullinan suggests boaters carefully check their props for any vegetation they might pick up before they return to local waters. He added that water quality monitors working with the community oyster farm could also keep an eye out for invasive vegetation. “In other areas things would be a lot worse if not for the vigilance of shellfish growers,” he said.

Copies of the bird trail map can be ordered through the Audubon society website at http://wa.audubon.org/ or by calling 1-866-wa-birds. The local Audubon chapter also has boxes of them and is planning a presentation at Resort Semiahmoo March 1 and 2. Joe Meche of the North Cascades Audubon Society said the first day would introduce the variety of bird life in the area and explain what an IBA is all about. “The IBA program is for birds not for people,” he said. “People benefit later because the birds, will still be there.” He said he hopes local membership in the society will grow to help highlight and protect Drayton Harbor and Semiahmoo Bay. “This is the main birding site that gave me enough weight to convince the state people to bring the bird trail up here,” he said. “It anchors the trail.”

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