Waterfowl, raptors and songbirds find rich winter habitat

Each October, dusky geese by the hundreds begin to appear in the skies over the mid-Willamette Valley. By late November, about 1,000 of them have settled in for the winter at the William L. Finley National Wildlife Refuge, feeding in fields of succulent grasses and roosting in the lush, protected wetlands.

If you watch them graze on a misty winter morning, you’ll get no hint of what it took for them to be here: a 1,600-mile nonstop flight from south-central Alaska along the Pacific Flyway. Only six months earlier, the youngest of the duskys — a subspecies of the Canada goose — had hatched among the marshes, sloughs and glacial streams braiding Alaska’s Copper River Delta. A raucous din greeted the hatchlings as clouds of trumpeter swans, loons, Arctic terns, kittiwakes and dozens of other species whirled and wheeled across the landscape. In all, 16 million shorebirds live in or migrate through the delta, the biggest single wetland along North America’s Pacific Coast.

When winter nipped the northern winds, the young geese that had managed to survive the delta’s foxes, bears and other predators lifted off for their first migration to the central Willamette Valley.

Even as the numbers of duskys have declined steeply — dropping from about 25,000 to fewer than 12,000 over the past three decades — this threatened species has returned year after year to Finley, one of three wildlife refuges created in the 1960s to provide safe winter habitat. In fact, Oregon’s central Willamette Valley and Washington’s lower Columbia River Valley are just about the only places this imperiled species winters, and the Copper River Delta is their only known nesting ground.

While the duskys have declined, another species, the cackling goose, has ballooned in numbers, according to Molly Monroe and her husband Jarod Jebousek, who are both biologists with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. But geese are only part of the winter waterfowl picture in the Marys River Watershed. Ducks — mallards, pintails, wigeons and green-winged teal — are here, too, along with the tundra swan.

“Finley is the jewel of the watershed,” says Monroe. “When people think of wintering birds, especially the more charismatic species, they think of Finley.”

Winter birding doesn’t stop at the water’s edge, however. The “fantastic oak and prairie remnants” of the Marys River Watershed provide ample habitat for songbirds, raptors and woodpeckers during the winter months. As Monroe and Jebousek tick off the names of species of wintering sparrows that drop into the valley from higher elevations — golden-crowned, fox, white-throated and Lincoln — their 18-month-old daughter, Amelia, can be heard squealing with delight in the background. “She’s watching ‘The Life of Birds’ on TV,” her mother explains.

“Look for wintering sparrows in shrubs, thickets and blackberry patches,” Jebousek says, adding, “We also get a bit of an influx of western meadowlarks in the grass fields this time of year.”

Winter also brings “quite an influx of raptors” to the watershed, Monroe says. “Numbers of red-tailed hawks go up, northern harriers go up, and you’ll see rough-legged hawks that you don’t see in the summer. The numbers of peregrines, merlins and bald eagles also go up in the winter.”

Then there are the forest birds—wintering flocks of kinglets, nuthatches and chickadees that “all hang out together in mixed-species flocks.”