Nature Watch: Days of Quiet Desperation

Author: Steve Ellis | 08/17/22

About the author: Steve Ellis is a naturalist and Land Trust member who enjoys sharing his love of the natural world. His blog series, “Nature Watch,” will appear each month in “Habitchat,” chronicling native plants and wildlife you can expect to see during that particular time of year. We thank Steve for sharing his passion, illustrating the importance of island conservation.


A hush descends upon local forests in late summer. For birds, the inner drive to attract a mate and proclaim a breeding territory has ended. Birdsongs have been muted.

Bird species readying for migration enter a time of desperate overeating. Warblers, grosbeaks, tanagers and others must build up the appropriate fat reserves in order to survive the long journey ahead.

A non-migratory small bird such as a Chestnut-backed Chickadee will average about 3 to 5% fat out of the total body mass. In contrast, a Wilson’s Warbler headed to Mexico requires a range of 13 to 15%, while a Swainson’s Thrush destined for winter in South America needs to plump up to 30 to 40% fat.

This frenetic feeding, known as zugdisposition, applies mainly to nocturnal migrants, including those mentioned above. Swallows and hawks fly south during the daylight hours, feeding along the way. Excess fat for those would only make the trip more difficult.

Find Canada goldenrods in meadows, on bluffs and along roadsides on Whidbey and Camano Islands. Photo by Steve Ellis.

Flora: Canada Goldenrod (Solidago canadensis)

Canada Goldenrod is a common wildflower of late summer and early fall. It grows to 5 feet tall and has lance-shaped leaves that are 2 to 5 inches long.

Goldenrod sports dense clusters of small yellow flowers at the stem tops which produce small, nutlike seeds. Many species of bees, beetles, moths and flies are attracted to the flowers; deer and rabbits browse the leaves and chipmunks and raccoons eat the seeds.

There are at least three species of native goldenrods on our island. Canada goldenrods prefers open, sunny locations but can tolerate partial shade. Look for them in meadows and forest openings, on bluffs and along roadsides. They are a fixture in many of the Whidbey Camano Land Trust properties.

Greater Yellowlegs with Dunlin by Craig Johnson.

Fauna: Dunlin (Calidris alpina)

As you read this, Dunlin – a species of sandpiper – are feeding voraciously in western and northern Alaska. Soon they’ll be winging their way south to such places as Port Susan Bay near Camano and Crockett Lake on Whidbey.

Dunlin are 8.5 inches in length with a long bill that droops towards the tip. They are grayish-brown above with light gray on the breast and a white belly. In spring, the plumage changes to rusty brown above with a black belly patch.

The Dunlin diet is heavy on marine invertebrates such as tiny clams that are plucked from mudflats. On drier habitats, fly larvae are the preferred prey.

Large numbers of these plump shorebirds overwinter here. They are frequent prey themselves for Peregrine and other falcons. Dunlin rise from the ground in a flock to escape their aerial predators. When seen from a distance, the flock appears to be a grayish mass, giving them the nickname “smoke birds.”

You – and your dog! – can help these beautiful creatures by keeping your distance while they feed or rest on our local beaches.

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