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Marymoor Spring Migration

King County's Marymoor Park, in Redmond, is a great place to see spring migration, and to get a feel for the timing and variety of birds that come through each spring.

By Michael Hobbs

For this article, I'll focus only on the species that pass through our area on their ways north or to higher elevations.  Of course we also have many other species that migrate here to breed.Says Phoebe, By Mick Thompson

Unlike fall migration, spring migration is rather orderly and quick for each individual species.  The birds want to get from their wintering grounds to their nesting grounds fast.  Timing is everything, since arriving too late may mean the best mates and the best nesting sites are already gone.  But traveling too early raises the risk of unruly weather and insufficient food sources along the way. The best time to migrate is different for each species, due to differing ability to handle cold or wet weather, and differing food needs.

Another reason why spring migration is more orderly than fall migration is that all of the individual birds flying north have successfully survived at least one migration; birds with screwed-up navigation have probably already gotten hopelessly lost.  Birds that are otherwise unfit probably didn't survive the fall migration and winter.

However, we do see evidence of birds taking less, well-used routes as they make their way north, so birds that usually migrate east of the Cascades can sometimes be found on the west side.  Perhaps they are intending to head inland at the Fraser River.  Possibly wind in the Columbia Gorge pushed them to the wrong side of the mountains.  It might be that they are heading for areas along the Cascade crest, and it doesn't much matter which side they use to fly north.  Maybe it's best for the species to have at least a few individuals flying an alternate route in case of a cataclysmic weather event.  Without major research to track birds during migration, we can only speculate.

Here's a run-down of our common pass-through migrants.

The first to arrive are Say's Phoebe and Mountain Bluebird.  We've had these almost every year, usually in the East Meadow and model airplane fields east of the off-leash dog area.  Most typically they show up mid-March, though we've had birds in the weeks that follow.  A bird might spend a morning at the park, or may stick around feeding for a day or two.  Both species will be seen catching flying insects from low perches and posts.

Turkey Vultures pass overhead from late March through early May.  Four more species have slightly more limited passage dates of late March through April:  Townsend's Solitaire has appeared a few times, though they never seem to stay long.  Hermit Thrush, always shy and skulking in migration, can sometimes be seen on quiet paths near the Lake.  Our most common migrating shorebird are the Greater Yellowlegs, which are seen in puddle ponds, at the weir, or more often they are just heard flying overhead.  And you might not think of Red-necked Grebe as a migrant, but they winter mostly on salt water before moving east of the Cascades to breed.  They tend to be seen from the Lake Platform very occasionally during that same period.

Cinnamon Teal, American Pipit, Nashville Warbler, and Chipping Sparrow tend to hold off until the beginning of April, with sightings continuing into mid-May.  The teal are usually in the slough or at the Rowing Club pond.  Pipits like the mowed grass fields.  The warblers prefer willow and alder riparian areas, while the Chipping Sparrow likes any open areas with brush. Our only spring Sora sightings have been in April.

Late April brings Hammond's Flycatcher, Western Kingbird, Cassin's Vireo, Black-throated Gray and Wilson's Warblers, Western Tanager, and Evening Grosbeak.  None of these have been noted breeding at Marymoor, though all of them breed occasionally in King County.  Their presence at Marymoor continues into June.  All but the Western Kingbird like the riparian areas; the kingbirds prefer the meadows.  Blue-winged Teal, Olive-sided Flycatcher, and MacGillivray's Warbler wait until May to pass by, with Common Nighthawk in late May and well into June.

There have been quite a few migrants that have shown up on a rare basis at Marymoor.  We've had five more species of shorebird in spring migration (mostly in April), though Marymoor has very little shorebird habitat.  Virtually all the rest of our spring migrants are species that are common in parts of Eastern Washington, but very uncommon to rare in Western Washington.  These have included Swainson's Hawk (May), Burrowing Owl (Mar/Apr), Lewis's Woodpecker (May/June), Gray Flycatcher (May), Eastern Kingbird (June), Ash-throated Flycatcher (June), Loggerhead Shrike (Mar/Apr), Sage Thrasher (Apr/May), Brewer's Sparrow (Apr), Vesper Sparrow (Apr/May), Lark Sparrow (May), Sagebrush Sparrow (Feb-Apr), and Yellow-headed Blackbird May).  Except for Gray Flycatcher, Lark Sparrow, and Sagebrush Sparrow, all have been seen on more than one occasion - a sign that their presence is not just a fluke.

Keeping an eye out for these pass-through migrants can add a level of excitement to the fun of watching each of our breeding species return on their spring schedules.


Thanks to Matt Bartels for help with this article.

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