Biologist leads field trip to Samish Flats in search of wintering raptors

Paula Rustan peered through a scope set up on the side of Persons Road in the Samish Flats one February morning and got an eyeful, in crisp detail, of a merlin.

“Oh my god, it’s so beautiful. This is so exciting. I can’t believe it,” the Bellingham-area resident said of seeing the small falcon during the field trip led by raptor biologist Bud Anderson.

The trip was part of an annual class Anderson taught on raptor identification and behavior. The Bow resident and founder of the Falcon Research Group has been teaching it for at least 32 years. Whatcom Land Trust sponsored this year’s event, which is popular with experienced birders and beginners alike. Some have taken the class many times.

Standing by the small group of enthusiastic birders, Anderson reeled off tidbits about the compact bird.

“Remember, merlins have the biggest head of any raptor in proportion to their body,” he said. “They’re like a little rocket. This is one of the most efficient aerial predators in the world.”

As the merlin flew from the top of one tree to another tree nearby, Anderson added admiringly: “That is truly an athlete of the sky. They are something.”

The trip started Sunday morning, Feb. 8, from the parking lot of the Padilla Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve. From there, students followed Anderson in a caravan of vehicles through parts of the Samish Flats — a combination of rich farmland and mudflats, where saltwater meets land — which is renowned as a place to watch birds, especially local and visiting raptors in winter. It’s an area with plenty of food for the birds of prey, given the abundance of ducks, shorebirds, voles and starlings.

As Anderson drove, his eyes scanned the ground as well as the top of fence posts, trees, utility poles and lines in a constant search for raptors. When he pulled off along the side of a road, the students spilled out of their vehicles and followed him with binoculars in hand.

Meanwhile, class volunteers Sue Cottrell, Andrea Warner and Becky Rosencrans, who have a wealth of knowledge about the birds themselves, scanned the surrounding area in search of raptors to site in their scopes for the students.

Even on this blustery day, when the quantity of raptors that could be seen was lower because they were hunkered down against the wind, the students still saw a number of the big four found in the region during winter: bald eagle, red-tailed hawk, northern harrier and rough-legged hawk.

Anderson said about 85 to 95 percent of the birds seen on these winter field trips were those four.

With Mount Baker and the Twin Sisters as a backdrop, along with the beauty of Padilla and Samish bays, Anderson led the students on a cultural and natural history of the birds, their habitat and habits.

A rough-legged hawk off Persons Road seemed to be floating in the sky.

Rough-legged hawks hover more than any other hawk, Anderson said, noting that the big birds are masters at it.

They let their legs down for counter-balance when they’re hovering, he explained, as students stared through their binoculars. “Look at the habitat he’s hunting. He missed. There’s nothing in his talons”

He entertained the students by describing red-tailed hawks as being football-sized and even dipped into 1960s Japanese B-movie cinema to talk about eagles. “Look at Mothra out there. They’re so big and so bulky.”

The way Anderson sees it, students don’t learn if they don’t have fun.

And he wants people to learn about what, for him, has been a lifelong love spanning nearly 50 years.

“I was 18. I was a young man. I was lost. I didn’t know who I was,” Anderson said. He was a student at the University of Washington then, and picked up a book on falconry. He flipped the book open to a picture of a merlin. “That was it. It hit me really hard. There was a rightness to it. Just one picture of a merlin and it just gripped me.”

For Anderson, the class and field trip is about sharing how amazing he believes hawks, his general term for birds of prey, are and the necessity of protecting them and their habitat.

“It’s giving the hawks a voice. When I tell their story, everybody becomes aware of them and can tell their story, too,” he said. “If you love birds of prey, you’ve got to worry about habitat conservation and you also have to worry about global warming.”

He’s passing along his love and knowledge of raptors to people like Rustan, who’s taken Anderson’s class twice. Learning to identify the birds is one thing. But Rustan and others in the class talk about how Anderson enveloped the birds in their world and ours.

“He tells the story of how these raptors live and behave and eat and hunt. It’s so exciting that way. It’s so much more personal to hear all of that, and more interesting. The exciting part is the behavior of the birds,” Rustan said.

Bellingham resident Sue Wu also appreciated how Anderson pulled in literature and art that focused on the birds. “He opened my eyes to a whole world beyond what I thought birding was all about.”

At another stop, alongside Scott Road near homes and blackberry brambles on Samish Island, the group saw two juvenile bald eagles flying overhead and then were delighted by a juvenile cooper’s hawk in a stoop, which is when a raptor dives swiftly.

“That’s a hunt,” Anderson said.

Later, Rand Jack, a board member of the Whatcom Land Trust, spotted an adult peregrine falcon huddled on the ground to get out of the wind, looking like a plush stuffed animal with pale and dark markings instead of a fierce hunter built for speed that can reach up to 200 miles per hour in a stoop.

“It looks so puffy and sweet,” Rustan said as she stared at the bird through a scope.

On it went, with Anderson taking the students to the Samish Eagle Trees with its large nest, and to where another cooper’s hawk was perched, briefly, on a post at Blanchard Mountain Farm along Estes Road.

“He flew. He flew to the right,” said Rosencrans, a Samish Island resident, of the hawk, which had orange barring on its breast.

Anderson watched and reminded the group of the bird’s flying style, one if its identifying characteristics: “Look at that. Flap, flap, flap, glide.”


Bird Web at seattleaudubon.org/birdweb.

Falcon Research Group at frg.org.

Padilla Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve at padillabay.gov.