It is now late October. Down the hill from our west Olympia house, where the Deschutes river is impounded behind the Fifth avenue dam, sits its current morph, Capitol Lake. In these days of sunny fall, the lake is very quiet. The autumnal colors of maple trees reflect into these waters, preening themselves in this mirror. The lake shapes itself into its stratified layers of hot and cold water, and only a few ripples stir its gelid form. During these bright October days, the lake is an autumn-colored jewel and there are few signs of any animal life: only a few resident Glaucous wing gulls loafing on a sand bar, screaming their petty squabbles to the skies. It looks like it could go on forever.
But not so: there’s the first big fall storm coming. And for the next few days, everything looks more like the maritime Northwest: lashing winds stir the lake into a froth. The colors fall from the trees into the dark waters, leaving behind bare branches. The rain slashes down in sheets and the mighty dam keepers have to play around with the water levels to prevent flooding . The lake is brim-full, mud-colored and hardly visible through the heavy veils of rain. It is now winter on Capitol Lake.
And somewhere in these nights of pounding rain, where we humans huddle gratefully in our warm houses, large flocks of waterbirds leave their nesting grounds in the interior of Alaska, the Yukon, the Northwest Territory. They leave their freshwater aspen wetlands, and for many, the place of their birth. They answer some wild, internal call and head south, looking for a place to spent the winter. They fly into the teeth of the storm, pounded by winds, often flying at night at high altitudes and calling their mournful cries into the dark. Many of them end up on Capitol Lake. After the storm breaks, after a clear morning dawns, we head back down the hill to the lake, and we find these first migrants of the year.
They huddle together in the north basin, usually the first place new arrivals come to. They have left the deep unpeopled quiet of the Canadian taiga and find themselves on this urban lake, surrounded by people and dogs and cars. They stay closely grouped together; they seem watchful and twitchy and quickly take flight at the slightest sign of possible danger. As we gaze, they splash water on their backs, washing and preening those all important feathers. Some dive to feed; a big food draw in this lake are the seeds left over from the thick summer algae mats.
Many different migrating ducks and geese can be found on the lake. They tend to form their own clubs and keep to themselves. See here, the swans keep a distance from the other birds, while the Buffleheads form small groups a clear space away from the swans.
Some of the first migrants are small flocks of Bufflehead ducks: the males are an eye-catching white and black, with crested heads. These are fiercely territorial ducks, and fight amongst themselves year around: for mates, for territory, because they feel like it, etc. It is said this is why they have only small flocks of 50 or less, because they can’t get along. If you watch the males even for only a few minutes, you will inevitably seen one lower his head and point his bill in a distinctively threatening posture, beat his wings and make a run at another bufflehead. They weigh about one pound, but emotionally they seem to believe they are the size of elephants.
Another common early migrant on the lake are the American Widgeons. As we watch, a small flock comes in, calling in a squeaky burble that is the ultimate rubber ducky sound. They form their own group and seek the lake edge, where they make shallow dives in search of vegetation.
As November comes in and advances, so too will the ducks. By the middle of November, hundreds of ducks will be making a their winter lives on this water. Here they spend much of the next few months, feeding and getting through the year. The different species will find microhabitats they like and hang out there. All the birds will get accustomed to the joggers and cars, and only the occasional pass by the local Bald Eagle pair will be enough to pull them, shrieking in terror, out of the water and back into the sky.
For me, it’s one of my favorite winter birdwatching hangouts. It’s a veritable Who’s Who of the waterbird world and one of the best places in which to learn about ducks and their lives. Maybe this winter, we will meet at the birdwatching bench, down by the lake...
Waterscape photos by Nancy Partlow