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PORT SUSAN BAY, Snohomish County —

Thousands of shorebirds swished and swooped over the hammered silver of Puget Sound, their bellies flashing white against wintry gray skies.

“Confusion behavior,” said Ruth Milner, biologist with the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, watching as the Dunlins divided and regrouped, working hard to evade a falcon in search of a meal. More than 10,000 birds in all, she estimated, and yet they managed to move as one graceful organism.

So important is Port Susan Bay as habitat for these shorebirds, that the Greater Stillaguamish Delta, of which it is a part, and the Greater Skagit Delta next door to the north, have just been named a site of regional importance in the Western Hemisphere Shorebird Reserve Network.

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The only one in Puget Sound, the designation recognizes that the Greater Stilly and Skagit Delta — which the birds use as one connected habitat — is an important stopover and wintering ground for more than 20,000 shorebirds a year.

Any birder will tell you that’s a conservative estimate. The area routinely hosts tens of thousands of shorebirds here, arriving in living ribbons of flight.

On a recent morning the Dunlins’ flight, so beautiful to us, was all business for them. Eat or be eaten: That was the agenda. “That’s over-ocean flight; they will do that for hours,” Milner said, watching the Dunlins sweep back and forth over Port Susan Bay.

“It’s cheaper for them to spend the calories flying,” Milner said, “than to be on the ground where they will get nailed.”

The Nature Conservancy of Washington has just completed a restoration project to make its more than 4,000-acre Port Susan Bay Preserve even better. The $4 million project restored 150 acres of tidelands by taking out a 1.4-mile dike and replacing it with a smaller one, set farther back toward the land.

Today the Stilly and Skagit deltas together comprise more than 90,000 acres of tidally influenced marine and coastal wetlands that shorebirds depend on.

North of Port Susan Bay, at Big Ditch, as the preserve owned by the Department of Fish and Wildlife on the Skagit Delta is known, the importance of these lands for other wildlife, too, was soon obvious.

A northern flicker belted out its trademark “phew!” from a tree on the bank, as two eagles flapped overhead with majestic, adagio wing beats.

Stands of fat cattails swished in the wind, their dark brown cigar shapes distinct against the marsh grasses tumbled by winter’s touch.

A red-tailed hawk in an alder tree turned a stately profile while, a bit inland, snow geese raised a ruckus. They were packed dense as feathers in a pillow behind a faded red barn, working muddy farm fields with greedy bills.

As a flight of Dunlins swept up from the farmer’s field, taking off for open water, Kat Morgan, Port Susan Bay program manager for the Nature Conservancy, raised her field glasses.

“So beautiful on the wing,” she said.

Lynda V. Mapes: 206-464-2736


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