Bird fanciers say trees planned as environmental “mitigation” for the Highway 520 project will provide hiding places for predators and force out the area’s tiny migrating shorebirds.

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A delicate and lovely entourage visited the shore of a University of Washington pond last month, to linger on what used to be a city dump.

Nine brown shorebirds, lean-legged sandpipers, pecked into the mud along a pond, to eat a breakfast of worms and crustaceans, says Connie Sidles, who has been bird-watching in the Union Bay Natural Area since the 1970s.

“They were very jumpy birds. They weren’t happy. They were feeding for a while, light for a while, then fly away,” she said.

Nonetheless, it warmed her heart to see any migrating shorebirds whatsoever. Hundreds of them used to rest in this grassland preserve, she said. But over the past two decades, quick-growing willows and alders have nearly surrounded two valuable ponds — wiping out open spaces where a shorebird can keep an eye out for predators on the roost.

And that’s where the story turns political.

As construction of a new Highway 520 bridge moves forward, and transportation officials make plans to compensate for damage to wetlands, the Seattle Audubon Society says the state is blowing a chance to protect the shorebirds’ habitat.

Seattle Audubon is urging the Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT) to remove trees around Central Pond and Shoveler’s Pond, and to plant fewer trees in other parts of the Union Bay preserve, as part of its multimillion-dollar environmental-mitigation plan.

“A golden opportunity may be lost to increase habitat diversity,” an Audubon letter says.

But so far, the state is sticking to its goal of improving wetlands at Union Bay to offset damage that the new six-lane highway will cause on nearby Foster Island.

These kinds of riparian plantings near waterways are commonly done by state agencies to stop erosion, improve habitat for large birds, or keep salmon streams cool in the shade.

In this case, Sidles rejects what she considers a one-size-fits-all philosophy.

“They’re building habitat for ducks.”

WSDOT’s strategy, some eight years in the planning and design, would increase plantings in the Union Bay preserve. The state points out that wetland improvements are required by federal and state permits for the bridge.

“Creation of more shorebird habitat would likely cause additional wetlands impacts, that require their own mitigation,” said Denise Cieri, deputy administrator for 520 construction.

Three lawmakers last month sided with Audubon.

“Restoring shorebird habitat would be by far the most environmentally sound action,” says a letter to WSDOT from Sen. David Frockt, D-Seattle, Rep. Gerry Pollet, D-Seattle, and Rep. Jessyn Farrell, D-Seattle. Some 2,000 people have signed a petition, they said.

Wetlands projects at just the Union Bay preserve are estimated at $4 million to $5 million.

Frequent fliers

Shorebirds recorded at the Union Bay Natural Area last year include:

Least sandpiper  is the smallest of the sandpiper family and favors muddy edges of marshes and ponds.

Killdeer  will sometimes flutter as if it has a broken wing to lure intruders away from the nest.

Pectoral sandpiper  is named for the inflatable air sac the male puffs up during breeding display flights.

Spotted sandpiper  has bold spots on its white breast during breeding season. Constantly bobs its tail up and down.

Greater yellowlegs  has long, bright yellow legs; the wader bobs its head and calls loudly when approached.

Long-billed dowitcher  forages by rapidly probing the mud from one position. Its bill is twice as long as its head.

Wilson’s snipe  is similar to the dowitcher but has stripes down its back. Flies away in a zigzag pattern.

Source: Connie Sidles, Seattle Audubon Society

The university agreed to the WSDOT wetlands plan and co-signed a Jan. 20 letter denying Audubon’s request to de-vegetate the pond shorelines.

Government officials say they’ve partly responded to Audubon’s concerns by agreeing to retain four muddy spots along Central Pond — instead of planting over them. In some other spots, the state agreed to use shrubs less than 6 feet tall, including snowberry and Nootka rose.

Theresa Doherty, UW assistant vice president for regional affairs, said regulatory agencies have already issued permits for the wetland work. She emphasized that existing shorebird sites will be maintained.

New plantings, and removal of some invasive plants, should begin early next year, Cieri said. The wetland project is required to occur at the same time as the West Approach Bridge North phase of the $4.5 billion Highway 520 project, which is already under way, she said.

The project also would add a new wetland, by replacing the gravel E-5 parking lot, also known as the “dime lot,” alongside the Union Bay preserve.

Altogether, there are 15 sites where the Highway 520 project is adding or restoring wetlands, including 10.5 acres in the Union Bay preserve.

Given that Central and Shoveler’s ponds occupy only 3 acres, clearing the shorelines offers the most bang for the buck, Sidles said.

Lots of other birds

Union Bay is the last shorebird rest stop in Seattle, she said. Neighboring stops include Nisqually Delta, Auburn and the Snohomish River Delta near Marysville.

It’s a modern miracle that birds stop here in spring, find their way to Alaskan tundra and lay eggs. The adults return south around July, while the babies eat, gather strength and leave the cold north in early fall, Sidles said.

The preserve is home to a kaleidoscope of residents.

Male red-winged blackbirds attract females by claiming prime territory on a tree branch above cattails. Ducks called northern shovelers feed by swimming forward with their bills open, similar to a baleen whale, hence the name Shoveler’s Pond.

Wednesday morning, a resident shorebird appeared during Sidles’ walk — a killdeer on a log. When startled, it zipped into the sky with a high-pitched chirp that sounds like rapidly saying “kill deer.”

“I don’t think it’s any accident that wherever a little bit of open space appears, that’s where the shorebird is,” she said.

These lowlands were lake bed until 1916, when construction of Ballard Locks and Montlake Cut lowered the lake level and exposed a few feet of peat. The land was a city dump from 1926 to 1966.

Twenty-nine shorebird species have been witnessed over the years, in the preserve — a total of 1,434 individual birds were tallied in 1997, but only 47 visited in 2014, according to Audubon records.

The most prolific was the least sandpiper, a friendly-looking, thin-legged bird with brown feathers tipped in white.

As late as the 1990s, both ponds were virtually treeless, aerial photos show.

When the shorebirds fly by night, said Sidles, they look for the glint of moonlight on pond water, ever harder to find. In that sense, the former city dump reminds them of a flat Pacific beach.

However, shorebirds managed to travel the Puget Sound region just fine during the half-century when the dump operated.

Susan North, conservation director for Seattle Audubon, says there is a bigger picture to consider.

“The problem is, habitat is vanishing, and not just locally,” North said.