Thurston's Birds

The transition from breeding to launching the kids


Summer is here, and many species of breeding birds have turned from defending their territories, nesting, and brooding eggs to feeding and protecting the resulting fledglings. (That’s not every species – larger birds like the Osprey and Great Blue Heron may be still brooding eggs or feeding unfledged nestlings.)

July is the fledgling month, and I’ve already seen some familiar sights. Swallows are gathering with their fledglings on utility wires. The adults venture out hunting, returning to feed their begging young. Soon the young will be trying their luck at aerial hunting.

Cedar Waxwing
Cedar Waxwing
On the northern part of Chehalis Western Trail, just north of Shincke Road, there are large ponds right by the trail. Earlier this week there was a large flock of Cedar Waxwings, adults and young, right along the trail. The adults were insect-catching, feeding their young and encouraging them to give it a try. For the next week or so, this could be a great place to see these beautiful birds up close. There are also Red-winged Blackbirds in abundance, and those entertaining males like to sing all day and virtually year-round. The ponds are less than 100 yards north of the parking spot, and therefore, this is a great birding site for folks with limited mobility, including wheelchair-bound.

The Merlin app in the morning

Perhaps you have noticed – bird singing has diminished. Some bird species, like the warblers, have stopped singing altogether. Others limit their territorial declarations to just the early morning hours.

I have been recommending downloading the marvelous Merlin app to your smartphone and using it to identify bird songs by species. This past Tuesday about 6:30 a.m. I heard a bird song I did not recognize. I got out my phone, opened Merlin and began the sound ID function. Merlin identified a male Black-headed Grosbeak singing.

Black-headed Grosbeak
Black-headed Grosbeak
I held up the phone for 10 minutes, curious to see how many other birds Merlin heard on this quiet morning in my rural neighborhood. It turned out to be 13 species! None were unusual, but I did learn that I had been transposing the songs of Purple Finch and Black-headed Grosbeak. So much for my overconfidence in bird song identification.

This is a Warbling Vireo.
This is a Warbling Vireo.
The next morning, at about the same time, I tried again. This 10 minutes documented 14 species, including some species that I did not hear the day before, including a Warbling Vireo that I had not heard yet this year. In total, I had 19 species over these two mornings. Try it in your neighborhood. It may not be as birdy as where I live, but I bet you’ll be surprised at the number of species Merlin helps you identify.

Purple Martins

If you want to see Purple Martins up close, this is the time. The adults are very busy catching winged prey and returning to the nest box to feed their offspring. One great location is the Luhr Beach Natural Center, located in the northwest corner of the Nisqually Delta. There are gourd-like nest boxes right off the Center’s deck. You can really get a great view of these interesting, noisy summer visitors. There are also multiple boxes various places in and around the Port of Olympia. Anywhere at the Port, depending on where the insects are gathering, you might find yourself surrounded by Purple Martins intent on hunting to feed their young.

This is a male Purple Martin.
This is a male Purple Martin.

Saving the best for last: Olympia’s urban heron rookery

THE outstanding summer birding sight in Olympia is available just south of the Port in a small collection of pine trees next to the old Department of Game office on Capitol Way. This is the block just south of the Farmers Market. This is an active Great Blue Heron nesting colony. I have written about this colony previously, but I cannot recommend too often that you visit this remarkable site. The best time is in the evening, after 7:00 p.m., when it is getting quiet. Just drive south on Capitol Way from the Olympia Farmers Market roundabout and park on the right at the first available spot. The trees will be on the left.

How many Great Blue Herons do you see in this pine tree in downtown Olympia?
How many Great Blue Herons do you see in this pine tree in downtown Olympia?
Take your time and maybe change your viewing location or angle; see how many nests and birds you can locate. These birds have adjusted to urban living; you will not scare them.

For all the birding opportunities I have described this week, binoculars might be helpful, but they are absolutely not necessary. All you need is your curiosity about our avian neighbors.

George Walter is the environmental program manager at the Nisqually Indian Tribe’s natural resources department; he also has a 40+ year interest in bird watching. He may be reached at

Photos for this column are provided by Liam Hutcheson, a 17-year-old Olympia area birder and avid photographer.


2 comments on this item Please log in to comment by clicking here

  • Laceyreader11

    Great photos and article.

    Friday, July 5 Report this

  • Terrilovesanimals

    Thank you So much for this wonderful article and the helpful tips. I have truly been enjoying all of the different songs for the past week or so. I will try that app too. I put out water in a couple of locations for the birds and truly enjoy watching them flutter around it it or drinking Thank you again!

    Tuesday, July 9 Report this