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Birds of praise: Seward Audubon naturalists give local birds the attention they deserve in weekend classes

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Photo by Nick Rapp
Photo by Nick Rapp

With a whopping 120 acres of old growth forest, Seward Park offers abundant territory for a biodiverse crew of wildlife. And this time of year, it houses thousands of avian visitors from as far as 4,000 miles south.

Spring migration brought over 800,000 birds across King County on May 7 alone, according to Ed Dominguez, lead naturalist of the Seward Park Audubon Center. Dominguez leads frequent "Early Bird" classes in the park, guiding newbies and experienced birders alike on morning tours. This past Sunday, he ran a special Mother's Day class, focusing on some exciting new moms in the park.

There are two active bald eagle nests in Seward Park — not quite obvious to the naked eye but unmistakable once pointed out. Our resident mother eagles' eggs have just hatched, and parental units are working overtime to provide supplies of fresh food to their offspring.

Photo by Nick Rapp  

"Early Bird" attendees (amateurs on this particular morning) excitedly gazed through Dominguez' Swarovski scope, perfectly positioned to watch over a mother eagle who was patiently awaiting a food delivery from her partner. The father eagle stood tall in the tree next door, sadly using his talons to perch in lieu of holding the anticipated meal.

After musing over eagle family affairs, we made our way deeper into the forest, as Dominguez assured us that "right now is one of the best times of the year for birding," confirmed by a "symphony of sounds in the neighborhoods, forests, and parks." Every few minutes, he enlightened us with a charmingly personified bird call of a local or visitor: "eats-a, eats-a, eats-a, pizza" and "like a robin call with a smoker's rasp" were two of my personal favorites.

Birds love to settle in Seattle in spring because of our rich assortment of insects; gnats, midges, mosquitos, stone flies, mayflies, and dragonflies are especially protein rich and digestible for the newborns. The trees of Seward Park offer large, stable grounds for nesting, with prime access to the insect buffet. Scattered between the occupied nests lie abandoned ones of years past, some with rich histories of species survival.

Photo by Nick Rapp  

As we hiked through the park, Dominguez stopped us to view one of the most important old habitats in the entire Puget Sound region: the "Great Mother Nest." He explained that this nine-foot-wide and eight-foot-deep nest was likely built in the '60s and is the sole reason bald eagle populations bounced back from near extinction in the area.

After widespread use of DDT (and its eventual ban), bald eagle eggs were too frail to hatch — they all started breaking in the nest. The toxic buildup of DDT in the food chain compromised egg structure, and when the eggs finally gained their strength back, the Great Mother Nest became ground zero for re-establishing bald eagles in Seattle. DNA testing proved that every bald eagle in the region is genetically linked to this nest, so while it is too old and cluttered for use today, it remains in the forest as a reminder of the resilience of nature against all odds.

Birding with Dominguez is chock-full of fascinating tidbits like this, with his encyclopedic knowledge verging on unbelievable. Over the course of two-and-a-half hours, we saw over 20 species of birds; learned nesting habitats for eagles, hawks, and owls; differentiated the classes of birds of prey; tried to remember at least one bird song; and marveled in the good company of bird-curious Seattleites.

Photo by Nick Rapp  

Birding sessions at Seward Park offer a wonderful chance to get acquainted with local ecosystems and converse with nature-loving community members. The passion of the Audubon Center's naturalists brings out the kid in us all, and you leave with fun facts to spout at your friends for weeks. As the seasons change, the mornings only get nicer, and birding ties exciting taxonomical and hyperlocal insights to the environments we visit for recreation.

That being said, scoring a coveted spot in an Audubon class takes some quick online attentiveness. Classes fill so fast, often you don't even see the event listing before it is too late. I recommend checking daily in the week you want to attend, so you don't miss the chance to join the intimate group.

If staying alert online isn't your thing, have no fear — the Seattle Audubon Society is bringing back "Neighborhood Bird Outings" this spring as well. These are open to all, no preregistration necessary. On May 14, 27, 28, and 29, any interested locals can stop by various parks to learn a bit about birds of the area.

For more information on Seward Park birding events, visit https://sewardpark.audubon.org/events/programs. For information on Neighborhood Bird Outings, visit https://seattleaudubon.org/get-involved/go-birding/neighborhood-bird-outings/.