Pamela Gunn feels both joy and anxiety as she walks out her Officers Row door and makes her morning birding rounds at the Fort Vancouver National Site. She loves visiting with feathered friends around the fort, but she’s worried how climate change and site redevelopment will affect their future prospects here.
“Such a beautiful morning,” Gunn said earlier this week, when The Columbian joined her for a stroll around the site and a preview of her Saturday afternoon birding talk. No matter the weather, she said, she explores the historic site daily, with eyes and ears open and binoculars at the ready. Gunn said she’s logged 68 different bird species during the three years she’s lived here.
What she enjoys is “not just the birds,” she said. “It’s the plants and critters, the trees and the beauty of it all.”
She also appreciates the sense of history that pervades the unique outdoor setting. Gunn, a retired nurse from a military family, had her eye on Officers Row for 15 years before jumping at the opportunity to move in there from downtown Seattle, she said.
Now the photographer, painter and dedicated birder is scheduled to join a lineup of Christmas at the Fort festivities. Her free talk and slide show about birding at the historic site is set for 1:30 p.m. Saturday at the visitors center, 1501 E. Evergreen Blvd. Earlier in the day, starting at 10 a.m., bird lovers can build bird feeders and origami creatures with free supplies there.
Gunn will show photos and discuss her local sightings of birds that delight her, both common and rare. Common sightings include robins, goldfinches, crows, jays, hummingbirds, starlings and geese. Among Gunn’s favorite rarities are the MacGillivray’s warbler (named for a different person than the east Vancouver street) and the western wood pewee, which has a sweet song, impressive insect-snagging skills and an irresistible name, she said.
Gunn’s enthusiasm for creatures of the sky and their amazing behaviors was on display as she hurried toward a giant sequoia tree, explaining that a great horned owl was known to live up there and drop pellets containing all the stuff it can’t digest after a meal of locally sourced rabbits or squirrels. Sure enough, Gunn explored the base of the tree and found a couple soft packets of hair and bone.
“That is so cool!” she declared as she opened the little gift and examined the contents. Gunn likes the idea of owls eating squirrels, she said, because science has proven that squirrels — not cats– are the No. 1 consumer of bird eggs.
Gunn will also touch on environmental and development pressures that make life hard for birds at Fort Vancouver. Strolling the site earlier this week, she pointed out spots where new asphalt has covered greenery, shrubbery has been reduced and the lawn has been shaved down to stubble.
None of that is good for birds, Gunn said, and she’s been noticing here what birders are noticing everywhere: avian populations are shrinking.
“Let’s go pishing,” Gunn said, revealing that term on a T-shirt beneath her winter coat. Then she approached one of the few remaining thickets of shrubbery in the area while blowing a raspy call through her cupped hands. “Pishing” means mimicking a bird call, and Gunn is used to watching sparrows pop out of the shrubbery when she does this, but none responded to her call that morning.
“Nobody’s home today,” she said.
A recent National Park Service report about bird health and climate change across all national parks found that existing bird communities at Fort Vancouver are facing significant habitat threats — with several dozen local species facing worsening climate conditions and many at risk of vanishing from the scene. (The report also notes that a changing climate may result in new species arriving.) The report also notes that park management “can focus on actions that increase species’ ability to respond to environmental change,” including adding bird habitat and increasing the quality of existing habitat.
More broadly, scientists have sounded an overall, worldwide alarm. There are 3 billion fewer birds in North American skies than there were in 1970 — a 29 percent drop — according to recent report by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. Around the globe, 40 percent of all bird species are estimated to be in decline and 1 in 8 species is close to extinction, according to BirdLife International, an agency based in England.
Scientists blame the decline on the destruction of habitat, the spread of industrial agriculture and widespread use of pesticides.
“Don’t get me started about pesticides,” Gunn said after singing the praises of bird species that love to feast on insects.
Gunn said she wishes caretakers of the Fort Vancouver National Site would let shrubbery thrive, let grass grow a little taller and set aside at least one spot where downed wood can decompose slowly, providing natural bird habitat.
The birding blowout at the visitor center takes place uphill from annual Christmas festivities on the same day at the reconstructed fort on East Fifth Street.
The Madrigal Singers will stroll the fort contributing a heavenly soundtrack while costumed volunteers demonstrate the vintage lifestyles and skills of people who lived here in the 1840s. Blacksmithing, carpentry, candle-dipping and Christmas wreath-making will all be on display, according to Friends of Fort Vancouver President Mary Rose.
But volunteers will also kick back and show off how employees of the Hudson’s Bay Company used to party when they were granted a whole day off. That was a rarity, and many spent the respite hunting and fishing before returning to dine and dance.
“Christmas at Fort Vancouver is a fun and exciting event for the whole family,” said Aaron Ochoa, chief of interpretation at Fort Vancouver. “Experience and celebrate a traditional 1840s holiday with our volunteers and park rangers.”