Wings Over Water event to feature bird expert

Published on Wed, Apr 7, 2010 by Tara Nelson

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Maynard Axelson, founded the Washington Brant Foundation in 2001 in an attempt to bring awareness to the Pacific Black Brant, a small sea goose that is in need of special protections from habitat loss and the depletion of eel grass, the birds main food source. Here, Axelson is using a VHF tracking device at Padilla Bay near La Conner to monitor the 20 black brants he helped tag in the Canadian arctic.
Photo by Tara Nelson

For Maynard Axelson, the Wings Over Water birding festival is about more than just watching birds.

Axelson, whose non-profit organization the Washington Brant Foundation founded the festival seven years ago, sees the event as an opportunity to educate people about his favorite bird – the Pacific Black Brant, a small sea goose with distinctive black and white markings.

This year, the festival is scheduled for April 17 in various Blaine  locations. Axelson, the event’s keynote speaker, will discuss findings from his bird research in the “Pacific Flyway” and the unique bioregion of north Whatcom County.

“Drayton Harbor is such a unique area, and I’m afraid we’re just taking it for granted since it’s in our own back yard,” he said.

Recent declines in the number of brants prompted a joint research effort involving the Canadian Wildlife Service (CWS), the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW), the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS), and the WBF. Since then, the foundation tagged and tracked 20 birds to study their migrational patterns as they traveled as many as 2,600 miles from the Northern Canadian tundra to the beaches of Baja, Mexico in an average travel time of 51 hours.

Axelson said part of the reason for this decline is the loss of shoreline habitat and pollution that destroys herring spawn, the birds’ main food source. Of course, there is also the threat of global warming, which could offset the brant’s migrational patterns or threaten eelgrass beds, to which herring eggs attach themselves, he said.

“If this water warms up just a couple of degrees, it might throw the whole eelgrass bed out of whack,” he said. “If it gets too hot, it might not even grow.”

The event isn’t just about the brant, however.

“The event is about everything, really,” he said. “It’s about the eelgrass, the fish, the brant, the loon, the herring. So if you do something to help brant, you’re doing something to help lots of other things, too.”

Most of the events are free of charge and include such activities as bird viewing stations, seminars, exhibits, live raptor displays, walking field trips of Semiahmoo Spit and Blaine Marine Park.

This year’s event also features discounted whale watching excursions with Outer Island Expedition to Boundary Bay with interpretive discussions.

When asked why the foundation chose Birch Bay and Semiahmoo for the locations of the event, Axelson said it was a combination of diverse waterfowl and beautiful location. Add to the fact that the Blaine area is home to one of the largest eelgrass beds on the west coast, making it an important refueling station for the birds who need to store up to 30 percent excess fat for the long and cold breeding season up north.

“Blaine is the motel, the restaurant and gas station for the birds on their trip,” he said. “A bird has to build up fat ahead of time on their back or on their belly because the food’s not going to be there when they get there.”

Axelson’s passion for birds was inspired at an early age by bird books given to him for Christmas by his aunt, a school teacher at the time. He began raising ducks at the age of eight. After that, things kind of got “carried away,” he said.

“I had a banty chicken rooster who would come in the house and sit on a stool and watch TV with me,” he said. “I was just always really interested in birds.”

Today, Axelson, who lives on a 160-acre farm in Fir Island, just south of Mount Vernon, is a bit of a collector and breeder of birds. He maintains a flock of 35 black brant, emperor geese and an exotic red-breasted goose from Russia.

He has previously volunteered with various bird groups throughout the state including Ducks Unlimited’s Barley for Birds program, and the Washington State Department of Fish and Wildlife’s trumpeter swan lead poisoning monitoring program in Lynden.

A bovine breeding expert by trade, he became interested in the black brant after volunteering with a bird-branding project coordinated by a professor from the University of Alaska at Fairbanks.

The group traveled as far south as Mexico and as far north as the Arctic Circle, in an attempt to track the migratory patterns of the black brant, and was subsequently featured in a National Geographic article.

Axelson said he was impressed by the species’ unwillingness to change because of human behavior. He also felt the brants, which he formerly referred to as “the Rodney Dangerfield of waterfowl,” weren’t being given enough attention by conservation groups because of their elusiveness.

“I’d always been really taken with the whole brant thing and it really bothered me because nobody was really doing anything for the brant,” he said. “I just thought they weren’t getting their due attention.

“That and they’re just such a good poster bird for habitat loss because, if their habitat is altered or lost, they’ll just leave, they won’t change or adapt to new stuff like other birds. You’re not going to see them in the McDonalds parking lot with the gulls.”

For more information about the Wings Over Water festival, visit, or call 800/624-3555.

Also, see up-to-date information on brant by clicking on the “tracking” link on the Washington Brant Foundation link.