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Birding East of the Mountains: Chasing birds?

(a quick preface – things have been busy and trying – moving back to the city, finding a place to live, and getting settled at new jobs has pushed things back by months, I promise it won’t happen again.  Thanks for reading!)

No light, cascades of rain, and a car occupied by the mumbling, weary.  I would probably be sleeping but the anxiety of the nearly invisible, discarded tire between lanes thrust me into full lucidity.  The rain tore through the foothills.

My two friends Ryan Merril, Charlie Wright and I were headed to Eastern Washington.  That’s a very vague term that I place upon anything east of the Cascade crest.  Really it’s the central part of the state that will occupy our day.  We are out birding.

The sky began to lighten after we crossed Snoqualmie Pass on I-90 and we escaped the dirge of rain slamming into the car.  Our first stop was to be a quick peruse of the Cle Ellum area.  A Northern Mockingbird had been staying at the Sauk Prairie Grange.  The bird was easily located, looking chilled on the damp morning.  I could tell it wasn’t going to live much longer, with frayed tail feathers.  No molt is a bad omen for a bird in the wrong place this time of year.

Hawks still grounded by the chill, we passed through the beginning of sage country.  Charlie and Ryan gossiped about their places on the Rare Bird Committee of Washington.  About county records, state records, dates, people, and what they perceived as unforgivable ignorance.  I had to stay my eyes and mouth, both easily rolled in the presence of what I really felt crude refining of ornithology.  Don’t get me wrong, these two are highly knowledgeable, expert observers but I felt like I was sitting with baseball fans more than bird lovers at times.  They are still far and above better birding companions than many!

Kittitas, the current county we were in was difficult to find shorebirds in being land locked and directly east of the Cascades.  Long-billed Curlews were summer residents, breeding in the fields and the ubiquitous Killdeer was difficult to ignore but beyond that shorebirding was tenuous.  A friend had reported a field with a Golden Plover and thousands of Killdeer.  Worth a look but unfortunately it wasn’t as fruitful for us.

Our real pursuit (apart from escaping Westside rain) was to examine the songbirds that were surely moving along the migratory luge the Columbia River creates.  Vantage, a favorite spot of mine, lays on the west shore and turned up a few birds on interested.  Through the pishing of my companions we heard a Western Screech Owl, who murmured groggily, in response.  Four Townsend’s Solitaire peered at us curiously, three with the last vestiges of their immature plumage peaking through their mantle.  A Rock Wren clattered away in the basalt cliffs.  The sun shone through the bluster of high clouds.

We observed the clutter of coots and other waterfowl, likely in the tens of thousands south of the I-90 bridge crossing.  Joking that there was probably a Tufted Duck amongst them, I at least didn’t have the patience to pick apart every Scaup I saw.  Time to head across the water and start looking for more songbirds.

On the other side of the mighty Columbia we teased apart every group of songbirds we could.  A few late Orange-crowned warblers were at the Sentinel Bluffs (a new, strangely eerie spot for me).  Both a ‘Taiga” race and a typical “Pacific” present were noteworthy.  An odd chip that was very much a Waterthrush piqued our interest but we couldn’t get the bird to call again.

More dissection of spots that only bums and local fishermen visited.  Loads of White-crowed Sparrows, the ever-present Audubon’s Warbler and a few of their components the Myrtle were sallying forth.  A lone Wilson’s Warbler was siphoned through the dense willow stand.

Our day ended and my friends were still talking about records, I also couldn’t help but join in a bit.  Of course this wasn’t about the birds themselves but the numbers and dates.  It makes me question my devotion to this thing called birding.  I’ve drifted from the kid that began with birds through competition and listing.  Counting birds is useful but it’s not the end all to my avian adventures.  Although I find it useful to enjoy the uniqueness of a bird showing up in the wrong place at the wrong time, I no longer celebrate it’s arrival.  That lonely Mockingbird, made me sad.

So I tend to want to tear myself away from the people that preach the record.  Do they actually like birds?  I know Ryan and Charlie do, although their obsessions for numbers tend to veil their passion for the animal.  And there are people I know don’t actually like the birds, just the sport.  I question the validity of constantly chasing birds.  I bore of scanning the flocks for the errant.  Why not scan to understand their habits?  Although the knowledge of distribution is a valid part comprehension that I build on, it isn’t the total.  I found myself laughing at a Ruby-crowed Kinglet as it hovers, gleaning branches while my companions glower about a misidentified rare bird they had to go over on their committee.

I suppose my point is that I don’t know where I stand.  Their intellectual pursuits can seem pretty hollow to me, like baseball analytics. It doesn’t typically preach sustainability, conservation, or helping spread the dogma of proper science in the public.  In fact the way they talk about birds, birders, and birding makes me think they could actively discourage people from starting out (but I also know those quips are in confidence and are not aired publicly and I certainly share them often as well).  Understanding distribution can help shape population studies and push conservation from a citizen science perspective certainly.  That is worthy, but is that the goal of most birders?

My uncertainty is staid by the fact that I love going birding (amongst the million other things I proclaim I love).  Ryan and Charlie are great companions in the field and are people that share a common love, despite seemingly different implications.  The joy I get from watching beautiful birds going about their day, these epic realizations of evolutionary trend, I’ll be out there getting wet, cold, and yes – chasing birds!

Filed under: Birding, Birds, Washington

About the Author

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I am a natural history writer and photographer, obsessed birder, naturalist, and artist. When I'm not learning by reading, drawing, painting, taking photos, or being outside, I am probably asleep.

2 Comments

  1. captain underpants

    scientific pursuit w/out taking the time to marvel at the wonders of the natural world is like attending a concert with earmuffs on. preach on brendan.

  2. My sentiments as well. I’d rather spend hours watching the behavior of a single pair than chase and score birds through the landscape. Sure, it’s interesting to identify new species but without an ecological context such sightings are meaningless at least to me. Perhaps, teasing out the meanings of score-card data is deliberately (?) left to others. Regardless, I enjoyed your post as it took me through Eastern Washington.

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