I’d like to preface with a warning. This entry contains the manic depictions of deviants. Birding has many manifestations. Some are the gentle musing of the causal observer, no less informed, simply less hastened or statistic driven. This is a trip report of the absurdist, the crazed who don’t sleep for 24 hours, the big day birders.
Favored with employment in an organization that focuses heavily on birding, this April I was lucky to participate in our major fundraiser for work. Birdathon is an event created to fuel fundraising through friendly competition. Solo or on a team, birders get sponsors who either foolishly give $.50 per species (this gets expensive when lists soar above 100 species) or pledge a static amount. Then they go birding and try their best to see as many birds as possible.
The big day has roots in the East (I could never see it coming out of say, California). According the Scott Weidensaul’s book Of a Feather (a brief history of American birding), as early as 1898 birders in Ohio were out on grueling daylong assaults. Different areas had colloquial terms for their endeavors. The bottom line was that you end up spoiling a perfectly respectable and cerebral activity into baseball statistics. I’m the first to point out the flaws in this extreme form of birding, but I’ll be damned if it isn’t fun!
Half of Seattle Audubon’s staff was willing to ship out the night before our Birdathon and camp on the Columbia River, where we’d begin. When we arrived at Wanupum Damn State Park, the reason for the windfarms perched on nearby hills was evident. It was a blustery night. Wind isn’t good for birds and if you haven’t figured it out yet, this practice in mania is grounded in number of species seen.
Thankfully the morning was calm. With time to rake the surrounding area before a 7:30 rendezvous with the rest of the staff in Vantage, we wasted no time. While only two of us were so far removed from reality as to wake up at 5 am to bird (before light), we had a good showing for the morning walk. Yellow-rumped Warblers (Audubon’s specifically) dripped from the poplars, but they seemed to be the only songbirds about. I started to get nervous. But no worries, we soon stumbled into a Dusky Flycatcher, some Ruby-crowned Kinglets, a House Wren, Golden-crowned, Lincoln’s and Fox Sparrows. You cherish every bird on a big day, you may not see it somewhere else.
With a large staff and no one nearly as enthusiastic as Adam, our science associate, and myself, a real big day wasn’t entirely possible. Contrary to what you might believe, not all the staff at Seattle Audubon are expert birders, who would have been fine with a slapdash day. People actually wanted to see birds, not rush through, ticking them off. We also weren’t going to be able to go owling. A final admission was that most big days are centered on mid-May. My most epic have always been as late as possible to coincide with Birdathon dates to maximize incoming migrant birds. Late April was slightly premature. My main goal was to beat our board members’ team. They’d amassed a respectful 122 species a few days earlier. (To avoid sounding like a sniveling snob, I had a great time birding with my coworkers regardless of their sane tendencies).
On the other side of the Columbia River, the Shrub Steppe opens up into the willow lined shores of the potholes and Moses Lake. Water always attracts birds and we soon found ourselves another twenty species deep. Never a certain bird, a Black-crowned Night Heron flushed into a tree at Martha Lake and we saw, astonishingly, our only sandpiper of the day, a Least. Swainson’s Hawks glided on gracile wings overhead, back from their sojourn in Argentina. Cinnamon and Blue-winged Teal floated on many a waterway.
Before we knew it, we’d blasted through the wetlands and headed back over the Columbia River to Vantage. Wind had picked up again which meant finding things in the quickly diminishing shrub steppe (read: land being bulldozed for wind turbines), wasn’t going to happen. We still managed Sage Thrasher and both Mountain and Western Bluebirds en route to Ellensburg.
Unfortunately one of our stops, Robinson Canyon, was closed till May (to allow Elk to winter in lowlands without being bothered by people). Luckily Carly, a former staff member who ran Birdwatch, came through for us and suggested we visit Taneum Canyon.
Not only were the high basalt walls that wrapped the road in the canyon beautiful, we managed some good birds in Taneum. Townsend’s Solitaire busied themselves on the hillsides, Evening Grosbeaks flew over, and we finally got both Mountain and Black-capped Chickadee. A bonus was a Golden Eagle that came in low over the road! Not being able to get into Robinson still cost us key species – it was time to get back on the road!
The intersection of the Teanaway and Yakima Rivers just outside of Cle Ellum is a traditional spot for any serious Washington-wide big day. This is mainly because it’s a reliable and simple place to find American Dipper. Rufous Hummingbird (which I unfortunately missed), Downy Woodpecker (astonishingly only the second woodpecker of the day, and Vaux’s Swift were also about.
It was time to cut our losses and head to the less fruitful western slope. With weather moving in, a stop a stampede pass didn’t seem promising but out of the car we had Golden-crowned Kinglets, Varied Thrush, Pine Siskin, and Red-breasted Nuthatch. The beauty of big days is that they make every bird exciting!
Our only owl of the day was pure luck. A few staff were trailing behind and luckily for the rest of us, heard a pair of Barred Owls! Sitting listening to them we heard Red Crossbill, just as I had said they were something we hadn’t seen yet. Finally we had Oregon Junco, a shock to not get sooner on the trip. A Red-breasted Sapsucker called, giving Adam and I views. Just as we started to walk back, I heard the quick, sweet call note of a Brown Creeper. We could still beat those board members yet – I was above 100 species.
Rain was slamming down through Snoqualmie pass but when we finally started to get close to Seattle, during rush hour, the clouds parted and traffic was actually moving. The group, diminished from dropping off a few deteriorated staff in town, descended on the last main stop at the Montlake Fill. This was crunch time and Adam and I took off from the rest of the group to try to see as much as possible. Cleaning up on easy species we had Savannah Sparrow, Anna’s Hummingbird, American Wigeon, Glacous-winged Gull, and Common Yellowthroat. While we didn’t get Wood Duck, a regular at the fill, we had Cedar Waxwings and a Virginia Rail. A Bewick’s Wren was singing as we left the park. Chomping at the bit, we headed back to the office to drop off the rest of the staff, empty the van, and head to the rental place. I followed Adam in his car and after the van was parked – we jetted off to West Seattle, our final stretch.
As absurd as it sounds, just writing this report is getting my heart rate up. Birding like this is about uncertainties and it calls into action your absolute ability and attention. You have to be on point perpetually.
Pigeon Guillemot, Western Grebe, Horned Grebe, Red-necked Grebe, Mew Gull, Brant. We were doing well and the light was cooperating, it was past 8 pm by the time we’d reached the final park on our loop around Alki Point in West Seattle. The sunset over the Olympics with a contrasting storm was so spectacular that I had break for a photo but then it was back to business. An Eared Grebe was nestled in a group of Horned Grebes. Finally a Harlequin Duck! A Barrow’s Goldeneye flew away from us as we strained but failed to find Long-tailed Duck or Marbled Murrelet further out on the Sound.
As the light failed, we made out last-ditch attempt to find Western Screech Owl or Winter Wren in the forested section of Mee-Kwa Mooks Park. Every crow back in the trees seemed to be an accipiter (it’s embarrassing to admit that we missed both Sharp-shinned and Cooper’s Hawks) as we stood patiently listening. Finally the strangled croak of a Hermit Thrush rang out, as if calling the end to our day. We’d been up since 5 am and by the time I got home it was 10pm.
As it turns out, I managed to squeeze by the board members at 124 species. But that doesn’t really matter too much. What was really important is that I raised over $600 for Seattle Audubon and all that money will be going to leave a legacy of the environment. Maybe if I have kids and they are so unfortunate as to find themselves addicted to birding, they’ll be able to follow in my footsteps.
Thank you to all my sponsors (there’s still time to give money, till the end of May): Linda Carroll, Marti Davis, Rebecca Evans, Al Ferkovich, Thomas Mansfield, Jean Mills, Eldon Olson, Roberta Roberts, Paul & Barbara Webster, Diana Aubin de Paradis, Barbara Clark, George Johnson, Penny Koyama, and last but certainly not least Virginia Morrison!