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Big Day. May 5. 2012.

A quick note: for those of you haven’t donated yet, my big day was in support of Seattle Audubon. This money is for a general fund but continues programs like Birdwatch, the high school group I volunteer with and have blogged about. Please consider pledging to my Birdathon. Thanks so much for your support!

I woke in the confusion of deep sleep, unsure where I was. Blearily, I cast about for my glasses, brushing frost off my sleeping bag. When my brain caught up it was with a mournful reproach. What had I gotten myself into. Oh no…this was just the start of the day. This could be the intro to a horror movie.

Welcome to our big day: 12 AM on a dirt road in Wenatchee National Forest on May 5th.

Five hours later we were sitting in the car waiting for first light. Our first bird had taken nearly two hours – a Spotted Owl barking in a distant drainage. We stood watching wind push surreal globular clouds across a full moon the rest of the time. The second species in four hours, was a Northern Pygmy Owl right at dawn.

I’ll freely admit that I despise owling. Owls are indelibly special birds, species which have always held a corner of the human imagination. However, interminable hours standing in the cold, listening to air move over your ears and the gaseous irruptions of your fellow owlers, imagining distant barks, hoots, or whines, are almost never worth it. Not the best way to get excited about a big day.

For those of you who aren’t familiar, a big day is when manic birders try to see as many species of birds as possible in 24 hours. This could be in a county, a state, even a city. My expedition mates, Adam Sedgley, Micheal Willison, and I were making our go in Washington State. Adam and I were raising money for Seattle Audubon with pledges for our endeavors.

We secretly knew from the start that we wouldn’t approach the state record of 211 birds. For one we were going out a bit too early in the year for some vital species. Give or take a few weeks, May is universal big day month in North America yet early May in Washington doesn’t afford time for some neotropical migrants to arrive. Second, our route needed some fine tuning. Third, completely out of our control, was wind. A birder can never get worse luck than high winds.

A big day more or less consists of rushing about from place to place. We’d see or hear a bird, make sure everyone got on it, and rush off. This wasn’t about beautiful views or remarkable observations, it was about efficiency and tallying off species within our 24 hour frame.

We started daybreak on Bethel Ridge, which is on a random forest service road near Rimrock Lake on Highway 12. In typical dawn activity we dashed off most species we could possibly snag. Wham bam. Time to move on.

Down Umptanum road between Naches and Ellensburg, we weren’t feeling particularly enthusiastic. Aiming to hit certain habitats is key and it’s a serious issue when you miss birds with only one opportunity to see them reliably. Later in the day when we were going over species we still needed, minutes before a Red-breasted Sapsucker flew across the road I said something like “they’re easy to see flying.” I wished we’d had that kind of fortune with White-breasted Nuthatch or White-headed Woodpecker in the few Ponderosa stands visited. We were getting skunked.

Early in the game we’d adopted a strategy of running to and from the car. After finding Sage Sparrow along the Old Vantage Highway, Adam and I dashed back out of the sage, warily eyed by two geared up gentlemen on dirt bikes next to the car. They were probably used to seeing birders but were maybe a bit uneasy as to our running.

“Stop! Back up a bit……there….a bit further. It just flew. Pull forward…”

Equally so our driving probably wasn’t convincing any bystanders of our sanity. Stopping in the middle of the road or weaving to see a bird. All in all we were safe. But erratic, very erratic.

Things were not looking fantastic by mid day. Noon was literally the halfway point, we’d been up for 12 hours and would be for another 12. Sheer lunacy.

Despite feeling pessimistic I was having a surprisingly good time. That’s what big days are about. Testing yourself, in planning, in ability to pick out birds whizzing by or calling quietly, pushing your limits of sleep deprivation.

By the time the crest of the Cascades at White Pass came and went I’d already started to nod. Time was slipping by as we crossed into Southwestern Washington, hoping to scoop what we could before the sun traded places with the moon around 8:30 PM.

I’d never been to Rainbow Falls State Park but I was grateful to stretch my legs. Everything counts, even common birds (which are so often missed). Pacific Wren, Townsend’s Warbler, Pacific-slope Flycatcher, and Wilson’s Warbler were all birds I can potentially see minutes from my home in urban Seattle. Hermit Warbler however was not. Time to move on.

Desperation setting in and we saw our first gulls in a field near Roy. Luckily they were worth studying, Herring and Mew Gull represented. We were tempted to waste precious minutes to make another bird a Thayer’s. I made an unethical, silly, and unsuccessful attempt to get the bird to fly by running down the road parallel to it.

There’s a certain salvation in getting to an entirely new habitat. Suddenly coastal Washington and all its marine, intertidal species spread before us. Crunch time and we crunched much of what we’d hoped for, waterfowl, shorebirds, a few songbirds. Yet, those missed species always make you cringe.

Big days are unapologeticly crude. You eat horribly, relieve yourself in convenient, not polite, places, and largely reject courtesy. Vespertine sputtered out on a platform at the Wesport Jetty. Pelagic and Brandt’s Cormorants were our last species roosting offshore. As we scanned with flagging enthusiasm, we probably managed to ruin a man’s attempt to photograph the blood orange moon creeping over Gray’s Harbor, shaking the platform and his tripod.

153 species, 890 miles driven.  Not terrible but not great either.  Definitely fun.  The callous road trip nation easily folds into the world of birding. Maybe we could have driven further and seen more? Then again the need for dinner, rest, and the camaraderie of sharing a meal surpassed a more hours standing in the cold, hoping for owls. I wasn’t going to suggest that anyway. Like I said, I sorta hate owling.


  1. Insanity to be sure. Perhaps a good thing to do once every other year, but I’ll bet you would have preferred to have spent a little more time with that Hermit Warbler.

    • Brendan McGarr

      Definitely would have spent more time Steve. Got nice looks of a bright male, nice yellow throat from below. Always nice to see them in Washington.

  2. Owling does suck. Running to/from car is the only way to big day. Sorry bout the wind, that’s not fair. I think you should do it again next weekend and show a bit higher than 153. Treat the last one as a scouting trip. I don’t think I’m doing any big days this year, which is weird. Last year we did one, and in ’10 we did TWO, in back-to back weekends. So brutal. Keep on rockin in a free world.

    • Brendan McGarr

      I decided to quit work and just go on big days for the next month. I’ll probably rob some banks too. Next time we’ll do better. Test run.

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