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Musings from the Desk of the (Un)Epic Birder


The major curse of being a birder is that you find yourself evaluating your day based on species counts and the relative obscurity of your observations.

When days are pleasant and birds are numerous enough all is well in the universe. I can stroll about and simply enjoy being outside, communing with nature. What about when it’s miserable outside?


Birders above the 40th parallel spend a good portion of the year bundled up, squinting through scopes or shivering in wait of a rarity. We always hear about the good times but what about the bad times? The weeks we go out birding and don’t really see all that much. I’m not suggesting I don’t enjoy just getting out. I find birding and photography very similar, the more one does it, no matter the conditions, the better one gets.

Common birds are no less enjoyable than rare ones. I always enjoy Golden-crowned Sparrows.

However, ruts happen.

A summer tanager showed up in Seattle. A huge bird for Washington State, let alone Seattle. I managed to sleep through my alarm on one cold, dark morning, which turned out to be the only time it was at either place it made appearances when I had time to visit.

The Eastern Phoebe. Well, I saw it, but for two seconds, after spending hours walking around in soggy grass. When I realize what most normal people do (not that I desire to be normal), I’m rather perplexed by what drives me to walk around gloomy, wet meadows in December with complete strangers. Sometimes I feel like someone lost their keys in the field and we’re all just do-gooders trying to lend a helping hand.

What rare birds could be out there?

At least some things are given this time of year. Drive up North and descending into the Skagit Valley, the brightest things around (because the sun can’t break through the oppressive cloud layer), are the hoards of swans and geese. This regularity may not get every seasoned birder excited but I’m always flabbergasted by the sheer numbers of snow geese, particularly when thousands thunder to wing mere yards from you. The swans too are quite the spectacle, some of the largest birds in North America just hanging out on the farm nibbling old brassica shoots. No big deal.

In the city, with a keen eye or ear, there’s always a few things to take note of. I continually out nerd my co-workers (at a non-profit for birds), by getting wound up by birds outside our office. A Bewick’s wren clinging to the tactile brick wall, pretending it’s a creeper. The almost daily red crossbills that fly over almost any time I am outside. Even when work and weather don’t allow for extensive adventures, there’s room for my mind to broaden, (…ok, so maybe thinking about birds doesn’t count as broadening).

Spend some time with a Common Raven and you'll find they're not all that common in their behavior.

But while I’m not out exploring distant or difficult terrains in search of feathered species or scoring rare birds by the dozen, my mind is cemented in those things. Asking questions, like: Do other people see at least 20 red crossbills a day in Seattle, no matter where they are? Or what a male King of Saxony Bird of Paradise is doing right at this moment? Or if that short-eared owl I watched in a field with my friends a couple weekends ago knew that the world was supposed to end in the next week? Probably not.

A Short-eared Owl cruising over its domain, oblivious to human travails.

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