Please excuse me while I catch up on my sleep. It’s June, weeks after my second big day with my fellow staff at Seattle Audubon, nearly a month post my first with fellow guides from Evergreen Escapes. I still don’t feel rested.
I’ve never been a fan of competitive pressure. Sports were fun because you got to exercise, work hard at something, develop skill, but I didn’t enjoy the obsessive desire to win at most costs. Watching my soccer teammates cry when they lost and their smug faces when they won made me want to quit. Just about the only thing I get actively competitive in (besides pursuing my career), is birding. By that, I mean I lose all sense of reality and find a strange, alien focus.
Maybe it’s because I am older now, but despite my frenzied desire to be right and be the first to ID every bird, my ego has tamed slightly. What’s also diminished is my enjoyment of big days. I’ve talked about them many times before on Wingtrip. They are a cornerstone of extreme birding and as a part of the birding prostaff for Nikon, I should appropriately subscribe to the notion that big days are a valuable activity, right?
Possibly my waning enthusiasm for big days is related to maturity. I don’t like staying up for outrageous hours, I don’t think it’s very good for me nor is the excessive driving particularly great for birds or the environment. Excepting that many big days are paired with the goal of raising money for various bird related organizations, big days merely benefit the egomaniacal birder. Mine have typically been for Seattle Audubon (but also have been in support of a great non-profit called the Alamos Wildlands Alliance). This year, I somehow was thrown into two swirling days of birding and despite my grumbling, I sorta loved it.
Both days began early but on different sides of the mountains. My cohorts at Evergreen Escapes, Penny Rose and Tyler Davis, were driven by the idea of testing out a new route and making a potential bid for the Washington state record. Species abundances be what they are, we started at 3 AM on the east side of the mountains in a little spot, well known to birders called Wenas Creek. With the Seattle Audubon staff we began at 5 AM in the Wedgwood neighborhood. These two hours made all the difference in my ability to function for the entire day and made my mood a bit more stable as the hours began to drag.
Owling will never be my favorite activity, especially when a simple bit of birding at daybreak in Seattle reveals nearly a dozen more species in than several hours of walking around in the dark. That said, at Wenas we had flammulated, western screech, and great-horned owls with relative ease. In Seattle we started our day with typical city birds, American robin and Bewick’s wren the most ebullient of the dawn songsters. As many know, daybreak is the best time for birding, so neither of the early days involved sluggishness. We had to nail down some species and that involves planning to be in places that host a variety of habitats in one go. Wenas Creek was the eastside choice, Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge the west. The Wenas creek and Umptanenum road areas rolled out every warbler we could expect, an early morning poorwill, veery, three species of vireos, flycatchers, white-headed and Lewis’s woodpeckers, but disappointed us on nuthatches. Nisqually on the other hand was hopping with birds, despite being a chilly overcast morning. We had great, but brief looks at a great-horned owl, plenty of warblers, flycatchers, black-headed grosbeaks, western tanagers, purple martins, and best of all Wilson’s phalarope, cinnamon teal, and yellow-headed blackbirds! By 9 o’clock both days had over 60 species.
One of the hardest things I encounter on a big day is the waning of species and energy as the day goes on. By noon things slow, with species additions perceptibly lacking. This is why you attempt to enter different habitats as the day flows, but when you are in central Washington, it’s a game of jumping from one wetland area to the next hoping you’ll get more species. In Western Washington it’s getting to the coast, where waterbird visibility is more linked to the tide than the time of day. It starts to feel like hours are passing between one new species to the next. I’m sure some mathematically capable person could develop an equation and graph to explain this phenomenon.
On the West side we continued to ramp up more species between Mima Mounds and Rainbow Falls State Park. Western meadowlark and American kestrel are common species at Mima Mounds (though mostly locally occurring West of the Cascades) and we had hermit warbler, Hammond’s flycatcher, and pileated woodpecker in the contrastingly sodden Rainbow Falls State Park. When we left and headed to the coast however the going was slow and heavy rains drilled the van and the optimism.
East of the Cascades we had some luck with sage sparrow along the Old Vantage Highway (I didn’t even have to get out of the car to see it) and picked up some waterbirds at Ginko State Park. The great migrant trap the park provides however, wasn’t biting, only a few warbling vireos moved around the lush green trees which contrast markedly with the arid shrubbesteppe around it.. It was time to push east again
Though we had some decent catches from Tokeland to the North, I was slightly disappointed. Midway Beach provided blue-winged teal, long-billed dowitcher, and Virginia rail none of them given species considering the time of year, but we were missing marbled godwit and numerous waterbirds. Thankfully Westport got us more gull species, rhinoceros auklets, and brown pelicans. It also inspired a stop for soft serve ice cream and French fries when we saw the tourist restuarant signs.
Toiling away in the potholes and scouring the wetlands and ag land near Moses Lake, we did reasonably well on waterbirds we needed from the area. The biggest surprise was a sandhill crane on Dodson road, but we felt like we were burning time when we made a side trip to Gloyd Seeps Wetland for white-faced ibis (which we did get). We had other species there, including sora, but it was a major sidestep in our time budget. It cost us, and despite expedited visits to Soap Lake and Dry Falls (also for Ice Cream), time was running out. We’d planned to roll through the North Cascades and into Skagit County before the day was through. We reached the mouth of the Methow Valley at nearly 5 and started to realize how little time we really had.
By six the Seattle Audubon staff was ready to head home and we beelined for Seattle. Many of us were hovering close to 100 birds, which meant that the Montlake Fill (or Union Bay Natural Area) would likely be a good place to break that number. Unlike the angst I was feeling on the Evergreen Escapes big day, I was pretty satisfied with the Seattle Audubon trip when crunch time came up. As we dropped a few staff off at the office who were happy to call it a day, most of the rest of us had a merlin fly over as well as Anna’s hummingbird before heading to the Fill.
Stopping a few places along the North Cascades Highway, back with Tyler and Penny, we were struggling for species. The sun had gone down below the tall peaks, meaning it was quiet on the East slope. A Townsend’s warbler sang for a moment, but we were striking out. We didn’t get another new species until far downslope on Thunder Arm of Diablo Lake where Rufous hummingbirds and varied thrush were singing in the twilight. The consolation was the strikingly beautiful Cascadian landscape before we decided to give in. A Swainson’s thrush here, white-crowned sparrow there we were struggling and it was time to call it. The final hours were tough considering how long the day was. We finally called it at Rockport State Park, realizing we’d simply be running ourselves ragged with no hope of adding to our (relatively) middling list of 146. Besides it was dusk, owling (at least to me), sounded hellish.
The fill was windy and quiet, but the swallows and swifts were going nuts over gnats that were lekking around Center for Urban Horticulture. Their spectacular show made up for slow birding. It was nice to have everyone hear a Virginia rail again, but it was so late in the season that very few ducks were around. We decided to call it at around 8:30 PM. Staff had a variety of counts, but I had 105 species for the day. Not bad for a late May big day.
No matter their length, big days are exhausting. You are constantly on and I am always done with everything by the end of the day. I’ve yet to beat my best big day of 188 in Washington State but then again, I’m still altogether unclear if I care all that much. The fun part is challenging yourself to simply be aware enough to hear and see all the birds that are nearby. You can plan all you want but you’ll miss birds you’d never expect to miss. Penny, Tyler, and I had no black-capped chickadees, the Seattle Audubon Crew had no house finches.
Numbers aside, I’m glad I did both big days, but don’t ask me about doing one again until next year.
I’d like to thank Linda Carroll, Dennin M Conlon, Barbara Webster, Sharrie Shade, Virginia Morrison, Loren Tapia, Walter Oelwein, Jean Mills, Alison Wysong, Matthew Mega, Dianne Edmonds, David Harlow, Teri Martine, Rebecca Evans, Alex Ferkovich, George Johnson, and Vasiliki Demas for helping me raise a total $650 for Seattle Audubon. Your support means that great programs like the high shool Birdwatch Program and the Puget Sound Seabird Survey, amongst much else, continue to run.