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A Shaw Island Big Day (or How Birders Support Conservation)

In the world of birding, most are familiar with big days. These all out 24 hour birding sprees often co-opted into a way to raise funds, similar to a jog-a-thon. Bird-a-thons, as they are so called, could be viewed as the bread and butter fundraisers of small non-profit organizations dealing with birds. They are a gilded tradition in bird conservation but ultimately they are plain fun, because of the goal: go out and see a lot of birds.

The Alamos Wildlands Alliance (AWA) is one such organization that runs an annual bird-a-thon. As they put together their bid to raise money for their Navopatia Field Station in Southern Sonora, Mexico this year, I figured this was a good excuse to have a big day on Shaw Island, where I currently reside. Unlike some organizations, large ones who’ve grown cumbersome and ambiguous in their roles as nature’s benefactors (by getting funding from say, Shell), I know for a fact that AWA is doing on the ground work. They actively work to save an endangered ecosystem, coastal thorn-scrub, while doing baseline monitoring of migrant and resident birds in the region. If I am going to put any effort into conservation efforts, I’d much rather have it be for organizations who I can track and see doing good work. While it’s true, I am 100% biased, AWA is run by friends, I don’t care. Besides I don’t need a plush animal or bird print umbrella made in china for contributing. And I’d rather pay for a magazine separately instead of paying to have it printed out of funds I want to go to real conservation work (yes, this is ironic for someone who believes in the power of words and images). But I digress and you aren’t here for complaints from a shoddily built soapbox. Let’s go birding.


Interns conducting shorebird monitoring at the field station in 2014.


AWA’s bird-a-thon has no restrictions on location. I didn’t have to fly to Tucson, take an overnight bus to a small highway wayside in Sonora, and wait for a ride to the small village of Navopatia on the edge of the Agiabampo Estuary. There are teams in Oaxaca, Mexico, at the Field Station, and back in Washington, where most of the people who run AWA live at least part-time. I decided it would be a fun goal to get out on Shaw, Island and do a full day of birding. I knew I wouldn’t see as much as the folks in Mexico, or even those in other parts of Washington, but I knew I’d have fun and get some surprises.

As time has gone by as a birder, I’ve wrestled with the value of some aspects of birding. Competitive birding is a major one of them. However, I’ve come full circle to appreciate the value of a big day because it is a meditation on all species. You spend your day concentrating your best on any chance sighting while wielding an understanding of all which you plan to encounter, their habitat, behaviors, their essence as species. You take all this and you spend the day walking, driving, and sitting, listening and looking, in hopes of seeing them all.

My day started like this, sitting and meditating on the birds that I could hear from my doorstep. Between crunches of granola and slurps of coffee I heard nothing surprising, twinkling Golden-crowned Kinglets, croaking Common Ravens, and whistling Varied Thrushes. No bird is taken for granted, so as I readied the car and heard the echo of a Pileated Woodpecker and the pips of Red Crossbills, I was glad to have those species off the search cue.


A Pileated Woodpecker. Common on the island, but not a gimme.

Shaw Island isn’t exactly overflowing with public land nor a huge variety of habitats. There’s only a few places to access the salt-water, a few forests to legally roam, and tons of homogenous second-growth Douglas fir stands to contend with. The island itself is only an area just over seven square miles. However, it still has open spaces, access to shorelines, and vantages to deep saltwater. Knowing of a place that had all these things, I headed to my favorite spot on the island, Cedar Rock Preserve.

The road to the preserve from my home is mostly through forests, with much of the same birds. All the same I had my head out the window and drove slowly enough to listen for any chance voice on the air. Past the school and the library, I headed down the slimy dirt road winding about chartreuse hills of moss. A steel sky threatened rain, but what did I expect in February?

A marsh area nearly to the preserve got me a bird I’d never noticed on Shaw, Marsh Wren. I wasn’t surprised that they were here, but more that I hadn’t seen them before. Ruby-crowned Kinglets chittered away in bare willow branches and I caught the zeet of a Lincoln’s Sparrow somewhere in the tall grass.


Marsh Wren was not a bird I expected during the day.


Cedar Rock Preserve.

Cedar Rock Preserve preserve got me another wren I’d never had on Shaw, Bewick’s. I’d always assumed they weren’t around, but I assumed wrong. Fox Sparrow and Spotted Towhees were pished up from the Sitka rose patches that line the rocky shorelines, growing to the trunks of weathered Seaside Juniper and Pacific Madrone. The waterbirds came quickly at first, the most exciting were dozens of Ancient and Marbled Murrelets but there were scores of cormorants, goldeneyes, mergansers, buffleheads, murres, guilemots, and of course, gulls. I even managed to pick up a late Heerrmann’s Gull afloat on flotsam bobbing down San Juan Channel.

Heading back to Copper Farm (where I live) to take care of a quick chore, I found a Downy Woodpecker and Purple Finch near the house, both not guaranteed. Chore done, my next stop was the Ferry Landing, there I would scope more deep water. After several visits over the course of the day, this proved fruitful (Shaw is small enough to revisit anywhere repeatedly), as I finally found Harlequin Ducks and Surf Scoters. A lone Herring Gull was perched on the landing’s pilings with a group of Glaucuous-winged x Western Gull mutts. Strangely my only raptors of the day were two Bald Eagles at the landing.


Bald Eagles are very common, so I wasn’t worried about seeing them.

Some birds that are incredibly common elsewhere aren’t that numerous on Shaw. American Crows are here but only in a few spots and I caught a few driving to and from the Ferry Landing, up to some mischief along Blind Bay. European Starlings are another scarce bird and I saw only two, flying over a field near the Community Center. Rock Pigeons are pretty much exclusively inhabitants of the Ferry Landing and thankfully this day was no different.


An American Crow up to mischief.

Shaw’s County Park is an expansive vantage, with the only long stretch of sandy beach on the island, but I didn’t have much hope for seeing any new birds there. Once again, I was proved wrong when almost immediately I found Long-tailed Ducks near shore and Pacific and Common Loons deeper out. I also noticed Pigeon Guilemots back in svelte black and Rhinocerous Auklets decorated in their comical tufts, both ready for breeding again.


The Shaw Island County Park.

There were two places I’d not yet visited that might be worthwhile, Neck Point on the Northwest corner of the island, and Reef Net Point on the South end. Neck Point was a dud, as I arrived, a thick veil of misty rain started in and visibility vanished. I managed a Red-necked Grebe, but couldn’t see enough to scope further out. Reef Net Point, bounding one side of Squaw Bay got me a bird that would have been an embarrassing miss, Mallard. I took some time to hide out from the rain in the forest, happening upon a Hairy Woodpecker and hearing a Western Grebe somewhere out on the water.


Looking North into the Wasp Islands from Neck Point.

On a big day you spend a lot of time hoping you’ll find something remarkable, in the sense of something out of place or unusual. This typically involves knowing possibilities and knowing where to look. I hoped to find a White-throated Sparrow would be amongst the Golden-crowneds, that a rare duck would be on one of the artificial ponds around the island, or that I’d spy an out-of-place alcid from Neck Point. None of these things came true, but typically they don’t and I was feeling pretty satisfied as my day wound down. I had one last bird to cap my day at 65. A Barred Owl, barking, whistling, and making otherwise creepy noises from the forest outside my front door. By then it was dark and time to call it quits, I’ve never seen another owl on the island and I hate owling enough to find most excuses to avoid it.


A Northern Harrier, an infrequent bird on Shaw I saw a couple days post big day.

At 65 birds, I had a pretty good run of things for living on small island and it being February. In May I think I’ll give it another go and see if I can break 100, I figure I might be able to. I missed a lot of birds: a plethora of hawks and falcons possible, Turkey Vulture (a winter holdout in the San Juans) Hutton’s Vireo, Black Oystercatcher, Bonaparte’s Gull, Red-breasted Sapsucker, Evening Grosbeak and Hermit Thrush among others. Yet you never see everything, no matter how much you plan, because seeking out birds is simply a difficult task. In doing so, you realize how much you really do take even common birds for granted.

In the following days I did see some of the misses. Evening Grosbeaks in the tops of a fir. A Merlin hunting in an alder bog. A ghostly male Northern Harrier flying over open fields. A Cooper’s Hawk flying low in pursuit of prey over a field. A Red-tailed Hawk soaring high overhead. In my laziest of moments, soaking up sun on the beach, I heard Black Oystercatchers, screaming away incessantly from Canoe Island and wondered how in the world I’d missed them. That’s what I like about birding: finding those birds out of the blue in everyday life, as often as seeking them out. Always being aware that a chance moment in your day could produce a beautiful encounter.


Black oystercatcher, a common bird that I totally missed.

We can’t take those things for granted, and if we really do love birds and nature, we need to put effort in to protect them because so much progress is not. That’s why I even went out on this charade in the first place, to support the Alamos Wildlands Alliance and their field station. If you enjoyed hearing my tale, enjoy birds, or simply appreciate seeing young people taking time to protect the natural world, go head and toss a few dollars towards their GoFundMe campaign. Every bit counts, just like every species does on a big day.


And thankfully, American Robins were numerous and obvious.


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