Birdathonin’ it up – Terns to Turnstones

It’s been a few years since I’d gone out to tally as many bird species as possible in twenty-four hours—not since I left my position at Seattle Audubon to move to Paris with Kristi. After our fill of croissants and chapels, we are back in Seattle and I’m now on the Seattle Audubon Board. And I have to admit: I was excited to dust off the old bird checklist and binoculars to raise some money for the oldest environmental organization in the Pacific Northwest.

But I don’t think Kristi shared the same enthusiasm when my alarm went off at 4:00AM Saturday morning. In fact, our conversation, albeit brief, was long enough to confirm that very fact. Having just returned the previous day from a couple weeks in China, my body woke up pretty quickly; it was just a matter of when it would crash. But, with the skill of an anesthesiologist, I introduced caffeine to my system in small doses to maintain an even level of alertness throughout the day. I am not used to caffeine but I checked: my hands were steady enough to hold binoculars.

As I was walking to my car at 4:45AM, the “First Bird” was a Dark-eyed Junco singing in the thin light, stripping the title from the notoriously boisterous and early-rising American Robin (which was a close #2). I had a bit of time to kill before I met the other board members at the Montlake Fill at 6:15, so I headed to Golden Gardens on the shores of Puget Sound—today’s only opportunity to see saltwater species. I tallied some common species (Glaucous-winged Gull, American Crow, White-crowned Sparrow, etc.) pretty quickly while I walked out to the edge of the shore and set up my scope.

Wow, the water was still and contained absolutely no birds.

I only had ten minutes to spare but, thankfully, a few of the species specific to this habitat started to show themselves: a nearby Pigeon Guillemot, a pair of flying Rhinoceros Auklets, and a distant Black Brant. Some late wintering Western Grebes represented a species I wouldn’t see again all day.

Some ambitious beavers doing work in Montlake Fill, Seattle.

With 21 species at 5:50AM, I packed my scope in the car and headed inland to Montlake Fill, a locally famous wetland and birding area (and former garbage dump) in the shadow of Husky Stadium. Our small group of board members quickly found Vaux’s Swift, Spotted Towhee, Anna’s Hummingbird, and Savannah Sparrow. Bewick’s Wren and Bushtits were clutch additions to our checklist we’d have a tough time finding as we later moved further east. The cripplingly beautiful male Wood Duck and Cinnamon Teal were crowd favorites. After an hour of birding, it was time to head over Lake Washington towards the Cascades Mountains.

47 species.

After a quick stop in Issaquah to combine forces with the eastside contingent, we got back on I-90 and didn’t get off until the top of the Snoqualmie Pass, where feeders provide fuel for migrating Rufous Hummingbirds.
A stop at Stampede Pass provided singing Varied Thrushes and Golden-crowned Kinglets as well as Yellow-rumped and Townsend’s Warblers. A foraging American Dipper – an aquatic songbird – and a small flock of treetop Red Crossbills provided great scope views.

A small nest with abandoned egg. Stampede Pass near Cle Elum, WA.

61 species.

Red-tailed Hawk and Turkey Vulture flew over I-90 as we continued east to Cle Elum. The Cle Elum Railroad Ponds provided some real dandies: the brilliantly orange Bullock’s Oriole, dazzlingly yellow Nashville Warbler, and the boldly colored Evening Grosbeak. Additional birds like Northern Rough-winged Swallow, House Wren, Western Bluebird, and Pygmy Nuthatch were much appreciated additions. The group decided it was time for a coffee and donut stop in Cle Elum, where long-awaited House Sparrow and House Finch brought my list up to 78 species.

The caravan snaked our way up the Teanaway, where we nestled for lunch underneath some roadside Ponderosa Pines overlooking the Swauk Prairie. We added Chipping Sparrow, Cassin’s Finch, Say’s Phoebe, Western Kingbird, and Mountain Chickadee.

86 species.

After lunch, we made a quick stop at a reliable quarry for Rock Wren and then added Mountain Bluebird before getting on the road to head down to Ellensburg. Unfortunately, high winds caused birds to hunker down in otherwise productive areas, like the riparian habitat at Reecer Creek and the sagebrush of the Quilcene. Thankfully Brewer’s Sparrow and Sage Thrasher graced us with their song in the midday sun.

A digi-scoped Great Horned Owl on Old Vantage Highway, WA.

A Great Horned Owl, #93, was nearly a sure thing in some cliffs down Vantage Highway.

The Ginkgo Petrified Forest Interpretive Center gave us an additional six species, including Common Loon and Horned Grebe in breeding plumage. The Columbia River was shallower than I’ve ever seen it, courtesy of a cracked dam downriver.

Frenchmen Coulee near George provided Yellow-headed Blackbird, Virginia Rail, Cedar Waxwing, and White-throated Swift.

We continued east, following the string of small wetlands that follow I-90 through the arid agricultural land. We quickly tallied ducks like Canvasback and Redhead, sandpipers like Black-necked Stilt, American Avocet, and Long-billed Curlew, in addition to Eastern Washington specialties like Swainson’s Hawk, Bank Swallow, and Black-capped Night-Heron.

It was now 6:30pm and our energy was waning with the setting sun. But our last stop—a pair of square retention ponds near a rest stop—produced our best bird of the day: a RUDDY TURNSTONE. Mixed in with Least and Spotted Sandpipers, Short-billed Dowitcher and Dunlin, this sandpiper represents a species that is widely distributed throughout the world (I actually just saw them in China) but they are very rarely encountered away from the saltwater shoreline. It is a “Code 5” rarity (fewer than five records) for the county.

And it was #119. The group, which had tapered to six individuals, decided to head back to Seattle where we watched the sun drift behind the Olympic Mountains.

Birders will certainly exclaim, “what, no owling?” Nope. I was exhausted.

It’s tradition for birders to dwell on the “biggest misses” of their Big Day. For us, there were a few considering it was a relatively casual attempt: American Wigeon; Ring-necked Pheasant; Sharp-shinned or Cooper’s Hawks; Band-tailed Pigeon; Downy, Hairy, or Pileated Woodpecker; Peregrine Falcon; Dusky Flycatcher; Brown Creeper; Vesper Sparrow; Purple Finch; and Pine Siskin.

But all that is just bird-geekery. Most importantly, thanks to my supporters, I’ve raised nearly $4,000 for Seattle Audubon—a personal record. I really appreciate the support.

Next year? Maybe. But I’ll probably have to preemptively sleep on the couch.


Full Species List:
Canada Goose
Wood Duck
Cinnamon Teal
Northern Shoveler
Ring-necked Duck
Greater Scaup
Lesser Scaup
Barrow’s Goldeneye
Common Merganser
California Quail
Common Loon
Horned Grebe
Red-necked Grebe
Western Grebe
Double-crested Cormorant
Great Blue Heron
Black-crowned Night-Heron
Bald Eagle
Northern Harrier
Swainson’s Hawk
Red-tailed Hawk
Virginia Rail
American Coot
Black-necked Stilt
American Avocet
Spotted Sandpiper
Long-billed Curlew
Ruddy Turnstone
Least Sandpiper
Short-billed Dowitcher
Pigeon Guillemot
Rhinoceros Auklet
California Gull
Glaucous-winged Gull
Caspian Tern
Rock Pigeon
Eurasian Collared-Dove
Mourning Dove
Great Horned Owl
Vaux’s Swift
White-throated Swift
Anna’s Hummingbird
Rufous Hummingbird
Belted Kingfisher
Red-breasted Sapsucker
Northern Flicker
American Kestrel
Hammond’s Flycatcher
Pacific-slope Flycatcher
Say’s Phoebe
Western Kingbird
Warbling Vireo
Steller’s Jay
Black-billed Magpie
American Crow
Common Raven
Tree Swallow
Violet-green Swallow
N. Rough-winged Swallow
Bank Swallow
Cliff Swallow
Barn Swallow
Black-capped Chickadee
Mountain Chickadee
Chestnut-backed Chickadee
Red-breasted Nuthatch
Pygmy Nuthatch
Rock Wren
House Wren
Pacific Wren
Marsh Wren
Bewick’s Wren
American Dipper
Golden-crowned Kinglet
Western Bluebird
Mountain Bluebird
American Robin
Varied Thrush
Sage Thrasher
European Starling
Cedar Waxwing
Orange-crowned Warbler
Nashville Warbler
Common Yellowthroat
Yellow Warbler
Yellow-rumped Warbler
Townsend’s Warbler
Wilson’s Warbler
Spotted Towhee
Chipping Sparrow
Brewer’s Sparrow
Savannah Sparrow
Song Sparrow
White-crowned Sparrow
Dark-eyed Junco
Western Tanager
Black-headed Grosbeak
Red-winged Blackbird
Western Meadowlark
Yellow-headed Blackbird
Brewer’s Blackbird
Brown-headed Cowbird
Bullock’s Oriole
House Finch
Cassin’s Finch
Red Crossbill
American Goldfinch
Evening Grosbeak
House Sparrow