“Run Birding” 2018 Challenge – The Recap

It all started with a simple question: How many species have I seen while running? I’m relatively list adverse compared to other birders; state, county and yard lists are common examples, but, more obscurely, I’ve heard of a “C List,” or the number of species a birder has seen copulate. For me, I only keep lists for US/Canada — known among birders as an “ABA” list — and a world list, the latter of which is haphazardly scribbled throughout field guides and pads of aging paper. That’s all to say that I’m not inclined to keep lists, nor am I very good at it.

The pair of shoes the author started the year wearing. The book was not taken on runs.

But with a toddler and two time-consuming hobbies, the idea of combining birding and running into one pursuit intrigued me.

Plus, it appeared novel—I hadn’t heard of anyone else attempting something like this before.

After the 12 month “Big Year” (a term I use very loosely) I maintained my normal “3 runs a week” schedule, tallying 138 individual runs. While birds influenced the destination of every single run, except for the last run of the year on December 31, I didn’t drive anywhere to specifically target birds. I ran from whenever I slept. Most frequently this was Washington D.C (81% of all runs left from our apartment near Chinatown). 

In addition, I ran wherever we traveled and thankfully this included some interesting areas:

  • Seattle-area, WA (13 runs)
  • Arlington, VA (7 runs)
  • San Francisco-area, CA (4 runs)
  • Phoenix, AZ (1 run)
  • Bethany Beach, DE (1 run)

I never used optics, more out of practicality instead of principles—they are heavy. Consequently, many duck silhouettes bobbing on the water and warbler butts went unidentified. I included “heard only” birds and considering my nascent familiarity with Eastern birds, this meant I missed a few more birds, especially during spring migration.

If I could sum up the effort in two words, it’d be “so close.” I ran 984 miles and saw or heard 197 species. This is much better than the 100 species I suspected, but I was so close to doubling my arbitrary goal.

Which species did I record the most? This list reflects my largely urban running environment:

  • European Starling (90% of runs)
  • Rock Pigeon (84% of runs)
  • American Robin (84% of runs)
  • House Sparrow (84% of runs)
  • Mallard (72% of runs)
  • Blue Jay (65% of runs)
  • Canada Goose (61% of runs)
  • Fish Crow (60% of runs)
  • Ring-billed Gull (59% of runs)
  • Song Sparrow (58% of runs)
  • Common Grackle (57% of runs)

Of the 197 species I saw or heard this year while running, 28% I recorded only once and more than half (58%) I recorded on 5 or fewer runs.

Which species did I totally miss this year? There are more than a few species that I somehow couldn’t find in 2018 while running, but the rare Black-headed Gull that was frequenting the Georgetown waterfront for a couple months probably stings the most. Including “out and backs,” I probably made nearly 20 attempts to see this stupid bird. People were feeding it bread, for crying out loud. It was most frequently reported in the afternoon and I prefer to run in the morning. Looking back, I should have changed my strategy.

Other surprising misses include Peregrine Falcon and Ruby-throated Hummingbird in D.C., Marsh Wren and Eurasian Collared-Dove out west. Cackling Goose and Sharp-shinned Hawk also stand out. I ran 14 miles on one run for a failed attempt at Long-tailed Duck near Georgetown and, back near Seattle, 16 miles to *not* find a Brandt’s Cormorant. A couple runs to a supposed Mississippi Kite nest site was also fruitless (the nest apparently failed). 

But let’s not dwell on the negative. Here are some highlights:

January — I ended the month with 48 species and a partially hurt foot. The most exciting bird was the reddish wings and gray collar of a SWAMP SPARROW at Theodore Roosevelt Island, what will become a frequent destination this year.

February — The January foot issue crept into February and, not wanting to impact an expensive ski vacation, I took two weeks off from running—not the strongest start to the year. I ran 37 miles in the latter half of February and tallied six new species, including GREAT BLACK-BACKED GULL and ORANGE-CROWNED WARBLER.

March — I crawled back to my “3 run a week” schedule and with that increased mileage came new species, including a rare LARK SPARROW in the National Arboretum and a flock of RUSTY BLACKBIRDS—my second sighting ever (with or without running shoes). I also ran the Rock & Roll Half Marathon and added a COMMON RAVEN.

April — Spring Migration is starting and the action is picking up! I missed a rare Great Cormorant reported the previous day at Fletcher’s Cove but added six new species, including HAIRY WOODPECKER and BLACK VULTURE. I tallied SPOTTED SANDPIPER and GREEN HERON at Roosevelt Island but missed the Bonaparte’s Gulls reported just offshore. I ran 80 miles and added 25 more species.

May — Spring Migration treated me well, as expected. If the scads of warblers, grosbeaks, orioles and flycatchers in D.C. weren’t enough, I also took advantage of a bachelor party in arid Scottsdale, AZ. Perhaps I was not in peak aerobic fitness on the final morning of our trip, but I tallied 14 desert species, including HARRIS’S HAWK. All told, I tallied 37 new species in May.

June — Spring migration was a tough act to follow, but a half marathon to Kenilworth Park added WHITE-EYED and WARBLING VIREOS and INDIGO BUNTING. I also learned about a small PURPLE MARTIN colony breeding behind the Georgetown Hospital.

July — I took two weeks off of running to go on a European road trip but returned to D.C. to hear a singing FIELD SPARROW and – after three attempts – found a COOPER’S HAWK across the street from Union Station.

August — This could’ve been a dry month, but four runs near San Francisco afforded me a staggering 23 new species for the year, include West Coast specialties like WRENTIT, RIDGWAY’S RAIL, NUTTALL’S WOODPECKER, PYGMY NUTHATCH and – a personal highlight – foraging WHITE-TAILED KITES.

September — This was the month where I attempted to find Ruby-throated Hummingbird and Black-headed Gull and struck out on both, many times. I did tally 4 new species on one run in coastal Delaware, including BROWN-HEADED and RED-BREASTED NUTHATCHES thus completing the coveted quadfecta of North American nuthatches.

October — I added a YELLOW-BELLIED SAPSUCKER in D.C. and on one run back near Seattle – my first since January – I tallied SNOW GOOSE, BARROW’S GOLDENEYE, DUNLIN and BROWN CREEPER.

November — On my second run near Seattle, I tweaked my ankle looking in a flock of American Wigeons for a Eurasian. Then I caught a head cold. After a 9-day hiatus, I returned to running in D.C. to find HERMIT THRUSH, AMERICAN KESTREL and LESSER BLACK-BACKED GULL.

December — I was sitting at 179 species and 862 miles with 31 days left in this year-long challenge. Two hundred species and a thousand miles were so close, but it would require a very strong, if not stupidly ambitious finish. We were already planning to spend over two weeks in the Seattle-area, where I had the potential to see quite a few new species. I just needed some luck and injury-free knees. Thankfully, I stayed healthy and hit 122 miles – the highest mileage this year – including 35 miles in the last four days. And the birds didn’t disappoint either: VARIED THRUSH, EURASIAN WIGEON, RHINOCEROS AUKLET and EARED GREBE were the highlights of the 18 species I added in December. I tried to go out with a bang as well, running 14 miles on the last day of the year and scoring two dandies: HARLEQUIN DUCK and BLACK TURNSTONE.

I’m taking the first week of January off running before I resume my normal running schedule. I’m also creating a new version of my “ABA Running List” spreadsheet … just in case.

2018 “RUNNING LIST” – By the Numbers

Number of runs: 138
Total Mileage: 984 miles
Total Species: 197
Average Mileage: 7.1 miles per run

Snow Goose
Canada Goose
Wood Duck
Northern Shoveler
Gadwall
Eurasian Wigeon
American Wigeon
Mallard
Ring-necked Duck
Lesser Scaup
Harlequin Duck
Surf Scoter
White-winged Scoter
Bufflehead
Common Goldeneye
Barrow’s Goldeneye
Hooded Merganser
Common Merganser
Red-breasted Merganser
Ruddy Duck
Gambel’s Quail
Pied-billed Grebe
Horned Grebe
Red-necked Grebe
Eared Grebe
Rock Pigeon
Band-tailed Pigeon
White-winged Dove
Mourning Dove
Chimney Swift
Anna’s Hummingbird
Ridgway’s Rail
American Coot
Black-necked Stilt
American Avocet
Killdeer
Long-billed Curlew
Black Turnstone
Sanderling
Dunlin
Long-billed Dowitcher
Spotted Sandpiper
Greater Yellowlegs
Pigeon Guillemot
Rhinoceros Auklet
Laughing Gull
Mew Gull
Ring-billed Gull
Western Gull
California Gull
Herring Gull
Lesser Black-backed Gull
Glaucous-winged Gull
Great Black-backed Gull
Caspian Tern
Common Loon
Double-crested Cormorant
Pelagic Cormorant
Great Blue Heron
Great Egret
Green Heron
Black-crowned Night-Heron
Black Vulture
Turkey Vulture
Osprey
White-tailed Kite
Bald Eagle
Cooper’s Hawk
Harris’s Hawk
Red-shouldered Hawk
Red-tailed Hawk
Belted Kingfisher
Acorn Woodpecker
Gila Woodpecker
Red-bellied Woodpecker
Yellow-bellied Sapsucker
Red-breasted Sapsucker
Nuttall’s Woodpecker
Downy Woodpecker
Hairy Woodpecker
Northern Flicker
Pileated Woodpecker
American Kestrel
Merlin
Eastern Wood-Pewee
Acadian Flycatcher
Willow Flycatcher
Black Phoebe
Eastern Phoebe
Ash-throated Flycatcher
Great Crested Flycatcher
Western Kingbird
Eastern Kingbird
White-eyed Vireo
Hutton’s Vireo
Blue-headed Vireo
Warbling Vireo
Red-eyed Vireo
Steller’s Jay
Blue Jay
California Scrub-Jay
American Crow
Fish Crow
Common Raven
Purple Martin
Tree Swallow
Violet-green Swallow
Northern Rough-winged Swallow
Cliff Swallow
Barn Swallow
Carolina Chickadee
Black-capped Chickadee
Chestnut-backed Chickadee
Oak Titmouse
Tufted Titmouse
Verdin
Bushtit
Red-breasted Nuthatch
White-breasted Nuthatch
Pygmy Nuthatch
Brown-headed Nuthatch
Brown Creeper
House Wren
Pacific Wren
Winter Wren
Carolina Wren
Bewick’s Wren
Cactus Wren
Blue-gray Gnatcatcher
Golden-crowned Kinglet
Ruby-crowned Kinglet
Wrentit
Eastern Bluebird
Western Bluebird
Swainson’s Thrush
Hermit Thrush
Wood Thrush
American Robin
Varied Thrush
Gray Catbird
Curve-billed Thrasher
Brown Thrasher
Northern Mockingbird
European Starling
Cedar Waxwing
Phainopepla
House Sparrow
House Finch
Pine Siskin
Lesser Goldfinch
American Goldfinch
Spotted Towhee
Eastern Towhee
Canyon Towhee
California Towhee
Chipping Sparrow
Field Sparrow
Lark Sparrow
Black-throated Sparrow
Fox Sparrow
Song Sparrow
Swamp Sparrow
White-throated Sparrow
White-crowned Sparrow
Golden-crowned Sparrow
Dark-eyed Junco
Orchard Oriole
Hooded Oriole
Baltimore Oriole
Red-winged Blackbird
Brown-headed Cowbird
Rusty Blackbird
Common Grackle
Great-tailed Grackle
Ovenbird
Northern Waterthrush
Black-and-white Warbler
Orange-crowned Warbler
Lucy’s Warbler
Common Yellowthroat
American Redstart
Cape May Warbler
Northern Parula
Magnolia Warbler
Bay-breasted Warbler
Blackburnian Warbler
Yellow Warbler
Blackpoll Warbler
Black-throated Blue Warbler
Palm Warbler
Pine Warbler
Yellow-rumped Warbler
Prairie Warbler
Northern Cardinal
Rose-breasted Grosbeak
Blue Grosbeak
Indigo Bunting

A “Running” List of Birds in 2018

I started birding when I was five years old, about (mumble) years ago. I’ve also been a serious runner for well over a decade, and will continue as long as my knees allow. With these two outdoor pursuits (I hate treadmills), there’s bound to be overlap; I’ve found myself sprinting after the chance to see a rare bird (McKay’s Bunting, 2012) and, due to my long-standing aversion towards headphones, I definitely notice birds while running. The list of species seen while running would be respectable, I’m sure, if I’d ever bothered to write them down.

Nevertheless, I remember a few highlights: Red-necked Phalaropes while doing laps on the lower deck of an Alaskan cruise ship; a Virginia Rail that skirted in front of my feet on a rural road on Vashon Island, Washington; a lifer American Three-toed Woodpecker working a roadside tree stump in deep woods Montana; and a pair of Black Scoters at Discovery Park in Seattle, to name a few. Certainly the most exceptional was a Rustic Bunting that spent a few months wintering with a flock of juncos in San Francisco. As a rarity blown off course from its native Asia, it was well-known in the birding community and conveniently situated along a preferred jogging route only a mile from our apartment at the time.

While I have accumulated a few memories, I don’t have an official tally. It pains me to think about “the list that could’ve been.” Unfortunately, I’d think to myself, too much time has passed.

Rustic Bunting in San Francisco © Tom Benson

Then January 1, 2018 happened. I’m not one for New Year’s resolutions but I thought “why not keep track for a year?” This arbitrary date aligns nicely with the starting gun for when birders’ try to find as many species as possible in 365 days, a so-called “Big Year.”

Compared to my brethren who fly to every corner of the U.S. in pursuit of our feathered quarry, my year won’t be “big.” This endeavor is born from curiosity, not competition. I’m just going to keep running three days a week, like normal. I’ll aim for 15 to 20 miles a week following largely urban routes, like normal. Nearly all runs will start from our apartment in Washington D.C., like normal. I will notice birds by sight and sound, like normal. At the end of each run, however, I will take note of what I’ve seen or heard in a Google Sheet.

This endeavor may influence the destination of a few runs, sure, but the emphasis will always be exercise. Being the parent of a young child, spare time is at a premium, and, if given the choice between running and birding, I’ll pick a trim midsection over a plump species list. Rare birds, no matter how exceptional, won’t help me stave off the diabetes.

This way I can reliably pursue both passions—killing two birds with one stone. Or, perhaps, “two runs with one power gel.”

Having never heard of another birder/ runner who’s done this, I sketched out some guidelines:

  • No binoculars.
  • No driving to special habitats at specific times of year for a light jog just to add a couple species to this ephemeral list.
  • If I happen across generous birders with their spotting scopes trained on a new species, I’ll take a look (I wouldn’t want to be rude).
  • Birding should not negatively impact my normal distances or pace.
  • I will only count wild birds that can be confidently identified by sight or sound.
  • I will stop at a few prime locations mid-run to watch and listen; I may even lightly stretch to mask my true intentions.
  • I’m not sure where I’ll end up on December 31. I’ll aim for 100 species, but hope for more. Will every bird be recorded? No, many distant silhouettes, quick flyovers and indistinct chip notes will go unidentified.

But that’s birding.

It’s looking good so far: By the end of my second run, I’d already tallied 25 species. Sure, they were on opposite coasts and thus included different sets of easily tallied “common birds.” But still, not bad for freezing temps in January.

My knees held up, too.

Swallow-tailed Gull: An ABA Rarity for the Ages

Chasing rare birds is rarely convenient.

Unless you’re single, unemployed and avoid human interaction, jumping in a car at a moment’s notice to drive likely hours away will definitely impact “real life.” Thus, when a hot sighting hits the wires, hard decisions will need to be made, often amidst incredulous gazes from coworkers or skeptical scowls from a non-birding partner. For those with families, pre-chase rituals also involve bartering with a hopefully patient– if not totally understanding – partner to rebalance responsibilities to compensate for absence: “I’ll pick up dinner on the way home” or “I’ll catch our next child’s high school graduation.” In households with only one pair of binoculars, the birder frequently doesn’t have many chips on their side of the marriage table; likely, most run on house credit.

Personally, I don’t think I was in a deficit. As a recent father and a notoriously heavy sleeper, however, I wasn’t comfortably in the black either. For some birds, though, you gotta take a deep breath, slide all your chips across the table and hope for the best.

My birding email inbox once the sighting at “hit the wires.”

It started as a somewhat stressful afternoon running errands to prepare for our daughter’s first birthday party. She was sleeping so my wife ran into a couple shops while I stayed in the car and faithfully executed my daily ritual of scanning my birding email, which compiles notices from six different states on both coasts. I saw repeated mention of “swallow-tailed” in the truncated email subject lines and I expected a Swallow-tailed Kite, a gorgeous species of hawk from the southeast and a noteworthy sighting in Virginia or Maryland near my current home in Washington D.C.

Wait, these emails are coming from Washington State. I clicked: “Swallow-tailed Gull.”

What? I went back to find the email that started it all: a birding buddy Ryan Merrill found a Swallow-tailed Gull in Carkeek Park near Seattle that morning.

I was shocked. Could it have escaped from captivity? It’s a long distance from its native Galápagos Islands off of South America—3,800 miles, in fact. Plus the species is nocturnal. This wasn’t making any sense.

People were reporting that this was only the third time this species had been reported in the ABA (“American Birding Association” area, i.e. U.S. and Canada), and the first sighting since the early 1980’s.

“What is it?” My wife asked as she saw my face as she approached the car. She was concerned someone had died. I was nearly speechless. “Babe, a really, really rare bird was reported thirty minutes from here.”

I think I actually heard her eyes roll.

I didn’t ask the obvious question for ten full minutes—I was dying inside. “People will be flying from all over the country to see this bird,” hinting at my intention without stating it outright. In a tremendous feat that was equal parts love and acquiescence, she gave me the terms: “Okay, we will go. I’ll give you 45 minutes. If you stay longer, you’ll need to find another ride back.” I eagerly accepted the terms and we headed north. The fact that I was without binoculars didn’t matter.

The third or fourth shift of birders assemble the day the gull was first spotted.

My wife says my feet hit the pavement of the parking lot at Carkeek Park before the car stopped rolling, but I don’t remember. The first vista overlooking the beach, however, rings clear: I saw a horde of birders facing the same direction towards a flock of gulls. This is critical because, as any bird chaser knows, there’s a high chance a rare bird has moved because, you know … it has wings.

The rest was a bit of a relief-induced blur: I caught up with some former birding friends, two of whom let me borrow their scopes; I enjoyed prolonged studies of the grayish hood, thin eye ring, and distinctively angular bill tip of a Swallow-tailed Gull; and I returned to the car with twenty minutes left on the matrimonial timer.

Check. I haven’t asked but I may even have a few chips left in my stack.

Now, does anyone know if there’s a leaderboard for birders who have successfully chased a Code 5 rarity without optics?

I’m asking for a friend.

Sure, it’s a gull. But it’s so much more. Photo taken the evening the Swallow-tailed Gull was discovered. © Gregg Thompson

Montezuma’s Revenge: A Quail of a Tale

Nice habitat in Arizona. No quail.

In the Davis Mountains of remote west Texas, I finally overcame a multi-year bout of “Montezuma’s Revenge.” Eight years, in fact. I first succumbed to the ailment in Southeastern Arizona. Three years later, it flared up again on my second trip to the region. While it was most intense in the grassy pinewoods of the Chiricahua Mountains, the ailment percolated deep within my bowels for years—even mere mention of the area would double me over with sharp pains of regret and anguish.

Relating gastrointestinal distress to birdwatching– or, in this case, birdseeking – may seem extreme, but the analogy conveys the urgency (of the search), and the relief of release (when the quarry is finally spotted). In this case, the aptly-named Montezuma Quail.

Since childhood, this species was quarantined in my imagination as an abstract concept based on its impossible beauty and very limited range in the American Southwest, hundreds of miles from my native Seattle. I heard they existed and many people – whom I thought I trusted – conspired to confirm this, but I was incredulous; the striking patterning and coloration of this dove-sized species just didn’t seem possible.

After two, week-long trips to the region, it became clear that this conspiracy was far-reaching, involving even local Arizonans who boldly claimed to regularly see this supposed species.

“Just go up this trail in the morning, I always see them up there,” said one. “Oh yes,” said another. “Drive up this road and you’re almost guaranteed to see one.”

After numerous pre-dawn mornings scouring the side of the road at seven miles an hour, I called “quail shit” on my Arizonan hosts. I returned to Seattle with my mind full of beautiful species – Elegant Trogon, Grace’s Warbler, and Violet-capped Hummingbird, to name a few – but they were all overshadowed with what could have been. Again.

Six years later, I signed up to co-lead a trip to west Texas with Victor Emmanuel Nature Tours and BirdNote. The itinerary listed Montezuma Quail as a possibility, stating that the Davis Mountains was one of the best places to see this “furtive species.” My skepticism piqued; it only confirmed for me how far and wide the conspiracy had spread.

Over a dozen people signed up for the trip. Perhaps, collectively, the group had enough karma for the Birding Gods to shine favorably upon us and grace us with even fleeting glimpses of one of its most cherished disciples. Or, most likely, I would lead the group – who had paid good money for this experience – down into the brush-lined pit of despair that had defined my experiences in Arizona.

I compiled a mental list of possible life species on the trip and, as one day led to the next, I was tallying checkmarks with incredible views of southern specialties like Varied Bunting, Gray Vireo and Colima Warbler. I almost mentally suppressed the sixth and final “possibility” – the Montezuma Quail. I was reticent to set myself up for yet another failure.

Fort Davis, Davis Mountains, West Texas

The other co-leader, Bob Sundstrom, caught glimpse of a pair of quail early in the trip while on a bathroom break away from the group. After combing the brushy hillside like a CSI tech, I confirmed that the two birds likely shape-shifted into a sand-colored stone, or a stone-colored bush.

It would be several days until we visited the Davis Mountains – the magical land where these feathered unicorns roam free – on the last stop of the trip. Our best shot was our only shot. After dropping the trip participants off at the historic Hotel Limpia to attend to a surplus of wine, Bob and I set out to scout locations for the following morning. This wasn’t birding altruism: It doubled my chances to achieve gastro-avian relief.

In the big white van, we worked up and down the two roads at the Davis Mountain State Park, finding the reported nest cavity for the Elf Owl – North America’s smallest owl species – above the dry riverbed but (surprise surprise) striking out at Camp 62 where Montezuma Quail had been reported just 24 hours prior. It was across from the trailhead to “Montezuma Quail Trail,” further twisting the dagger of irony.

We drove west into the mountains towards the Davis Observatory. I stared at the passing oak woodlands and lion-hair grasslands interspersed with ranches and wondered how many years I would have to wait before I could finally lay eyes on this friggin’ bir—

A crappy photo of some gorgeous birds

“MONTEZUMA QUAIL!” Bob screamed from the passenger seat, pointing to a grassy roadside passing at 55MPH. We turned around and crept at a quail’s pace along the highway, my eyes frantically moving between the gravel shoulder and the rearview mirror: I didn’t want death to be delivered at the grill of a Mack truck. At least not before I saw this stupid bird.

Then they appeared.

I was speechless. Two young males quietly and confidently foraged for gravel, seemingly oblivious to our approaching steel behemoth. Even though the pair lacked the male’s saturated wine-red plumage set against speckled black and white, the intricacy of their plumage was mesmerizing.

We enjoyed them for a few minutes – about as long as we were comfortable parking on a highway – before we dutifully returned to the hotel to round up our convivial participants to show off our quarry. All for not: Twenty minutes later, the birds were gone.

I searched with renewed energy the following morning. Our first stop at the state park yielded nothing; a walk at the nearby McDonald Observatory afforded an impressive flock of migrating songbirds but, again, no quail. Down the road, a mile-long walk through Lawrence Wood picnic area gave us beautiful views at the long-sought Black-chinned Sparrow – our first from the trip. Stepping off trail on the walk back flushed a small flock of quail. As quickly as they exploded out of the grass – and shot up our heart rates – they disappeared into the rocks of a nearby hillside. Glimpses were afforded to a handful of trip participants; a few more heard the ominous call of the male, a sound like the ascending, metal-on-metal trill of a train inching to a stop.

Unfortunately, that was it. That was our last shot. We solemnly got back into the van, happy with the sparrow, but always thinking about what could have been. One of the biggest birders on the trip was going back home with only 7 of the eight targets she had for the trip. Ironically, she was from Arizona.

I knew the feeling well.

I drove the remaining stretch of rural highway out of the Davis Mountains towards El Paso. We recounted the best sightings of the trip while I scanned the side of the road. The jovial chatter in our van was a good sign—the satisfaction was palpable. Bob, sitting in the passenger seat, removed his glasses to clean them in his lap.

A softball-sized pair of rocks protruded from the horizon of the road as we crested a small hill. One moved.

Another crappy photo of a beautiful bird

“Montezuma Quail!” I yelled, slamming the brakes to a near four-wheel skid. We maneuvered the three-vehicle caravan around – stressing an already overworked drivetrain – and crept slowly onto the opposite side of the road. Nonchalantly, our quarry continued to forage as exaltations of relief passed through the van, noses pressed against the glass.

For fifteen minutes we sat, engines idling, stunned. The male’s striking black-and-white head juxtaposed against an intricate collage of reds and browns, like a small, portly man wearing a Mexican wrestling mask and a camouflaged cloak. The female, though more drab, was also impressive, like a sun-faded version of her male counterpart. The pair gradually retreated from the road. Interestingly, they didn’t run with their heads upright – like other quail species – opting to lower their heads to snake through nearly unseen tunnels in the grass. Stripes running along their back from head to tail obfuscated their exact location, reminiscent of the optical illusion that makes it difficult to spot a retreating garter snake.

We pulled away, turned around, and continued down the road towards El Paso sharing high-fives and photos. The Birding Gods shone down, providing a brilliant ray of light as the trip was fading to dark.

I had my revenge, and it never tasted so sweet.

Never satisfied, I was already pondering the next gaps in my life list. How about a Red-faced Warbler or Manx Shearwater?

Trading Juncos for Jacobins: Birdathon Goes South in 2015

White_necked_Jacobin_3898
White-necked Jacobin, photographed from the Asa Wright veranda.

“Oh, you’re trying to find as many species as possible today?”

I was a bit stupefied when these words came out of the mouth of our Trinidadian guide. It was early afternoon, a full eight hours into our Birdathon, and it appeared that the foundational strategy for the 24-hour challenge hadn’t yet sunk in.

Donate
Toby Ross, close friend, nature lover and Seattle Audubon employee, and I were just beginning our week-long vacation in Trinidad and Tobago at the renowned Asa Wright Lodge, perched on top a verdant mountain valley on the tropical island of Trinidad. Birdwatchers travel here from around the world to see colorful species from North America and the Caribbean mix with denizens from South America, located just ten miles off the countries southern coast.

Seattle_Audubon_Birdathon_Trinidad_2706
The beautiful verandah at Asa Wright Nature Centre, Trinidad.

As a habitat, the tropical rainforest is infamous for straining the necks of birdwatchers who seek fleeting glimpses of parrots, toucans and cotingas high in the dense canopy above. At Asa Wright, you can sit comfortably—coffee in hand—from the lodge’s well-situated veranda and effortlessly spot birds on treetops down valley, all while dozens of species of colorful hummingbirds and tanagers visit feeders almost directly in front of your face.

As Toby and I planned a full-day effort in an environment replete with unfamiliar species and sounds, we knew that local knowledge was necessary to find as many species as possible. But when birding is so easy, and in a region already renowned for a unhurried approach to life, it was hard to instill the urgency required for a “Big Day.” Our requests for private guides at the front desk were met with counteroffers to sign up for established tours. Questions to the on-staff naturalists about which habitats would offer the longest species list were met with shrugs and slightly bewildered expressions.

It was pretty clear that Birdathon this year was going to be different.

Truth be known, it wasn’t difficult to adopt an approach more agreeable to our Caribbean hosts. Compared to previous Birdathons, my normally long drives to prime birding areas were replaced with a short, sleepy shuffle to the famous verandah. And when I first raised my binoculars to my eyes, my usual “first birds” – Dark-eyed Junco, American Robin, House Finch – were replaced with Spectacled Thrush, Crested Oropendola and Orange-winged Parrot.

We were indeed a long way from home.

The excitement continued; another forty species – and a cup of coffee – followed those first three before we sat down to a quickly consumed breakfast. (In order of appearance).

Tufted_Coquette_3854
Tufted Coquette

Spectacled Thrush
Crested Oropendola
Orange-winged Parrot
Barred Antshrike
Silver-billed Tanager
Great Kiskadee
Palm Tanager
Cocoa Thrush
Wattled Bellbird
Banaquit
Green Honeycreeper
Violaceous Euphonia
White-banded Tanager
White-necked Jacobin
Gray-fronted Dove
White-chested Emerald
Tufted Coquette
Blue-throated Mango
Yellow Oriole
Golden-olive Woodpecker
Blue Dacnis
Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl
Bay-headed Tanager
Blue-chinned Sapphire
Scaled Pigeon
Long-billed Starthroat
Squirrel Cuckoo
Common Black Hawk
Black Vulture
Tropical Mockingbird
Coppery-rumped Hummingbird
Double-toothed Kite
Shiny Cowbird
Purple Honeycreeper
House Wren
Red-legged Honeycreeper
Rufous-breasted Hermit
Black-tailed Tityra
White Hawk
Piratic Flycatcher
Turkey Vulture

Seattle_Audubon_Birdathon_Trinidad_2718
Entrance to the oilbird cave

After stuffing fried eggs in our faces, it was time for our 8:30 tour to the famous protected caves which hold a breeding population of oilbirds. This species, which is in its own family, is the only nocturnal, fruit-eating bird in the world. Oilbirds have the face of an owl, the flutter-like flight of a swallow, but the wingspan of a harrier. They howl, growl and click to echolocate in the dark…and this is one of the best places in the world to see them. We were not going to see a lot of species on this field trip, but our target was obviously special.

Streaked Xenops
Oilbird
Golden-headed Manakin
Euler’s Flycatcher
White-chinned Thrush
Trinidad Motmot
Green Hermit
White-bearded Manakin

We were back at the lodge by 10:30 to meet Mahese (mah-HEESE), our private guide for the remainder of the day. We dutifully explained that we wanted to see as many species as possible. He expressed surprise when we confirmed this strategy several hours later. That being said, he was a wealth of local knowledge. I casually mentioned that it’d be fun to see a Pearl Kite, a small falcon a little larger than a robin. “Oh yeah?” he replied. Within minutes, we were on the side of the road with a scope trained on a thick tangle of branches a top a tree: the head of a Pearl Kite peered back from it’s nest.

We were at the entrance to the Arima Agricultural Station, a grassy area known for its birds and the hybrid water buffalo / brahma cows that are bred there. Highlights were a pair of a small flock of Green-rumped Parrotlets and a pair of roosting Tropical Screech-Owls.

Southern Rough-winged Swallow
Rock Dove
Pearl Kite
Tropical Kingbird
Carib Grackle
Ruddy Ground-Dove
Red-breasted Blackbird
Southern Lapwing
Grassland Yellow-Finch
Wattled Jacana
Savanna Hawk
Yellow-chinned Spinetail
White-headed Marsh-Tyrant
Pied Marsh-Tyrant
Gray-breasted Martin
Cattle Egret
White-winged Swallow
Green-rumped Parrotlet
Tropical Screech-Owl
Blue-gray Tanager

Seattle_Audubon_Birdathon_Trinidad_2722
Toby on the endless carpet of sargassum seaweed.

Back on the road again, we hit the east coast of the island around 1:00pm. We stopped for lunch at a beach smothered with sargassum seaweed. It was unprecedented on both Trinidad and Tobago and the talk of the whole island. Judging by the smell in the hot midday sun, I could see why Trinidadians were upset. Strategic stops in the mangrove forests nearby afforded us fleeting glimpses of two species of kingfisher; Mahese used a tape to bring in a stunning Black-crowned Antshrike.

Plumbeous Kite
Smooth-billed Ani
Pale-vented Pigeon
Yellow-headed Caracara
Magnificent Frigatebird
Black-crowned Antshrike
Blue-black Grassquit
Ringed Kingfisher
Green Kingfisher

Seattle_Audubon_Birdathon_Trinidad_2736
Sunset over Nariva Swamp

We drove slowly through the temporal wetlands at Nariva Swamp, which were now, unfortunately, dry. We waited at the far end of the swamp, near a stand of palm trees that usually host Red-bellied Macaws towards the end of the day. It was another decision that flies in the face of a normal “big day,” but this charismatic species was worth it. After about an hour of waiting (with rum punch in hand), a pair finally showed up and alit right on the exact palm tree that Mahese predicted.

Yellow-breasted Flycatcher
Rufous-browed Peppershrike
Striated Heron
Great Egret
Gray Kingbird
Yellow-bellied Elaenia
Limpkin
Crested Caracara
Green-throated Mango
Osprey
Yellow-hooded Blackbird
Purple Gallinule
Striped Cuckoo
Giant Cowbird
Long-winged Harrier
Short-tailed Swift
Fork-tailed Palm-Swift
Red-bellied Macaw

It was just an hour before nightfall and we were four species short of 100, our goal for the day. A large Linneated Woodpecker flew over the van as we held vigil for the macaws. As we drove out, Mahese pointed out White-tipped Dove and Yellow-crowned Parrot. Ninety-nine.

“I know where you can get one more,” Mahese confided wryly as we took a left out of the swamp. Within fifteen minutes we were on the side of the road in a small village, looking up at a tree: Yellow-rumped Cacique.

One hundred.

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Flight of the (California) Condors

When I was a child, the California Condor made me cry.

Young_Adam_Birding_with_scope_500px
Adam, as a child, birding with his father on the Washington Coast.

Not due to physical trauma, mind you. I wouldn’t have stood a chance against a bird that stood nearly as tall as my five-year-old self.

It reflected emotional pain. I loved birds and, when I learned the plight of the near-extinct species, I was heartbroken. The fact of losing a once-widespread icon of the western frontier was probably lost on me. It had a nine-foot wingspan – one of the largest of terrestrial birds worldwide – and I selfishly wanted to see one in the wild.

I was at a National Audubon Society conference with my mom who then worked at the Seattle chapter. The setting was magical: Asilomar on the California Coast near Monterey. A convivial flock of Acorn Woodpeckers on the premises is what attracted me to birdwatching: my “gateway bird,” so to speak.

Passionate bird conservationists gathered from around the country and, amongst the meetings and networking events, the California Condor took center stage. For the children, educators rolled out an impressive piece of cloth that was cut to represent the life-sized silhouette of the massive bird. Scientists gave presentations that outlined the plight of the species. At that time, in the mid-1980’s, there were only 22 birds left in the wild: the situation was dire. Habitat loss, the pesticide DDT, electrocution from power lines, pressures from cattle ranching and poisoning from lead shot proved too much for the dedicated scavenger.

I cried all night. According to my mother, I was inconsolable.

Word of my concern spread and, by the following morning, the world’s experts on California Condors had assembled at our breakfast table; PhD ornithologists had gathered to assuage the concerns of a five-year-old child. My mother recollects that I didn’t say a word, I just held my chin barely above the edge of the table. Undeterred by my melancholic state, the scientists reassured me that they were doing absolutely everything they could to save the emblematic species.

Unfortunately, I never did see a California Condor in the wild: the last one – a stubborn male called “AC9” – was dramatically caught by scientists in 1987 in a last ditch effort to rebuild the population through an ambitious captive breeding program. All of the California Condors in the world were contained in a facility at the San Diego Wild Animal Park and the Los Angeles Zoo (and later, facilities in Oregon and Idaho). Exposure to humans was strictly controlled: the locations were closed to the public and chicks were hand-reared with life-like condor sock puppets.

It worked. Fast forward thirty years and over 200 condors now form wild populations throughout central and southern California, northern Arizona, and Baja California (with another 200 birds in captivity, source). In 2003, chicks fledged in the wild for the first time in over two decades (over 40 birds have fledged in the wild through 2014, source).

When my wife and I discussed moving away from our native Seattle, we considered both San Francisco and New York City. As a birder, I mentally calculated that I could see more new species in the Northeast; San Francisco and Seattle are both on the west coast and, as a result, share many of the same birds. But California has condors; Washington and New York don’t.

California_Condor_Brochure_1984
A brochure about the condor conservation program (1984).

When we ended up moving to the Bay Area (a decision made totally independent of my birding life list) it started to look like I’d finally see a condor in the wild. And, for my 36th birthday, my wife suggested that we give it a shot; Highway 101 along the coastline of Big Sur National Park – a decent spot for spotting soaring condors – was only a 3.5 hour drive south.

The timing of our attempt, the Saturday after my birthday, was significant because it was also the birthday of my non-birding wife. She generously chose to spend the day searching for an obscure bird I’d revered since childhood.

Thankfully, the Big Sur coastline is some of the most beautiful landscape in the world. Mature redwood forests tucked into valleys flanked by curvaceous ridges of verdant pastures, all giving way to a undulating rocky coastline that creates endless points and bays in both directions. We stopped many times to scope the water: within minutes we saw the spout of a gray whale. Then another. And another. Soon, we watched a pod of hundreds of Common Dolphins gradually move north in the brilliant morning light.

Big_Sur_Coastline_2201

At every stop, we found more cetaceans, mostly Gray Whales (migrating north from their breeding waters in Baja), pods of Pacific White-sided Dolphins, and a single Humpback Whale. Kristi used the spotting scope to watch the water while I scanned the ridge lines for soaring raptors. Nothing but Red-tailed Hawks, Common Ravens, and Turkey Vultures so far.

Our most productive spot was a nondescript pullout nicknamed “Sea Lion Lookout.” A group of four feeding Gray Whales allowed for sustained scope views, much to the delight of the many people who stopped to see what we were looking at. This was a good spot for condors so, as everyone looked out, I looked up, waiting for the silhouette that never showed.

Scanning_for_Condors_2188
Adam, a single birder amidst a crowd of whale-watchers.

We had plenty of coastline left so we continued to the popular Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park. It was a madhouse. Parked cars were overflowing onto the busy highway, so we decided to skip seeing the famous waterfall that everyone was there to see. As Kristi used the facilities before we returned to our car, I looked up yet again. After seeing nothing but hawks, vultures, and ravens, their massive wingspan was unmistakable, even to the naked eye. I scurried to get my binoculars to my eyes: the patches of white feathers extending down the inside of their wing was diagnostic.

Soaring_Condor_0104
A soaring adult.

California Condors.

As people and cars nonchalantly passed, I set up my scope and enjoyed prolonged views of four condors soaring along the ridge: one adult, with a bright orange head set against a crisp black and white underwing, and three darker, drabber juveniles. Kristi came out long enough for a brief look and a kiss on the cheek—a tradition whenever I see a new species.

Despite the fact that these birds were likely hatched in captivity and released into the wild (you can look up their birth date if you get a good enough view of the color and number of the wing tags, which I didn’t) they were riding wild thermals like they did centuries ago. The birdwatching purist in me appreciated the fact that the status of condors was recently reinstated as “countable” by the American Birding Association, the grand arbiter of what species are established in North America. This validated today’s sighting amongst my birdwatching peers. But that didn’t matter to the five-year-old who saw the wingspan unfurled in front of him three decades ago: he was thrilled.

“Whoa, what’s that!” Kristi broke my daydream a little further down the highway.

Another eight condors were soaring above the ridge line, this time much closer to the road. We quickly pulled off and I watched them for fifteen minutes before they all disappeared. We were in the right place and precisely the right time. It was a fleeting moment, but it’ll stay with me forever.

I wish I could thank the scientists who made it possible to see twelve California Condors in a single day. Over breakfast, of course.

Soaring_Condors_2191

White-tailed Ptarmigan, Nemesis No More

Nemesis bird.

Some may think this refers to the antagonist in a Finnish smart phone game about “ill-tempered” avians. But it’s a term (painfully) familiar to most birders.

A nemesis bird is a title begrudgingly bestowed onto a species of bird after the nth attempt see it (the minimum value for n is influenced by the amount of travel involved, but “3” for cross-country trips and “10” for species found in one’s state are reasonable values). The bird becomes a glaring hole in that birder’s life list; a painful reminder of all the money and hours spent on numerous failed attempts, usually in driving rain or freezing winds. The name becomes a pejorative mumbled into half-empty pints after a day of birding.

Every birder has at least one or two. And I’ve had a few.

Sahale_Ptarmigans_2001
Slaty-backed Gull (Tacoma, WA – August 24, 2014)

Slaty-backed Gull was one. Every winter, at least one of these rare Siberian visitors is usually reported near my native Seattle. Over the years, I have spent hours sifting through flocks of hundreds of gulls looking for a slightly darker shade of gray, usually matching the brooding Pacific Northwest sky above. The “cold stare” of the Slaty-backed – created by the pale eye set deep in a darkly streaked crown – mimicked the cold winds I often endured searching for that stupid bird. Unfortunately, the locations were far from idyllic: the base of an airport in Renton or Commencement Bay in nearby Tacoma, an industrial area permeated by the pungent smell of a paper mill (hence the derogatory “Tacoma Aroma”).

But, thanks to a local birder, I finally saw that bird earlier this year after, likely, my fifteenth attempt. It was unceremoniously perched on the top of a warehouse. The views were excellent, and the fact that it was no longer a nemesis bird blinded me from the fact that I was firmly seated within the cement-fortified armpit of Puget Sound.

With one nemesis down, I felt like I was on the verge of a hot streak (said every gambler, ever). I confidently scanned for the next glaring hole in my life list: an alpine chicken called a White-tailed Ptarmigan.

I should’ve seen a ptarmigan by now. My wife and I both love to hike and we usually spend three or four weekends every summer on overnight backpacking trips throughout Washington State. Most of our trips are to higher elevations in the Cascade Mountains—prime ptarmigan territory. Whenever we found the appropriate habitat – the confluence of talus slopes, alpine meadows, and snow banks – my hiking partners would often find me scanning the fields of rocks with my binoculars, waiting for one of those rocks to move.

Sourdough_Mountain_Sedgley
Author scanning (fruitlessly) on the top of Sourdough Mountain for ptarmigan, North Cascades of Washington State (© 2014 Mark Churchill)

They never did.

I’d even made a couple “ptarmigan-specific” trips to the Sunrise-area on Mount Rainier. One day I hiked a total of 14 miles back and forth on trails where they’d been reported just days prior. It was an ill-informed strategy executed by a man driven by desperation. More patient observers find the right habitat then sit down and wait: the ptarmigan will emerge once you’re deemed worthy.

And, to add insult to injury, it’s a species that’s famous for being dog-tame, even walking through the legs of appreciative observers.

Earlier this summer, my wife and I joined another couple for a hike up to Tuck and Robin Lakes near Roslyn – about 45 minutes east of Seattle. It was a beast of a slog for our first “over-nighter” of the year: 16 miles round trip and 4,000 feet of elevation.

Our camp was in rocky alpine habitat that seemed good for ptarmigan. After an evening enjoying the Super Moon, I spent the morning scouring the area for any signs of bird life, finding only American Pipits and Clark’s Nutcrackers. No ptarmigan. As we ate breakfast before our descent, a member of our party brought me a feather she’d found nearby. Damned if it didn’t look like it had fallen from a ptarmigan.

Ptarmigan 15 – Pasty Birder 0

Hidden_Lake_Ptarmigan_2351The following weekend, the same couple wanted to go backpacking again. They had received backcountry permits to coveted Hidden Lake in the North Cascades. Looking down the barrel of another 4,000 foot climb, my wife and I opted to follow another couple on an easier route closer to Seattle. We had Silver Lake near Granite Falls all to ourselves.

Ding-ding

As we entered cell range on our drive back Sunday night, I received a text from the couple who we almost joined on their hike to Hidden Lake. It included a beautiful image of … yup, you guessed it: a ptarmigan. I wanted to throw my phone through the windshield.

But then I realized the brilliance of my friend’s ways—he had simply downloaded an image online and sent it to me. Smart. I was actually surprised he could spell it correctly and new which of the three species is the only one found in Washington.

Ding-ding.

A picture of him with a ptarmigan. No more than six feet away. Son of a bitch.

He isn’t a birder but realized (when a small flock walked through their friggin’ campsite) “hey, I think that’s the bird Sedgley’s always looking for.” Like any good friend, he knew that he could always hang this over my head.

Hidden_Lake_Ptarmigan_2352And it’s a card he wasn’t shy about playing. Like when I was down in San Francisco enjoying a pint of his favorite beer, Pliny the Elder (a rare India Pale Ale no longer imported into Washington State). He was jealous, but he knew resending the image of his ptarmigan would be worse.

The situation had escalated from yellow to red. I had to find this bird. And with a move to the Bay Area in our very near future, my window was rapidly closing.

I selected the hike up the Sahale Arm from Cascade Pass—fourteen miles round trip and 3,500 ft of elevation gain. It was a location well-known for ptarmigan, but nothing is guaranteed when you seek a winged creature that is well-camouflaged in both rock and snow.

On October 5th, we set off on what would be our last hike of the year. We left Seattle at 6AM and met our friends Mark (yup, that Mark) and Sheryl, who had camped there the night before, at the trailhead at 9AM. Everyone knew that we were there to find ptarmigan. Mark had already seen ptarmigan – a fact that he often repeated – but was excited to see black bear and eat huckleberries.

We made quick work of the gradual, switchback-littered climb up to Cascade Pass. We only stopped long enough to enjoy the breathtaking scenery—a cliche I don’t use lightly. Tall, granite mountains separated the thin, puffy clouds and a light dusting of snow from the orange and yellow dappled avalanche chutes at their feet.  Streams threaded through cracks in the fissured rock face. It was the closest any of us had seen of Middle Earth in our state.

Sahale_Ptarmigans_2250
Hearts Lake with Sahale Arm (top left) leading up to Sahale Glacier on Sahale Peak (top right).

A heavy mist disappeared as quickly as it arrived. A pair of Sooty Grouse made sure that we had at least one chicken-relative on the day’s checklist.

At Cascade Pass, fellow hikers told stories of the large male bear that had been foraging nearby all day yesterday. We scanned the valley. Nothing.

We took a left and headed up the steeper climb to a ridge that overlooked Hearts Lake. Behind stood the imposing Sahale Peak, which held the Sahale Glacier and, hopefully, our avian target. Within minutes, Mark spotted a dark object on a far meadow: his first Black Bear in Washington. Things were looking up.

And then, after we enjoyed a leisurely lunch, as we were on the ridgeline called Sahale Arm – the most exposed section of the trail – the weather turned. The breeze built to a wind and continued to grow, as did the moisture contained within. We hunkered behind a boulder to put on more layers and our rain gear. As we continued up to the ptarmigan habitat, it was clear that the weather wasn’t going to let up (my light hiking pants were already soaked through) and the patience of my crew was wearing thin.

“You got five minutes,” my wife worded strongly enough to be heard over the gusts. With the marital clock ticking, I picked up my pace in hopes to get higher and increase my chances. Scampering up the wet rocks required more concentration.

I couldn’t believe my luck. Why now? Why did the only rain of the day have to occur as soon as we entered good ptarmigan habitat? The ptarmigan gods must have deemed me unworthy, yet again. The hood of my rain jacket was nearly soaked through and sticking to the side of my head. And with the deafening sound of a driving rain against my ear, I recalled all the *other* failed attempts that had preceded today. This one stung though: it’d likely be years before I could try again.

“Sedgie! They are right here!”

I turned around and saw my wife – about fifty feet behind me – excitedly pointing to a patch of snow just off trail. She isn’t a birder, but no one could mistake anything up here for a ptarmigan.

I almost broke my ankle running back.

Sure enough, there they were: four exquisite White-tailed Ptarmigan in a patch of snow right next to the trail. Blinded by frustration and near-freezing precipitation, I had literally passed within six feet of the near-still birds, who were sporting about 80% of their pure-white winter plumage. Thanks to my wife’s keen eyes and an errant pebble kicked up by her boot, White-tailed Ptarmigan was no longer a nemesis.

Sahale_Ptarmigans_2552
Me, looking at my long-sought nemesis White-tailed Ptarmigan (© 2014 Mark Churchill)

With foggy binoculars, I watched as they picked juniper berries from the snows edge, unperturbed by the four onlookers. After a few minutes, the interest of my hiking mates waned – as did the rain – and I had a few blessedly dry minutes to study them more closely. They were even growing the feathered snowshoes they use in winter to increase the surface area of feet—snowshoes for their wintery habitat.

After twenty minutes, the fingers of my ever-patient wife were near numb. It was time to go.

I practically floated over the trail back down to our car. Sure, it was a check on a list. But, as always, it means much, much more.

Sahale_Ptarmigans_2272
Two White-tailed Ptarmigan. They are there: you may have to squint.

 

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.

SAS_Sedgley_Birdathon_Montlake_Fill_1336
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.

SAS_Sedgley_Birdathon_Nest_Stampede_Pass_1337
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.

SAS_Sedgley_Birdathon_GHOW_1339
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:
Brant
Canada Goose
Wood Duck
Gadwall
Mallard
Cinnamon Teal
Northern Shoveler
Canvasback
Redhead
Ring-necked Duck
Greater Scaup
Lesser Scaup
Bufflehead
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
Osprey
Bald Eagle
Northern Harrier
Swainson’s Hawk
Red-tailed Hawk
Virginia Rail
American Coot
Black-necked Stilt
American Avocet
Killdeer
Spotted Sandpiper
Long-billed Curlew
Ruddy Turnstone
Dunlin
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
Bushtit
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