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Our Birds: What’s a ‘Big Day’?
11:59 p.m. Standing there, waiting. Tika had the watch. “Now!” Midnight. We stood there listening.
Where was there? On the bluff overlooking Cape Alava’s beach at Ozette. There was no moon. The sky was clear. A breeze came in off the ocean. But it was black enough that I couldn’t see Hank standing 20 feet away.
“There!” Pointing. I knew he was pointing. He always pointed. 12:01 a.m. Short-billed dowitchers talking skyward, flying north. Bird one was tallied.
That was unexpected. The barred owl we’d expected called from back in the woods. Another answered.
“Time to move!”
With Tika as clock-watcher and a schedule to keep, we started walking.
The deep woods on the Cape Alava trail is dark in daylight. At midnight it was darker than dark.
Headlamps played little, narrow beams ahead of us as we walked and listened. Not going to see anything now. It was all by ear. Varied thrush back over there. Swainson’s thrush ahead over there. Walk. Listen and walk.
It was four miles back to Ozette. Why’d we start a Big Day out there? With a four-mile walk in the dark of night? A silly question. It’s just what birders do.
A saw-whet owl called way off to our right. Walk. Listen. Halfway.
“What was that? Did you hear that?”
Hank pointing that way! Single note. A chip note.
Tika said, “Hermit?”
There. Again. Hermit thrush.
A long walk. A slow walk. A good walk. Good birds.
We piled backpacks into the inside of the Westy. 2:46 a.m. From the paper bag, I handed a PB&J to Hank. Unwrapped one for myself. Pulled the cork from the thermos. Ahhhhh, the smell: Rainshadow Sumatra. Hot. I handed a PB&J to Tika. She laughed.
Over to the CG along the lake. Another barred owl. The loon called from far out on the lake. A junco was talking from the brambles. Song sparo. A strange chip note.
“NASHVILLE!” That was Tika.
“You sure?” Hank asked.
I answered, “Yeah. Over there,” and then it sang its song. A really good bird.
Why were birds talking at night? It was warm, the sky was clear and spring hormones were raging. So, birds were talking. Cups refilled from a second thermos. Another PB&J.
Nighthawk high overhead: “Preeent” and then that rush of wind through its wings. An early arrival.
Windows down. A slow 20 mph along the Hoko River Road to Highway 112. Listening. Spotted towhee. 3:18 a.m. At the bridge. Dipper chirping down river. Mergansers along the shore clucking.
Into the driveway at the Old Ranch. Out. Listening. Great horned owl. A fledgling begging. No adult. Another nighthawk. Elk snorting from pasture to the east. 3:54 a.m.
Up to Highway 112 and across to Eagle Point Road. Stop at top of crest. Pygmy owl. Yes! I’d heard one there the week before. 4:23 a.m.
Back out and east to Sekiu and the harbor. Sky beginning to show light in the east. Robin. First one for the day; but not the last.
Tika pulled out another PB&J from the bag. I asked her to hand me up the thermos.
Down off Highway 112 onto the main drag into Sekiu. Pulled into Olson’s. Got out. Two days ago there were Barrow’s goldeneye in the harbor. The lights from shore shone on the water.
There. Two males glisten in the light. And harlequins. A cormorant taking off from pilings.
Back out to Highway 112 and on east to Clallam Bay’s far end. 5:05 a.m.
Tide was going out. Oystercatchers, two of ’em. Ruddy turnstone on the other side of the rocks. I stood glassing the bay’s edge. Scoters. Surf and a pair of white-winged.
Tika plopped down her scope. It was light enough. “Marbled murrelet, ancients, rhinos,” she called. We peered through our scopes. The rules: All three had to see and/or hear each tally! No exceptions.
Back on Highway 112 heading west. Hank’s headlamp came on as he looked at the map, “We gonna stop at Sekiu estuary?” The route had been laid out a week ago. Scouted over and over. There was no room for deviations. Each place held a bird, or birds, that had to be tallied. Why? A Big Day was about The Tally.
How many birds could be found in 24 hours? Clallam is a big county and we’d picked just one tiny corner, the northwest corner. “Yes,” I said. 6:11 a.m.
Out and down the beach. A bald eagle flew out of the tree above us. Not the last one. Crows were scampering across the rocks on black wings. Orange-crowned warbler trilling. Why this tiny corner?
Because it’s a treasure trove of migrants, vagrants and regulars. Big Days had been done in the county before; but not like this. Not plotted, scoured, with each bird rung from place to place with such scrutiny. The county holds 376 species in its coffers. More than a hundred of them are code 5s: rare beyond rare. Another 40 hold code 4 status: blessed if found. Leaving about 240 usual suspects that can be found if really hunted down throughout the year. But in one day?
Tika yelled and pointed, “JAEGER!” Yep. It was. Pomarine. Came in close to shore flushing gulls. The coffee was still hot.
Shipwreck Point. Yesterday there was a …
“Wandering tattler!” Hank, this time. Scope pointed down the beach.
“Got it!” Tika said.
How many birds — if pushed — could be found in the county in a day? There were no hard-core records to guide us. The few Big Day birders we knew of tallied 120 or so. But we knew of no one who’d pushed the envelope.
Rock sandpiper. Surfbird. 6:55 a.m.
Bullman Beach gave us Caspian tern and a totally unexpected brown pelican.
Time pushed at us. What could we expect in mid-May? How many species? Was 200 possible? 190? The odds were against us because we didn’t know what we really could find, but we had a notion. We continued west. 7:18 a.m.
“Is Wa’ada Point next?” Hank asked.
Tika was bent over her notebook, she looked up smiling, then frowned.
“87 so far! But we’ve missed some we should’ve had.”
Yeah, I thought: No MacGillivray’s, no pileated, no Western blues!
Wa’ada Point came up with dust under wheels. Scopes out. PB&J tossed onto seat. Three loons, four grebes, three scoters, puddle ducks, four alcids, five gulls, no peeps. 8:21 a.m.
Coast Guard Station. I’d tossed this idea of a Big Day out months ago for this wee northwest corner of the state. I knew two other groups doing a Big Day across the entire state right now. I knew they’d come up with 160 or better. But I thought we might have a chance for …
“Ohhhh whoa! Lookee there!!” Hank yelled, pointing …
Next month’s column (Aug. 21) – Part 2
Reach Denny AFMJ Van Horn at firstname.lastname@example.org.