Our Birds: What’s a ‘Big Day?’ Part II

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Editor's Note: Read part one here.


We left off last month with birders at Neah Bay, half-way through a “Big Day,” with Hank yelling …


“Out there by the ski jump,” pointing toward the end of the bay, “that loon! That yellow-bill!”


At the creek were Western, least and a single semipalmated sandpiper. A pectoral sandy stood alone.

Whimbrel numbered a dozen. Village Creek was gull heaven on a good day; today was gull heaven.

Western, glaucous winged, California, glaucous, Boney, Thayer’s, ring-billed, Mew and a Franklin’s.


Tika stood shaking her head in wonder. Doing a Big Day encompasses not only knowing where to go, where to look and what to look for, but also a bit of luck.


Franklin’s gull was luck. 9:45 a.m. The Boom road. Park. Walk. Listen. Point. Tick. Warblers. Flycatchers. Vireos.


“DUSKY?” whispered Tika, “that whit note.” Hank nodded.


Off Wa’ada jetty we found nothing. That’s the problem with planning. You scout, you know, and then you go looking and tally nothing. Nothing new, that is. That’s the point of a “Big Day.” Every minute is mustered toward finding something new.


I stood looking out over the strait; high above I heard sandhill cranes. I smiled. Tika and Hank were smiling, too. The cranes were the something new.


Worth the wait

The Mini Mart in Neah Bay is famous. Not for being a store, but for the birds that have been found in the woods south of the store.


We stopped and walked. Wilson’s warbler, Bullock’s oriole, black-headed grosbeak. 10:55 a.m. Backtrack road is dirt and gravel and has dump trucks, pickups and other wheeled creatures that don’t go slow. Birders go slow.


Backtrack also is a depot of old-growth swampy vegetation yielding pileated woodpecker, wood duck, hooded merganser. At its westerly end is a swampy mecca that sometimes gives up a green heron.

We waited long for it. Pushed our time-budget. My idea. But it just wouldn’t show.


“Another few minutes,” I pleaded.


Tika was jawed. “Time is birds,” she said.


Then the little wonder came flying low over the marsh, set its wings and stood — down 20 feet out in front of us. We were even later leaving.


Wa’atch and learn

The Wa’atch River is a short river by costal standards. But it wanders through some of the most beautiful mixed grass-sedge-rush habitat on the peninsula. Northern harrier, Savannah sparrow, common yellowthroat. All expected. All common. Vesper sparrow, northern mockingbird, western bluebird, All uncommon. All possible. But were favors found.


What wasn’t expected was the Brewer’s sparrow. Sitting on a bare alder branch just off the road. We stared. Ticked it. Then drove over the Makah Passage bridge, stopping again. Scoping down river yielded common merganser, greater yellowlegs, white-fronted goose, solitary sandpiper and “Time!” the Master said.


We drove on.


Leaning over my shoulder, Tika showed me her notebook, pointing to a number: 143! Wow. And we hadn’t hit the bird-gift areas yet.


To the cape
Cape Flattery is a geologic nubbin sticking out from the northwest corner of the peninsula. For birders, it’s a piece of rock with a cedar platform on it. It was coming on 12:20 p.m. We had 30 minutes; no more.

Tatoosh Island sits a long way offshore. But with care and industry birds can be ID’d way out there. Common murres numbered in the thousands. Rhinos were everywhere. Tufted puffins were below the platform. Brandt’s and pelagic cormies dipped to and from rock stacks. Pigeon guillemot, marbled murrelet, Cassin’s auklet, oystercatchers.


I felt Tika nudge me, then point, “There! Off the bow of that two-rig trawler, a Manx!”


I turned, binocs to eyes. No way, I thought. Not in this close. Not possible. Hank wasn’t as calm in his yelling, “MANX!” I could see it, but …


Tika grabbed my shirt, jerked me over as she stepped away from her scope. I unzoomed, caught up with the bird, then edged the power up a bit. And there along with it were several Sootys for comparison. Manx shearwater off Cape Flattery! No one would believe this. But three sets of eyes knew what they were seeing. That’s another facet of this “Big Day” stuff – I’ve already noted this: everyone sees or hears all the birds for them to count. Period.


But the key in the seeing and hearing is the knowing. You had to know, you couldn’t be guessing or floundering in ID mania at times like this. How do you know? The answer is both simple and difficult. You know from your own learning curves, from your years of experience with birds. Difficult because it isn’t always easy.


What had we not ticked because one of us missed the bird so far: horned lark, Cassin’s finch, bank swallow. We all know these birds; but we weren’t “on them” fast enough.


Take a walk

You can’t drive down to Archawat Creek beach. You walk the long way down, knowing that it’s also a long way back up — a round-trip of an hour or more, with only 10 minutes birding time. Why go down there? Why go where few other birders know, or deem, to go? Because of a bird.


In this case because of one that shouldn’t be here this time of year: Rock sandpiper. Hank had seen three on rocks offshore two days ago. We took the chance. And dipped (that’s birder’s parlance for not seen).


An hour lost? No. That’s another piece of this game; you take chances sometimes for just that one bird that might make the difference in … in what? The rewards: a day with a personal high count; a day’s higher count than last year or just maybe the highest count yet – a record!


Moving on

And so the day continued: North Hobuck Beach, Tsoo-Yess Valley, Hobuck Lake, Makah Beach, Shi Shi’s Fringe, the Hollow, the Fish Hatchery and lastly, post-dark listening for owls along Backtrack, Makah Passage and Hobuck campground.


As I sat stirring the way-past-midnight dying coals in the fire, listening to Tika babble and mumble to herself as she ran through all the tick marks in her notebook. Checking and rechecking. Sometimes swearing. Sometimes laughing, I handed Hank another Black Butte Porter. He took it, clinked bottles.

Then she stood, looked at both of us looking up at her and with glee in her eyes and a smile so wide she was gonna crack, she said, “Well … this is what we did and this is what we didn’t!”


Lifting her cup of Earl Grey in toast and with a devilish smile in her voice, she continued, “You’re really not gonna believe what we just did in the last 24 hours. Really. You’re not. We … ”


Reach Denny AFMJ Van Horn at



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