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Our Birds: ‘Twas the year that was!
This is a true story, not a tall tale.
It’s a story of a venture into the world of Bird Records of the Mythical Kind. And this record is special because it’s ours – Clallam’s.
Washington has 39 counties. And in those counties live birders who know the number of species seen in their county. These tallies vary by a counties’ placement within the state. Pend Oreille, up in the far northeast corner, carries a listing of 275 species. Asotin, way down in the southeast corner, logs 294. Tiny Wahkiakum down in the southwest corner ticks in with 253 birds. And Island County up in the Salish Sea carries 305 on its list. The county with the lowest number of listed birds is Garfield at 243.
Clallam has the third highest listing in the state at 371.
But look what we have: the Olympics to the south, the Strait of Juan de Fuca to the north, open ocean to the west and internally a mess of habitats from old-growth forests, deciduous woods, grassland prairies, salt marsh, agriculture and rivers everywhere.
But the Jan. 1 question always is, "How many of these total species can be found in the county this year?"
And that’s where this story begins — and, eventually, ends.
Of myth and mystery
2013 was mythical. But to grasp this mythicalness, I need to share once more who birds are when we tally them. Birds come in flavors known as "codes." A "code 1" bird is a common bird found everywhere, like juncos. A "code 2" is uncommon but can be found with a little effort; i.e. a Cooper’s hawk. But then it gets harder. A "code 3" has to be searched for and it’s not always found, such as a yellow-billed loon. "Code 4" birds are rare and not seen every year, like the stilt sandpiper. Then come the fairytales: Birds with five or fewer sightings, ever, such as the prairie falcon.
And these are the county’s data broken down by codes: common [x119 species], uncommon [x74], "code 3s" [x50], rare [x40] and the magical [x88].
To conceivably reach a record high tally, all common, uncommon and code 3s, most of the rare, and an abundance of code 5s must be found. Drawing two cards to an inside straight-flush would be a better bet!
2012’s total was 287 species — the highest tally ever recorded for a county in the state. But in late December 2012, the question was posited: What could the total reach IF a major birding effort was made by the many – both purposefully and unwittingly? In real time, was 300 truly possible?
The answer, based on an assessment of Clallam’s Life List, was no! Why? Because almost 25 percent of the counties species are code 5s - those birds rarely ever found.
But the gauntlet had been thrown. By midnight on Jan. 1, 2013, a total of 134 species had been tallied. And this is the story of how the county reached a mythical record by finding the rare ones, along with all the others.
Starting at the start
It started with Gale, the black-crowned night heron who lives in Coffee and Pat’s backyard.
Then 09/U, the burrowing owl down on Gibson Spit was found.
At Ediz Hook, the thick-billed murre was tallied.
In late January, a long-eared owl was seen and a day later several Kumlien’s Iceland gulls turned up in La Push.
The wild turkeys that inhabit a wooded strip along the Dungeness River gobbled enough to be recognized.
Out on the open ocean, Manx’s shearwaters and parakeet auklets had their checkboxes checked.
And then the first BINGO happened. In late March, a black phoebe made its first ever appearance in the county on the Elwha. By now early spring was happening with migrants showing up.
A Say’s phoebe at Jamestown was followed by a pair of black-necked stilts over at Washington Harbor.
The smallest hummer occurring in the Pacific Northwest came zipping across the beach at 3 Crabs: calliope hummingbird.
An exquisite snowy plover was sitting alone on Hobuck Beach out at Neah Bay.
Then a lone bank swallow came flitting over Farm Lake pond.
This was followed by a slurry of marvels: Eastern kingbird, Swainson’s hawk, American three-toed woodpecker, sage thrasher and bar-tailed godwit.
Then a northern mockingbird showed up out in Neah Bay; and in another corner out there a clay-colored sparrow silhouetted itself for a photo.
Ohhhh my, by mid-June we’d reached 270 species — a tally well ahead of what’d been ticked the previous year at that time.
And then the summer slump happened … and stayed. Nothing new. Fretting. Counting possibilities and realizing that 300 was still out of reach.
Then the early fall migrants showed their feathers and more "code 5s" were filling the basket. In late August, a female rose-breasted grosbeak perched in that silver poplar in Dungeness. Elegant terns were moving up the outer coast; a hopeful that was being watched.
And then the second BINGO charmed us! A Hudsonian godwit at 3 Crabs. Another gift never before seen in Clallam. And The Dance was danced!
When two elegant terns made it past the corner and flew around Neah Bay, we smiled.
A red-shouldered hawk spent two months in the Wa’atch Valley.
An upland sandpiper wasn’t seen, but it was heard and recorded at Hobuck Beach as it flew overhead in the fog.
Then came a spat of birds so good, it was like Santa Claus spreading gifts: Buff-breasted sandpiper, ruff, Lewis’s woodpecker, bobolink and gray catbird.
These last put the county total past the 2012 record with two months to go.
And then out of the hopper “G-23” was called one more time.
BINGO! Painted bunting. The third new county bird for the year.
Birder’s bliss continued with American avocet, lark sparrow, and a rock wren fittingly found at the gravel quarry in Neah Bay.
Neah Bay was proving its worth as a vagrant trap one more time. Vagrant trap? Where rare birds seem to pop up like wandering waifs. A scrub jay was heard out in Forks; then photographed in Dungeness. No. 291.
A stilt sandpiper made a one-day appearance in Dungeness.
And the annual arrival of tropical kingbirds happened across from Helen’s pond.
A Harris’ sparrow was casually eating sunflower seeds at a feeder on 3 Crabs when it was seen, recognized and tallied. No. 294.
When a sighting from back in June was vetted, a great egret made the list.
Then came grainy photos of a possible rusty blackbird that was made real in a textbook photograph a few days later.
The proverbial well was categorically drying up, but there was one fall arrival that was possible and it was found in late November: American tree sparrow.
Reaching a milestone
Now the well was arrogantly dry. 300? With no where to turn to actively look, other survey records were searched. And there at Second Beach in La Push on a COASST survey (they look for dead birds along beaches) was a record of a mottled petrel found back in October. Dead birds count.
Then the county’s list was dissected one more time. A gap was found. A "code 2" that should’ve been ticked months ago wasn’t. But it was cold. Temps were in the teens. Winds were bad-nasty. And the only place to find this bird was on the outer coast. Three days and hours were spent freezing on the platform at Cape Flattery searching. Then, Score! Short-tailed shearwater. No. 299.
But was the year going to end this way? With two weeks to go and one bird short? Consensus was yes, it probably would. But … on the Sequim-Dungeness Christmas Bird Count an emperor goose was found — in the wrong county. Jefferson!
The next day a search made to relocate the goose proved futile until late in the afternoon when a white-headed goose was found lazing with Canada geese in a field west of Knapp Road. And Knapp Road equals Clallam County.
Too bad this is newsprint, because right here trumpets, fireworks and screams of jubilation should fall off this page into your world! You should see 300! In 200 point Times New Roman font!
A wholly and absolutely mythical moment in birding had happened for one wayward county.
But there was frosting for this cake. One last bird that was seen far off shore in early fall was found tucked in a fisherman’s logbook. South polar skua. No. 301.
Many people contributed to this record from the first junco to this last pelagic. Every bird from the common to the improbable has been mythical. It was a good year — a very good year.
And now, I simply say good birding to each and every one of you from the feeder-watchers to the fanatics. Thank you! Now, go make 2014 even better.
Reach Denny AFMJ Van Horn at email@example.com.