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A Sagebrush Bird-a-thon

by Bryony Angell

 

The smell of sagebrush filled the car from the plant’s oil that brushed our clothes before we departed the Quilomene wildlife area. The heat of our closed parked car intensified the aroma, and the smell stayed with us long after we left the treeless landscape.

Behind us at Quilomene were four sagebrush bird species we’d counted on our day of birding for Seattle Audubon’s annual Birdathon fundraiser: the Sagebrush sparrow, the Brewer’s sparrow, and the two ties for favorite birds of the day, a Mountain Bluebird and a Horned Lark. “The highlight for me was seeing the mountain bluebird,” says my friend along for the day, Cambria Cox. “While it may not be the rarest of the birds we encountered, its color is extraordinary — especially against the desert sage.”

The idea for a Birdathon (similar in concept to a walk-or-read-a-thon) is exploiting a birder’s obsession for detail, love for travel, and drive to one-up our fellow birdathonners for most species seen or heard on our chosen day in May.

Or not. I’m a social birder (more of a Flamingo than Frigate bird for bird nerds reading this). A day out birding for me always includes friends whether they are birders or new to birding (they will be converts by the end of the day, if I have my way). And because of my more leisurely pace and intent for everyone to have a good time, my counting is more relaxed. Birdathon results in a dedicated date on the calendar for all-day birding with pals, and raising money for an organization I hold dear. This year I took two friends, the aforementioned Cambria, and another pal, Katie Klahn.

And this visit to the sagebrush area along the Old Vantage highway is becoming an annual Birdathon pilgrimage. Stunningly stark and open, and on this day hot and still with perfect air for catching birdsong, the Quilomene wildlife area hosts birds specialized for just this habitat. Rod Brown and Cathie Conolly, fellow SAS members (and in Rod’s case, Board President) in our group and long familiar with this part of Eastern Washington, shared their expertise with us in identifying the birds, especially the sparrows. Rod and Cathie joined us at Cle Elum Railroad Ponds, where we’d driven that morning from North Seattle.

While they also live in Seattle, Rod explains that they bird in Eastern Washington almost every time they go to their cabin in the Teanaway Valley. They have come up year-round a couple of times a month for almost 20 years. They also take Audubon classes on shrub-steppe birding, and read a lot about the area. Their company was invaluable to me, a moderate birder at best, and my friends, both beginners.

Thankfully, like me, Rod and Cathie love mentoring. “That’s how you learn!” says Rod. “My favorite part (of the day) was introducing your two friends to the birds and landscape of Eastern Washington,” he said later by email. Perfect, favorite part of my day too!

Cambria and Katie both speak like birders now. “I compare the skill to learning a new musical instrument or language,” says Cambria. “It requires your brain to think differently. Not only are you looking for movement, but also pattern and shapes. One needs to listen for aural cues, perhaps even recreating them vocally. It requires being able to describe location and setting (half way up the alder tree at 2:00!), knowing your trees and plant-life, and being in tune to seasons and migratory patterns.  It’s always nice to be in the outdoors, but I found this to be more of a workout for the mind than the body.”

Katie describes birding like detective work: “First, trying to find the tropical jewels amongst the foliage, and then piecing together clues to identify them. It's a chance to ponder the miraculous migration these spring and summer residents accomplish every year.”

In the end, our trio saw 50 bird species and heard two additional. Rod and Cathie combined their list with ours of birds seen separately at Cle Elum Ridge, Vantage, and the Teanaway River Bridge, bringing the combined total to 69 species.

Not bad for a day starting at 7 a.m. and ending at 2:30 in the afternoon. We stopped for milkshakes in Ellensburg in the height of the afternoon’s heat before hitting the interstate back over the mountains. A very satisfying way to end the day.

You can still contribute to Seattle Audubon’s spring Birdathon, through June 9th!

 

Bryony Angell is a member of Seattle Audubon's board of directors and a long-time citizen science volunteer.

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