An Interview with Birder and Seattle Audubon Board Member, Jen McKeirnan
One night last June, the air thick with heat and the only light source her car’s headlights, Jen McKeirnan edged along a canyon road outside of Ellensberg, looking for the tell-tale diamond shaped shine of the Common Poorwill’s eyes. The cryptic bird breeds in this remote area, and is most active and easily seen at night. McKeirnan’s sister and her family accompanied her that evening, muttering their unease to be in the middle of nowhere. “Once talk started about serial killers, I knew I had to abandon my effort,” McKeirnan chuckles.
In the tradition of a birder’s Big Year, which can have a birder running all over the country to count birds, McKeirnan instead focused her project on Washington state birdlife. She also sought to capture each bird she saw in photographs--along with the habitat those birds occupy--and share her project at her website, wabirdyear.com. Her project caught the attention of National Audubon, which featured McKeirnan on its magazine’s website.
McKeirnan, a long time Seattle Audubon member, Master Birder, and current board member, sat down with us to share more details of her memorable year.
How much planning went into where to go, when to go, and what resources did you use to find specific species at certain times of the year?
Jen McKeirnan: I used Tweeters (email listserv), eBird and a Birder’s Guide to Washington book. I strategized by season, focusing on birds that would most likely be here during a particular season and narrowed my trips by that. Overall, if I could do it again, I would strategize a bit differently by including species that are particularly hard to find by keying in on their mating season when they are most vocal.
How many of your goal birds did you successfully photograph? Was it more important to you to be able to count the bird or to photograph it and its environment?
JM: I created very specific requirements for myself: to see how many species I could photograph and have easily identifiable from the photos I took.
Taking pictures of birds is not always easy. Some are only seen at dusk, so the lighting is low; some fly past you so quickly and are gone and some are too far away. It was important for me to take a picture of it to count it for my project.
But of the 10 birds that I saw (where) I couldn’t get the picture, I still enjoyed seeing them very much. Of the 346 bird species listed for Washington, I saw 284 species in total, with three of those species not on my original list: a Snowy Egret, a Blue-gray Gnatcatcher, and a Scissor-tailed Flycatcher, none of which are usually found this far north.
Did your interest in photography evolve separately from your interest in birds, or because of birds? And did taking on photography influence your interest in doing a big year?
JM: Separately. I always enjoyed taking pictures as long as I’ve known, but never made the time to get serious with my photography until now. Pictures have a way of helping me remember what I really saw. I can take a picture of a bird and go home and study it in the picture. Photography helps me become a better birder.
What was the WA state ecosystem which surprised you the most, and why?
JM: The shrub-steppe area east of Ellensburg. Land that is very dry in the summer, sage grass as far as the eye can see and it's brimming with birds such as the Sagebrush Sparrow, Vesper Sparrow, Brewer’s Sparrow, Loggerhead Shrike, Mountain Bluebird and the Sage Thrasher, just to name a few.
Another ecosystem that just amazed me was the open sea. I did two pelagic trips out of Westport. We went out about 40 miles from shore and would see so many birds out there. It’s amazing to realize that there are so many birds that spend most of their life on the open ocean.
Describe a typical day in the field, or week in the field: what did you take, where did you stay, how long did you stay in one area, and how would you describe a satisfying day? A bust of a day?
JM: I did about 50 percent of the birding with a friend or family member. The other 50 percent was on my own. I always had my binoculars, and camera at minimum. I brought my scope with me about 70 percent of the time.
My longest away trips were four days, including the travel to the location. In the field, I tried to stay as long as possible in a location, sometimes standing for over an hour waiting for a bird to fly out. I often found that I didn’t have as long as I would like before I needed to reach a destination or cover more ground to look for other species.
Many of the birds I found were found along the roadside. A lot of the roads are gravel, especially in the highlands, and if you drive along slowly with the window down, you can hear bird song from the car window, and then stop to look. I was in the Blue Mountains with family when we caught the song of a Yellow-breasted Chat. We pulled off and had a picnic on lawn chairs we’d brought, while looking for the bird (which we found). I used the advantage of birding from the road in rural areas, and felt a lot safer along roads if I was alone.
I did have several busts of days when I was looking for a particular bird. I still enjoyed every bust because I was outside and seeing birds and other wildlife. I now have a wildlife collection of pictures beyond birds, animals that I encountered such as coyotes, Snowshoe hare, Rubber boas and American mink.
What was the most difficult or complicated trip you made in order to see a bird?
JM: The pelagic trips were hands down the most challenging trips for me because I get motion sickness very easily. When I went in May, I did ok, not great, but managed through it and saw some amazing birds. But the September trip had large swells and I got very sick on that trip. I saw the Arctic Tern and Leach’s Storm-Petrel, but I couldn’t get pictures of those birds because I was too sick to look through the camera lens.
How much time were you in the field alone? What did you do to stay safe (weather conditions, possible theft, treacherous landscape)?
JM: Half of the time I was on my own. I rarely left the main road and I did not go out hiking in remote locations on my own. There were a few times that I wandered off the main road due to a Tweeters report, so I would call and let a friend or family member know where I was. For the most part, if I was with someone birding, those would be opportunities to go to more remote locations to look for birds. Whenever I parked my car, I never left anything of value in my car and covered up everything so it looked boring inside. I always took my camera bag with me, everywhere.
What advice do you have for someone wanting to organize a Big Year?
JM: Everyone has their own variables in life, so it’s important to take those into account when planning a year.
- Choose a boundary for your count, whether it’s a city, county or state.
- Decide if you will just count, or if you want to add visuals to it, like photography.
- Decide if you will share it, such as on a blog, which will add a lot of work to the project. I delayed some of my seasonal birding because I was setting up my website, but I have this visual record to show at the end.
- Once you establish your criteria, put a plan together for the whole year, especially if you’re trying to capture a lot of birds, you have to go out when they are present. Migrants are only in certain places at certain times of the year.
- Plan on visiting a place more than once, especially if you hope to see multiple species that are found only in that area. I planned on getting up to elevation several times, but only made it above six thousand feet once. High elevation is only accessible a few months of the year, so make the time to get up there a couple of times during that window between June and August.
- To find birds that are harder to see, key in on their mating season when they are most vocal.
Visit McKeirnan’s website to learn more about her planning, species seen, and the ground she covered.
Inspired? To learn how to plan your own Big Year, visit the American Birding Association’s website to learn rules and criteria for participating.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.