Birding Big Year 2016

January 7, 2016

Binge Birding (Part 1) – The Trapper Creek Christmas Bird Count

Filed under: Birding — wfkeck @ 10:57 pm

Common Redpoll – Bird of Redemption

Fourth watch of the night, December 28, I have awakened without alarm, and begin final preparations for what can only be described as a full day of binge birding.  The Oxford Dictionary defines a binge as a short period devoted to indulging in an activity to excess, especially drinking alcohol or eating.  But there will be very little food involved, and absolutely no alcohol.  A birder must preserve all faculties to survive the binge.

I am headed out for the Trapper Creek Christmas Bird Count, a scientific endeavor to document all birds within a 7.5-mile radius, centered over the hinterlands south of Oakley.  A Christmas Bird Count, or CBC for short, is a census conducted annually to determine the presence and trending population of birds across North America.  The first non-consumptive count was established on Christmas Day 1900 to phase out the competition of shooting the most birds on Christmas.  Yes, those were dark days in the birding world, and we’re not proud of it.

The Trapper Creek count requires teams of birders to travel assigned routes and count everything that flies, roosts, chirps, squawks or caws.  It’s too early for singing.  Birders assemble at Searle’s Gas Grub & Goodies at 7:00 a.m. – but I have been here since six.  Binge Birders can’t wait to indulge.  By 7:30 a.m., it is obvious that two birders are a no-show.  Perhaps it is the 16-degree weather.  Now four of us will have to cover the 140 miles of roads within the 113,094 acres that is the Trapper Creek Survey.

Kathy’s in charge, and hands out the assignments.  Rich and Sharon who have traveled from Jerome, head off toward the west side of the Goose Creek Reservoir along the Trapper Creek Road.  I leave the jeep and take on the role as co-pilot and compiler in Kathy’s truck. Long before birds can cast their shadows we are rolling down the Goose Creek Road, squinting for that first bird.  I call out “Raven!” Kathy stops the truck, takes a quick look and counters, “uh, I don’t think so.”  Only five minutes into the 10-hour binge and I have made a rookie mistake.  Sheepishly I mark down Red-tailed Hawk and look for the next bird – something to redeem my reputation.

Twenty minutes later, redemption comes along the steep canyon descent.  LGB’s are flitting on the snowbank, so we slide to a halt and jump out for a better assessment.  Junco. Junco. Junco.  Wait!  There it is, my bird of forgiveness – a Common Redpoll.  Don’t let the name fool you.  These Redpolls are not so common this far south in Idaho.  I frantically grab the zoom lens and give chase.  This could be the photo of the day.

The morning wears on; the crackers and Dr. Pepper come out.  The good birds appear, but well-spaced between the Magpies and Ravens.  “Did you count that Magpie?” Kathy asks.  “I think so, but they are all starting to blend together.”  Kathy turns the truck down a steep, snow-choked side road and I begin to panic.  #1 because I am not driving, and #2 did I mention I’m not driving?  She knows her truck and what it will do, but all the while I am thinking – no cell coverage, passing vehicles come about every 30 minutes, and it’s a long hike out of here if she drops a tire off the edge.  The road is nearly imperceptible.  “Scrub Jays!”  Never mind, take the road.  There are good birds down here.

A half mile further, Kathy finally yields to my whining, parks the truck a quarter-mile short of her intended destination.  We agree to split up.  She hikes down to the cliffs to check-off a Canyon Wren.  I saunter back up the road and study a much smaller cliff, but also bag a good bird – Chukar.  Twenty-five minutes later we head back out of the canyon with five new species on the day.  As the truck regains the main road, I breathe easy, and choke down a honey bun.

By mid-afternoon we have worked our way back toward Oakley and a rendezvous with Sharon and Rich.  We exchange our findings and swap brief stories of the good birds and the ones that got away without a proper id. Sharon restocks our food supply with baggies of dried fruit and chocolate-covered cherries.  Then it’s off again to the graveled routes and canal roads of west Oakley.  This is House Sparrow country, although they barely outnumber the Ravens and Magpies.

By 3:30 p.m., we arrive at the lower end of Little Cottonwood Canyon and park the truck for a little foot patrol.  This diminutive canyon, which is not much more than a wet ravine in an otherwise sea of sagebrush, is productive: Mountain Chickadee, Bushtit, and one Great Horned owl that flies up and down the canyon until I am convinced of his identification.  Kathy was assured from the start.  Golden Eagles are perching every quarter-mile it seems on the taller sagebrush and junipers.

As the last of Monday’s light slips over the South Hills, we peruse the urban streets of Oakley, hoping for a birdfeeder well stocked by a bird “watcher.”  We make a quick stop at my parked jeep, and I decide to unload most of my gear.  The front seat of the truck has been cramped with backpack, scope, camera, tripod and extra clothing. With less than 30 minutes of birding, I just want to be comfortable.

Five minutes later, Kathy makes a slow turn down one block at the edge of town.  Immediately out the passenger window I find myself at eye-level with a bird perched atop a fencepost not more than 12 feet away.  I can hardly believe what I am seeing, and yet I know it immediately.  After binging on birds for almost 10 hours, I come fully alert.  “Merlin!”  Birders speak of their nemesis bird with affection. The Merlin is my white whale. This medium-sized falcon has eluded me since October 3, 1993, where I observed one for a few fleeting seconds in an abandoned field, Lee Creek Valley, Arkansas.

Where is my camera?!!  I have the perfect shot!  I can already envision my 400 mm Canon zoom lens capturing with sharpness and clarity his head in full-frame.  Sadly, I have traded the photo of a lifetime for legroom. The moment is surreal.  Kathy quietly snaps a few shots from her camera.  I slump back into the seat trying to camouflage my self-condemnation.  The truck slowly pulls away.  Grayness sets in.  The sky can no longer hold back the snow.

In the silence, I realize this was the best and worst moment of the day.  I have birded to the max. I am exhausted.  I feel guilty and bloated.  I think to myself as I stuff one last chocolate-covered cherry down my throat, I just want to go home.  140 miles of snow-covered roads, 40 species in the dead of winter, 2,117 birds…my first binge is over.  By week’s end, I’ll be right back at it.  The start of the Big Year is quickly approaching.

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