Birding Big Year 2016

January 10, 2016

Binge Birding (Part 2) – The Big Year begins with a Big Day

Filed under: Uncategorized — wfkeck @ 9:48 pm
0198 - Barrow's Goldeneye1

Barrow’s Goldeneye

It all comes down to this. After months of talking a good game, scheming, and dreaming, the Big Year is here.  Every birder knows, A Big Year begins with a Big Day.  I have to set the pace and let everyone know that I am serious, especially myself.  I will list 300 species of birds this year, and at least 50 of those will be this day, January 1, 2016.

4:00 a.m.  The Champaign bubbles are playing racquetball in my head.  What was I thinking?  For the past few years, I have gone to bed long before the giant potato dropped in Boise; but somehow Susan talked me into staying up past midnight.  I ease into the morning, make coffee, check Facebook, slurp down a bowl of Corn Chex, then stumble into the shower for a proper wake-up.

5:55 a.m., the Jeep is loaded, extra snacks are packed.  Susan gives me that “Go get ’em” look.  It’s time.  Somewhere under these four layers of clothing is a sweating, courageous heart ready to face the dark, the minus seven degrees, 300 miles of driving, and 12 hours of binge birding.

6:00 a.m. Bird up! Great Horned Owl.  Check! I am off and running.  (Note to the non-birder: No, I do not have to see the bird to count it if I can properly identify it by call or song and have seen the bird at least once in my life.  No, I do not have to photograph the bird to prove I saw it.  Yes, the Big Year is a competition that relies completely on the honor system.  Since I am competing against myself, there would be no point in getting up at 4:00 a.m. just to cheat).

7:20 a.m., driving around the Almo Valley in the frigid dark for 80 minutes would have been miserable if not for the frequent Facebook notifications from friends, wishing me Godspeed.  At this speed, I’ll be lucky to list nine birds.  But then there is movement in the Darn (my invented term for that period between Dark and Dawn where you can see just enough to be frustrated that you can’t see a darn thing).  There is something perched on a fence post 15 yards from me.  I roll down the window, cut the engine and wait for another 5% sunrise.

The bird on the post is hawk-size, so I patiently expect to be listing a Red-tailed or Rough-legged Hawk within minutes.  Just beyond the perched bird are two similar-sized avians airborne in moth-like flight.  I decide to test a theory and cue up the Audubon call on my cell phone app for Short-eared Owl.  Bingo! The birds in flight turn and rush right toward me.  Yikes!  Right toward me!  The first flies within inches of my jeep window, veering off at the last second.  The blood is pumping now, and the dawn is breaking.

Over the next hour, all the usual suspects make the list – raven, magpie, harrier, those previously mentioned buteos, a starling, and a robin.  Before leaving the valley for the unfrozen pastures and open water of the Snake River Plain, I list 22 species, including Northern Shrike, Sharp-shinned Hawk, and White-breasted Nuthatch.  Its time to bird my way through Elba, Albion, and Declo to pick up Joseph, a Burley High School senior whom I have agreed to mentor into the addiction.

Joseph and I met during the City of Rocks Big Day Birding Blitz last June. Even then Joseph was discipling his own flock of would-be birders.  For his senior project, he is planning to teach a birding class this spring.  His life list is already significantly past the century mark, a feat I did not reach until after college.  I am afraid the only thing I might teach him is that this is what your brain looks like on birds – after a 30-year binge that is.  Perhaps I can scare him straight, and to reconsider a milder form of the vice such as bird “watching.”

The drive through town is productive, finally listing House Sparrow, Great-tailed Grackle, and American Crow.  We drive out to Lake Walcott and quickly add another ten birds, including a Barrow’s Goldeneye, a duck that is far less common than the aptly-named Common Goldeneye.  I shout to Joseph, “Did you see that Barrow’s?  “No, just the Common,” he says.  I saw the key field marks.  I am going back to attempt a photo.  Joseph gives it another look as well and agrees.

There is no time to look for song birds in the large hardwood trees that make Lake Walcott State Park an oasis in the desert.  We’re headed to Hagerman for the motherlode.  Hagerman is the ultimate winter birding destination in southern Idaho.  The mostly unfrozen waters of the mid-Snake are a waterfowl magnet, and waterfowl attract Bald Eagles.  Joseph makes good use of the 45-minute interstate drive by peppering me with questions about birding, identification techniques, and a dozen others that I never thought to ask at his age.

Before Hagerman, I must stop in Twin to pick up two other birders – Rob and Cindy, who are also doing a Big Year.  In fact, this is Rob’s third Big Year (at least), and he has come up through the ranks of birding faster than anyone else I know.  Rob is resolute, well-traveled, and well-funded; therefore, he is dangerous competition.  The bug has also bitten his wife, and now the two make quite the dynamic duo.  In birding, it is important to keep your friends close, and your competitors even closer.

By 3 p.m. we reach the Hagerman stretch of the Snake, and begin listing birds so fast that the ink lags behind the stroke. Coot, Bufflehead, three species of Grebe, and ducks galore.  A California Quail calls from the scrub a hundred yards behind us, and Tundra Swans cruise the Bell Rapids impoundment.  Ruddy, Ring-necked, and Redhead….Canvasback, Cormorant, and Common Goldeneye…. Within the hour we have easily added 18 birds.  Four sharp birders can make short work of the task.

As the sunrays hit us sideways and the temperature takes a dive, we proceed to the final stop, the famous Eagle Tree of Hagerman (although technically, the locally popular eagle roost is only slightly closer to Hagerman than Buhl).  Neither Joseph nor Cindy have seen the roosting tree that can sometimes hold over 50 Bald Eagles.  Rob and I talk up the locale for several miles, but the high praise is unwarranted tonight.  Only a handful of eagles are seen.  Near Box Spring Canyon, Rob, who is half buried in the backseat of the Jeep, hollers “Pheasant!” All three of my companions see it, but my eyes are fixed on the distant road ahead.  Quickly, I turn the jeep around and watch the pheasant run across the road – Bird #56!

The lack of food (or perhaps I should be more clear – the lack of healthy food) is calling in the chips on my stamina.  It’s getting “Duck” (that period between Dusk and Dark where you can see just enough to be frustrated that you can’t see much). My functionality is quickly waning, and I still have a two-hour drive home.  A pair of Mourning Doves cling to the frozen power line alongside one of Jerome County’s magnificent dairies.  That does it, Bird #57, I am calling that the last bird of a respectable Big Day.

The shuttle stops in Twin and Burley.  My birding buds and I will be at it again in less than 13 hours.  The Jim Sage Mountain Christmas Bird Count starts at 7 a.m. in Almo, and they have agreed to help with the census. Somewhere on the drive south of Burley, my salty fingers fumble with extra large fries and cell phone.  “Hey Susan, I’m headed home…..I couldn’t possibly list another bird…..I’m stuffed.” “Take your time,” she says. “I’m still watching season 4 of Downton Abbey on Amazon Prime.”  Apparently we all have our secret little binges, but I’m not one to judge.


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