Birding Big Year 2016

February 14, 2016

Truckers and Chukars: White-knuckle Birding at Rattlesnake Pass

Filed under: Birding, Uncategorized — wfkeck @ 11:53 pm
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A Barn Owl escort down refuge road

I have been consoling myself of the second place finish coming out of January with the knowledge that I would soon be birding the Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge.  That day has now come.  A medical appointment in Salt Lake City gives the whole adventure legitimacy.  I am not skipping work for birds, but neither will I skip birds for sick leave.  Fortunately the refuge is on the way (practically in the way) of my intended destination, and birding is always therapeutic.

Hours before my darkened departure, a weather system has arrogantly dumped four inches of fresh snow on already ice-covered roads. I am leaving plenty early to compensate, but creeping down the highway at 40 mph will certainly cut into my birding time at the refuge.  Mile after mile from Narrows Road to Utah 30, I have the highways to myself, and so I take my half out of the middle, and keep it in four-wheel drive.  But once I hit I-84, it’s a video-gamer’s nightmare.  Truckers from hell (or maybe the arctic) appear from nowhere. They race at me, overtake and splash me.  The asphalt is buried in slush that leaps to my windshield with every passing rig of rage.  God help me!  (Short, heartfelt prayers are most effective).

Even in the clouded dawn I can see white knuckles gripping the wheel, anticipating certain death.  The blood has gone into hibernation and muscles are clinched and locked.  I try to console my fingers with split-second stretches, but they aren’t listening.  On the uphill grade of Rattlesnake Pass, the truckers that passed moments ago have now met their match.  They climb the mountain in low gear.  I am forced to take the left lane and pass them, but this lane is unplowed. A northbound truck plunges into the medium. I pass within 20 feet of him.  Now the blood is draining out of my head.  hold on!  I warn out loud to no one…or maybe to my fingers that seem to be warping the wheel with superhuman strength.  The stress-o-meter rises and I feel that I might black-out in the white-out conditions.  Just keep rolling, I hear myself say.

Thirty miles later, the jeep rolls into the refuge parking lot, and a surreal sense of calm descends upon me.  I made it; I have no idea how, and very little recollection of the past 40 minutes.  I am the only visitor (survivor?).  It is silent and cold, and slightly snowing. Inside the visitor center, I check with the local birding experts about refuge conditions, what’s frozen, and what’s hot.  There is very little open water, and the refuge roads are reportedly slick, narrow, rutted, and occasionally muddy.  American Pipits are being seen along the road edges – I need those.  I am also hoping for a look at the handful of waterfowl remaining on my list.

A smile creeps over my face as I wander down the refuge road.  I am still alive, and I am birding.  Life is good.  …but the refuge is dead.  Very few birds are active or even present.  I take joy in seeing a small flock of starlings – at least its something!  A coot swims down the canal; a single house sparrow yields the road; an Eurasian Collared Dove makes a distant flight.  Even the bad birds can be good in times like these.

And then it happens…that moment when nature throws you a bone – or in this case – a Barn Owl, maintaining a flight path and pace with the jeep.  Normally birds veer off, up and away, but this one mysteriously remains at eye-level, and parallels my route just 30 feet beyond arm’s reach. I have done some stupid things in my life, but what I am now contemplating could easily earn a spot in the top ten.

The refuge road is straight but narrow, and on either side – deep water-filled canals.  I can’t continue to watch the road and photograph the owl at the same time.  I simply have to choose.  And its an easy decision.  Most birders I know will take the shot.  Pressing my left knee up into the steering wheel and my right foot on the gas,  I twist my torso counter-clockwise and become a multi-tasking Gumby.  My knee drives and my hands and eyes perpendicularly steer the 400 mm zoom lens squarely at the owl. I rip through 80-100 images like a Gatling gun. Now…I can’t be sure, but I suspect that I traveled more than a quarter-mile at 25 miles per hour without ever confirming the road.  Fortunately the owl chooses to perch on a gate post just before the road takes a 90 degree left.

A few miles later, gulls and grebes play in the unfrozen water. Shifting periodically from binoculars to field guide, I spend time to the excess, trying to confirm if the gull in scope has pink legs or yellow.  The light is horribly washed.  I really want this to be a Herring Gull, but I just can’t be sure.  He takes flight and my last hope for a new bird vanishes into the frozen sky.  I am simply out of time and need to get down the interstate to my appointment.

New and more vicious truckers surround me, forcibly escorting me south I-15 to the inner sanctum of Salt Lake City. Wipers work overtime, until like horses that have been ridden too far too fast, they give out and collapse. The right-side rubber blade is ripped from its arm by accumulated ice. I am blind. Somehow, beyond my own vision and wisdom, I arrive at the clinic.  There is just enough time to lower my blood pressure, and allow for the color to return to my fingers.  The doc walks in with all the serious single-mindedness of a busy professional, “So, what have you been doing?”  “Um…White-knuckle birding.”

A few hours later, with a fresh tank of gas and new wiper blades, I rejoin the insanity headed north, I-15.  The weather worsens.  All the elements of danger return, and the blood in my knuckles rush to my heart as if to sustain the essential organs.  I can’t remember my last deep breath.  Lungs are not necessary.  Suddenly I am back on the northbound grade of Rattlesnake Pass.  Truckers to the left of me, truckers to the right.  Here I am, stuck in the middle again.

But then, like when a passing storm is silenced by the awe moment of a rainbow, I see them. Truckers fall away in a stroke of courtesy, giving me a timeless moment in the midst of the storm…to see a pair of Chukar happily feeding in the medium.  Their presence is unexpected and out of context. They are oblivious of the storm and semi-tractored chaos. This is the thrill and essence of birding, the risk and reward.  My first Big Year bird of February comes at a hard physical cost, and yet completely restores my soul.

February marches on.  The following day under sunnier circumstances, I am presented with Northern Pintail, Green-winged Teal, and Snow Goose east of Declo.  Howell Canyon offers a single Brown Creeper, early Sunday morning, February 7.  The following Tuesday, the Twin Sisters give up their only Canyon Wren; and two days later, a return trip from Boise leads to a successful detour into Hagerman.  The day before the birding festival, I steal away with three needed species – no charge: Yellow-rumped Warbler, Wood Duck, and Gadwall.

Life is fleeting; birding is forever. I have cheated death once more.



February 8, 2016

Last Day, First Month: A Big Year

Filed under: Birding, Uncategorized — wfkeck @ 2:09 am
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Bushtits dashing in and out of sagebrush

Already I can feel the self-inflicted pressure of underachieving. Today is the last day of the first month of the big year.  Reality inevitably trumps fantasy.  I had dreamed of listing 100 birds by close-of-business, January 31.  I suppose if I were being completely transparent, I actually had the audacity to believe I could list a hundred birds on January 1.  But that’s sort of like those juvenile imaginations of dating a cheerleader, winning the lottery, or climbing Mount Everest.  My list sits at 82.

With a heightened sense of urgency, I give the Sunday morning benediction and dash for Declo.  I hear tell of tales – easy Pintails and Teal just a short drive away.  I still need Gadwall and Bushtit, Creeper and Wood Duck.  All of these are high on my hit list, and cheap targets based on tips I received earlier in the week.  Gone are the days of new birds haphazardly arriving to the visitor center feeders, like the large flock of Brewer’s Blackbirds a week ago, or the swooped-in Goshawk, or the Lesser Goldfinch that yesterday fed alongside its duller cousin American Goldfinch.  I seriously have to go get them now.

Although sunny, the weather outside my jeep is frightfully chilled.  Winds drive the late-morning temperature into the miserable.  At the junction of Hwy 81-new and 81-old, east of Declo and huddled in the warmth of the vehicle, I peer into the frozen wetlands that mark the deserted end of Marsh Creek. This is where Kathy claims to have seen too many Northern Pintail and Green-winged Teal to count.  There are no ducks here now, just a marsh hawk, looking for voles.  He’s hungry, and my list is starving.

Wood Ducks elude me along the sure-fire habitat of Granny’s Pad Road, and even her lagoons are frozen.  I am in need of open water.  I find some north of the I-84 Snake River crossing, but even here only a few crazy Goldeneye and a Common Loon dare to swim.  Perhaps it is the same loon I checked-off last Wednesday on my way to Walcott.  This will not do.  I am due a new bird, somewhere, somehow.  I can feel the minutes ticking by.  I am starting to panic.

And now I am hungry!  I need to pick up bird seed at C-A-L Ranch and check the open waters that separate north and south Burley, so I might as well grab a #3 at McDonalds.  Birds eat better than birders.  With ketchup and grease still moisturizing my lips, I swing into Lex Kunau Park and erect the scope.  A raft of waterfowl is huddled on the frozen bank of Cassia County, a few football fields away. Maybe I can tease out a Gadwall.  Unfortunately it is the mallards that tease. Just as I am about to rush back to the Jeep’s warmth and fragrance of fries, an odd “duck” is swimming with a dozen-plus Canada Geese.  Back out comes the tripod and scope.  Even in the glaring sun distantly down river I can make out a goose of another color.  Partly assisted by the wind-chill, I stare frozen, waiting for this odd goose to turn into the light.  Finally, it reveals a patchy white lore that is almost all that separates a domestic Graylag from a rare winter find – #83 Greater White-fronted Goose!

I give up on Gadwalls and head back to Almo in hopes of a last minute score on Cassin’s Finches or Bushtits. An hour later, I am at the office unloading 40-pound bags of black oil sunflower seeds.  Out the window, I see a pick-up pull-up.  We are closed on winter Sundays, but I am always ready to serve.  Low and behold it is Rob and Cindy from Twin Falls, driving an hour and a half in hopes of listing the Northern Goshawk and Lesser Goldfinch at the feeders. I had posted earlier in the week these arrivals to Facebook.  The odds of seeing the Goshawk today are only slightly better than my future summit of Everest, but the Lesser Goldfinch is quickly “bagged.”

In separate vehicles we caravan to Smoky Mountain Campground.  Rob needs a Juniper Titmouse.  Cindy is in Sunday shoes, and waits in the truck while Rob and I walk the frozen loop.  Snow and ice crunch below our boots, making it difficult to hear even a raven.  We talk of future birding trips, and the respectable showing we both have made in January.  Still, we can’t help but feel a stronger finish is within reach.  We scurry to add one or more before sunset.

Despite the cold, I lower the window and drive slowly out of the campground. My plan is to stop every 50 yards and attempt to call in a titmouse.  Instead I catch the faint chips and twitters of Bushtit.  I jump out, and signal for Rob to cut his engine.  They are here somewhere in the tall sagebrush just north of the road.  Rob can hear them too, and their quick dash here and there focus our attention.  Finally, dangling upside down on a dried sagebrush flower stalk, is #84 Bushtit. High fives and cheers quickly follow.  We are emboldened to get one more.

With Rob and Cindy following, I proceed toward Bath Rock, stopping at the occasional pinyon-juniper woodland to call out for Cassin’s Finches.  The only thing we get is colder.  The sun is slipping behind Mount Mahogany.  At Bath Rock, snow drifts thoroughly obstruct further progress. At 4:30 p.m., we are the only ones in the entire park.  It is here we must make our final stand for January.  A Townsend’s Solitaire takes note atop a naked aspen snag.  He hears my Cassin’s call, and probably muses, “its too early for them.”

Yet the recorded noise is enough to spur a woodpecker to leave one hidden perch for another.  We see its undulating flight, but only for a second at a distance of 50 yards. I immediately think Hairy Woodpecker, partly because I need one, but also because it just seemed bigger than downy.  Rob and I close the gap between the parking lot and the pinyon pine it landed in near campsite 54. The snow is piled high from a dozen December storms, and we posthole our way to a proper distance.  I “dial-up” the call and play it once.  Rob quickly reports that the bird has moved to the very tallest snag.  “It’s a Hairy!” he shouts twice to convince both him and me.  I lock in and confirm to my own satisfaction, the bill length to head width ratio is indeed more than half.  A Downy Woodpecker is less than half and noticeably diminutive. Another round of high-fives are served.

Rob and Cindy descend the long road out of the “City” and back to Twin.  It’s a school night, and teachers need their rest.  I have hopes for one more bird, but 20 minutes later, even I must acquiesce to dusk and bitter cold.  Rob finishes the first month of his big year with 83, I with 85, and Kathy, according to her Facebook post – with 87.  That places me somewhere in the top 25 of Idaho Birders in 2016, based on Ebird checklists thus far submitted.

Here’s the crazy thing, no one is really competing with me, at least not officially. My second place standing among two other birders means nothing. My competitive human nature wars against my joy of nature.  Such internal conflict can only be resolved by the practice of helping other birders find what they have yet to see.  Kathy regularly texts rare and unusual sightings, and Rob also passes on hot tips as he gets them.  Other birding buds continue to invite me to bird their area, and Travis is my inside man for what’s happening at Walcott. Such is the nature of big year birders. We are our own champion and critic.

But then with a hint of deviousness, I begin to plot a secret trip to the Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge.  I think I can pull ahead this week!



January 24, 2016

West of Eden – A Birder’s Path to Paradise

Filed under: Birding, Uncategorized — wfkeck @ 11:27 pm

Winter Birding for Red-breasted Nuthatches

The blitz is over; my birding buddies are gone; the vast majority of local winter birds have been listed; and now begins the arduous task of hunting the stragglers one by one.  I have my hit list.  I review it each morning and fantasize that today is the day to log a Cassin’s Finch, Bushtit, or Kinglet (Ruby or Golden – I’ll take either).  They come slowly.  First a Western Scrub-Jay appears at the home feeder – tick #65 on January 3…too easy.  A few days later, while hunting titmice off a snowy road in the Reserve, I hear what the Audubon App calls a guttural kraaaa.  Ahhhh, #66, Clark’s Nutcracker! And so it goes, day by day, habitat by habitat, I methodically “work the problem” of finding hidden species.

There is a risk, being so transparent with my findings.  The longer I am out of touch with my birding friends, the more suspicious I become of their malicious sandbagging, that is to report fewer birds for their year list, when in fact they are likely soaring past me in the count.  I’ve got to keep the edge. My employees sense the agitation, restlessness, single-minded obsession.  Right or wrong, I have assigned one of my temporary employees the collateral duty of looking out the visitor center window for any bird with red crown-feathers….hoping for a Cassin’s.  He is to buzz me immediately should that hue appear at the west-side feeders.  It doesn’t appear; he doesn’t buzz.

Furthermore, my employees instinctively know that a good evaluation hinges on this critical performance: if a visitor walks in and happens to mention the word bird, birder, birding, bird checklist, or the actual name of a bird, they are to press the red button behind the counter that immediately alerts me of the emergency.  Before the unsuspecting visitor can inhale, I am down a flight of stairs, front and center and asking, “So!  You a birder?”  Just such an incident occurred on Thursday, January 7.

Not a single visitor entered the City of Rocks Visitor Center that day, until just minutes before closing.  In walks Russell, a senior citizen, traveling alone across the country. He waits a few seconds patiently while I chat with Josh, a seasonal ranger who is in the final minutes of his term of service here.  Josh had asked me about which bird field guide he should buy.  When it comes to birds, my advice tends to be ridiculously thorough.

Our attention turns to Russell who is browsing the brochure rack.  “How can we help?”  As if entertaining angels unaware, I quickly discover that Russell is a birder and has traveled down our 50-mile, icy, dead-end road for two purposes: to get his National Parks passport stamped….and to look for a few life birds.  We talk well-past closing, and I give him some insider info on birding locales.  Russell is the perfect gentleman, he listens to me pontificate about where to find the good birds as if I were the resident expert, and he a novice birder looking for a mentor.  Something inside me decides to ask the all-important question, “what’s your life list these days?”  Russell sheepishly admits a number north of 600.  All the wind under my primaries are knocked out.  I am in the presence of greatness.

I happen to mention to Russell that I am headed east for birding tomorrow.  Russell is as well.  I reveal my need for Sharp-tailed Grouse, and he confesses that’s a lifer for him too.  I share with him a number of hotspots between City of Rocks and his Friday evening destination – Fossil Butte National Monument.  “Maybe I’ll see you at one of those places,” I say with honest enthusiasm.

Friday, January 8, I tuck the hit list into my Sibley’s Field Guide and slip off toward a secret canyon I recently read about on Facebook.  My birding expedition takes me the long way via the Narrows Road and across the vast Raft River Valley. North 81 out of Malta, I take Yale Road to a Chukar hotspot near an LDS Ward, but only Gray Partridge and Ring-necked Pheasants will play the game.  On to Lane’s Gulch and out to the Snake at Coldwater.  Nothing new, and no Bald Eagles along the Osborne Loop.

I had hoped to bird the American Falls dam before lunch, but when the stomach growls, not even a lifer can compete.  I push on to Pocatello and the only real sandwich in town – a Schlotzsky’s Original on sourdough.  With a mouth soured from salt and vinegar chips that even Dr. Pepper can’t cut, I return west I-86 for the purpose of this trip – Michaud Creek Road and Sharp-tails.

What are the odds?  Russell is parked just off the road in the last wide spot before entering the Michaud Creek drainage.  I pull up alongside, invite him to leave the RV parked, and join me for a jeep tour up the canyon.  Two sets of eyes are better than one, and he gladly accepts.  Our strategy plays out, I concentrate on the icy canyon drive, while Russell scours the willows.  Our first pass yields no birds, except a large flock of Wild Turkey grazing fallen seed from a resident feeder.  The drive back down….nothing.  We turn around and repeat.  Ebird and Facebook both list this as the Sharp-tail Grouse hotspot.  On the second trip up the creek, we periodically park and take a more aggressive approach known as the serendipitous flush.  The birds won’t reveal, and doubtful a birddog could do better. Fortunately the canyon offers us a parting gift – 30+ Redpolls anxious to be photographed.

Russell and I part ways, but not before promising to stay in touch for a potential meet in Texas this spring.  It seems both of us have plans to bird the Edwards Plateau when the Golden-cheeked Warblers and Black-capped Vireos return.  I fully expect to drive over 2,ooo miles and find Russell holding a pair of binoculars on a warbler as I pull into the Kerr Wildlife Management Area.  The day ends with Hooded Mergansers below the American Falls Dam, and one lonely American White Pelican below Lake Walcott.

Sunday, January 17, I wrap up the sermon, usher the Albion congregation out the door and race up Mount Harrison for Red-breasted Nuthatches, Brown Creepers, and Red Crossbills.  Only the nuthatch is faithful.  The following day “I have a dream” that American Tree Sparrows are waiting east of Almo.  I celebrate MLK along the Narrows Road with #76 Harris’s Sparrow.  January 20, a half day in Hagerman yields nothing new, but a return to the Twin Falls area the following day proves unforgettable.

Genesis records that after the fall of man, the Lord God drove Adam out of the garden, east of Eden.  He placed a cherubim and a flaming sword to guard the way to the tree of life.  Paradise lost.  As if guided by the Spirit, I find myself exiting I-84 to bird the backroads of Hazelton and Eden.  Tonight I speak to the Loasa Chapter of the Native Plant Society, but this afternoon, I am hunting Merlin, my nemesis bird.  Indeed, east of Eden the tree of life is bare.  Hazelton is unproductive.  From there, Hwy 25 proceeds west to Eden. Kestrels perch on power lines like imps of confusion, masquerading as angels of light.  And then suddenly, west of Eden, I find the secret portal to paradise. A slightly larger falcon dives from a pole and flies toward the setting sun.  Size can be deceiving, but there is something about this bird that differs.  I pull over and watch him fly for a quarter mile into an ancient grove.  Minutes later, I am parked below the tree of life, watching with amazement as #77  Merlin – my third sighting ever – rocks back and forth in the winter wind. A birder’s paradise found….west of Eden.

Winter continues undeterred, and the path of life for a snow birder is one of perseverance and hope. The first birds of spring are still three weeks away.

January 15, 2016

If Jim Sage was a Birder

Filed under: Birding, Uncategorized — wfkeck @ 6:00 pm

The Jim Sage Mountains under a Birder’s Sky

One of the benefits of living in a state with over a hundred mountains is that some go almost completely unnoticed, unvisited, and unappreciated.  I prefer my mountains to be forgotten by the world, completely neglected, and unexplored.  There are three mountain ranges easily within view of my office in downtown Almo (an unincorporated village of about 120 souls spread out over 120 square miles).  All three to some degree meet my criteria.


The Albion Range to my left (west) rises 10,339-feet and boasts Cache Peak as the highest mountain in Idaho south of the Snake River.  But with so many mountains in the state higher than 10,000 feet, that distinction fails to impress.  The Albions are nowhere near as dramatic as the Sawtooths, or as well known as the Boulders, White Clouds, Salmon River Mountains, or Lost River Range, the latter of which contains Idaho’s highpoint, Mount Borah, at 12,668.  But the Albions do attract hundreds of thousands of visitors annually to the City of Rocks on the south end, and to Mount Harrison on the north end with its Pomerelle ski slopes and the scenic cirque (du soleil) called Lake Cleveland.

To the south of my office, stands the Raft River Mountains – a range as secret as the polygamous families that once lived in its winter shadow.  The Raft Rivers run east and west as only a handful of ranges do, such as the Unitas in Utah and the Ouachitas in Arkansas.  Like Cache Peak to the north, the Raft River Range was named by fur trappers. I have only summited this range once in the nearly 18 years that I have gazed upon it.

It is the range to the east that strangely draws my heart – Jim Sage.  Unlike most mountain ranges, the Jim Sage are not overlaid with a National Forest or even a wilderness designation.  Most of the range is managed by the Bureau of Land Management, and there are no developed recreation areas or even advertised access points. I am still discovering routes to its secret precipices.  According to Almo historian Janice, Jim Sage was a bachelor who lived near the mouth of the canyon also called by his name.  The 1880 census records him as being 50 years old and originally from Arkansas, my adopted home state.  Janice also informs me that near the end of his life, he lived at the base of Castle Rock.  A small headstone in Sunny Cedar Rest marks the final resting place of old Jim.

I first attempted a solo traverse of the 12-mile Jim Sage crest on April 12, 1996.  My eagerness was rebuffed by a late season winter storm.  After a frigid night, huddled alone on the massif and waking to fresh snow over my tent, I bailed off the mountain early the next morning and hitch-hiked back to Almo.  My second ascent occurred on May 16-17, 1997.  Thanks to the synergy of hiking comrade Dale, we succeeded in traversing the crest in two easy days.  The third and most recent attempt (May 26, 2012) included hiking companions Trace, Alice, and Joyce – all seasoned mountaineers.  Unfortunately, a freak storm moved in and buried us all day in heavy rains and impenetrable fog.  After wandering around in cloudy circles, lost in the steep west-facing canyons, we admitted defeat.

Most of my forays into the Jim Sage these days have been up the southern-facing Jim Sage Canyon, not to summit, but to seek out the mountain’s birds. And there be good birds! Black-throated Gray Warblers, Gray Flycatchers, Plumbeous Vireos, Western Scrub-Jays, Bushtits, Ash-throated Flycatchers, Rock Wrens, nesting Ferruginous Hawks, Golden Eagles, and many more.  I visit the canyon often in summer, hoping to find another location in Idaho for the geographically restricted Scott’s Oriole.  This bird invades Idaho for a few summer months each year to breed in the cedar hills west of Stone.

Today, January 2, 2016, the Jim Sage Mountains are the central hub of yet another Christmas Bird Count and another full day of birding.  Its 6:55 a.m., minus nine degrees, and very dark, and yet three vehicles are already in the visitor center parking lot, waiting for me to unlock the building and get the bird count organized.  By 7:15 a.m. all parties are assembled: Kathy, Sharon, and Rich from the Trapper Creek count earlier in the week have joined me, as well as Rob and Cindy who birded with my yesterday in Hagerman.  Melody, who we ran into yesterday while giving her car a jump in Hagerman, is also here.  Dick from the Boise area, who birded with me on last year’s count, is offering his vehicle for the carpool, and two retired fellows from the Twin Falls area also volunteer to drive.  Ten birders, three vehicles, two scopes and binoculars all around, we head out to look for the Short-eared Owls I encountered yesterday.  I hop in the vehicle with Bob and John – admittedly, two amateurs who read about the count in the Times-News, and decided it is never too late to learn the birds.

We strike out on the owls, and patrol the Narrows Road up and back for the first birds at first light.  The darkness and lack of birds allows Bob and I to get to know each other.  His friend John sits quietly in the back.  Like Joseph yesterday, Bob drills me with great questions about birding in general, and identification techniques for the hard groups of birds – like sparrows, or buteos.  When talk turns to weather, a conversation is likely to die a quick death; but when bird surveys and science are the topic, you can bet things will get animated.  Before I know it, Bob is sneaking in questions about global warming and Tea Party politics.  He admits that Ted Cruz is way too liberal for him, and I am left wondering where the conversation could possibly go from here.  Fortunately, it is all good natured, and I remain in their good graces once they realize I am a state employee and not federal.  Birds transcend politics, religion, and even weather.

Talk returns to birds, as well it should – we have magpies and ravens to count!  The vehicles take turns leading the other two, and periodically, we all stop and exit the vehicle to bird the brush or to scope a perching bird a quarter-mile away.  Our scoping techniques yield kingfisher, bald eagle, and a handful of mallards on an unfrozen hole in the Raft River ice.

Heading east on the Narrow’s Road, we agree to a new strategy.  Six of us walk ahead along the road, and the vehicles follow about 30 yards behind.  Brilliant idea Wallace….I breath to myself.  Quickly we flush a Spotted Towhee, and then three more.  Towhee’s are thick in these parts from Spring to Fall, but very few overwinter here.  The big lens comes out, and I click off a few close-ups of Big Year Bird #58. Down the road another mile, we repeat the process below the volcanic cliffs. We hope to see Barn Owls here, but after checking the usual alcoves, none appear.

“Check again,” Kathy calmly chides.  There’s a Barn owl in there.  “No,” I reply.  “I checked several times.  You are confusing the white-wash from last year’s nest as this year’s bird.”  Kathy, steady as a golden eagle on her nest, repeats, “check again, that’s an owl.”  I launch into a series of “I’ll eat my hat if,” or “I’ll buy lunch if that’s an owl.”  Rob takes a side and ups the ante.  “That’s not only a bird, that’s two!”  Out comes the scope and Melody gives steady aim.  Seconds later I am eating crow and choking down bits of hat.  On the plus side, I get to add Big Year Bird #59.

A quarter mile down the road, we give chase to #60 Prairie Falcon, and then scour the reeds and brambles of the Stanrod Road crossing of the Raft River to find #61 Black-capped Chickadee.  Three miles later we run into the largest flock of the day, an estimated 700 Red-winged Blackbirds (#61).  Just beyond, we stopped to scope out a pond fed by thermal springs.  Every year it produces 2-3 species of waterfowl.  Just before the tripods are set, I perform a quick scan of a pool near the pond that appears to contain one American (aka Skinny) Dipper splashing in the rising steam. “Uh, put your scopes away.  Nothing to see here folks.”  This is just the kind of incident that gives birders a bad name.  Fortunately, just outside of Malta, we find all the ducks and geese we want – in fact too many to count.

For the past few years, our birding teams would plan a 30-minute break at the Cattleman’s Restaurant for hot cocoa, pie, and compiling.  This year we find it closed and relocate to Bake Central for turkey sandwiches (since domestic birds don’t count on the survey).  Kathy, Sharon, Melody and I go over the numbers.  As usual mine are too conservative.  Apparently we’ve seen a lot more magpies and ravens than I have recorded.

The second half of the day is always shorter than the first, according to my fuzzy math.  We hit a few more trusty birding hotspots, before the journey takes us south again around the west side of Jim Sage.  Before leaving the wide valley of Malta, we add one Ferruginous Hawk and yet another Prairie Flacon.  Conner Junction gives us the gift of 14 Pinyon Jays, and the Elba Cemetery produces an explosion of half-buried Gray Partridge. By 4 p.m. we are back to the visitor center and posing for a group photo.

My eyes are shot from eight hours of squinting into glass, but I am able to tally 39 species for the day, seven new birds for the Big Year, and a total body count of 1,986.  All we really did was circumnavigate the mountain in vehicles.  I can’t help but wonder at all the species we might have seen up the mountain on foot.  If Jim Sage was a birder, he would have stepped out of his 1880 cabin on a cold winter day and flush a Greater Sage Grouse.  Ole Jim would have enjoyed a Juniper Titmouse disrupting the silence with his incessant picking at an old pine nut. He would have savored a pair of noisy scrub-jays hurrying up the canyon for no particular reason.  If Jim Sage was a birder, he’d likely ask me kindly to put down my pen, stop for a minute and just be in the moment.  Jim Sage would never win a Big Year…if he was a birder.

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.


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.

December 27, 2015

Corvids are so Raven

Filed under: Uncategorized — wfkeck @ 5:03 pm
1346 Common Raven38

Common Ravens

In the Disney sitcom That’s so Raven, teenager Raven Baxter can see the future. Raven draws on her psychic powers, ingenuity, and talent to get into and out of amusing situations. Sounds like the Corvids I know.  (Corvid – short for Corvidae, the taxonomic family of birds that includes jays, magpies, crows, nutcrackers, and ravens). Corvids are considered to be the smartest of birds and among the most intelligent of all living creatures.  They use tools, are reportedly “self-aware,” and their brain to body mass ratio is off the charts.  Don’t be calling them bird-brained, unless you hold them in the highest regard.


I have great respect for ravens.  On the absolute worst weather day and most extreme condition, I can always find a Common Raven playing in the wind, laughing at lesser birds.  Watch them for a minute.  They are not hunting, they are not trying to get from here to there.  They are more whimsical than expedient. Ravens ply the wind like a child sails a kite or skates on ice. Perhaps it was precisely this characteristic that led Noah to opened the window of the ark and send forth a raven. It went to and fro until the waters were dried up from the earth. …And he no doubt had a wonderful time doing it.  But unless I portray the Raven as mere devil-may-care, I admit, I am respectful if not fearful of ravens.

The Hebrew proverb warns, “The eye that mocks a father and scorns to obey a mother will be picked out by the ravens of the valley…” No doubt Hitchcock borrowed and expounded upon that fear with raven’s diminutive cousin, (the equally sinister crow) in the 1963 cinematic thriller.  Who can forget the image of crows amassed and attacking children at the playground in The Birds?  Quoth the raven nevermore? But I simply must! Could Poe have picked a more perfect creature for that eerie and dark poem? “Take thy beak from out my heart, and take thy form from off my door!’  Quoth the raven, `Nevermore.’  Dan Fogelberg the balladeer  picks up where his fellow artists left off.  He portrays a succubus as the darkest of Corvids:

I see the raven’s made
Her nest in your eyes
She’s got you thinking that
Her love is a prize
And you’ll go under from
The weight of her lies
As the raven flies

Corvids do not only portray harbingers of death and messengers of judgement, but also servants of life.  While mankind may depict the raven as dark and devious; The Creator paints him differently, thus he retains my respect.  Consider the ravens: they neither sow nor reap, they have neither storehouse nor barn, and yet God feeds them. Not only does He feed them, but he once commanded them to feed a man given psychic power. God directed the prophet Elijah,  Depart from here and turn eastward and hide yourself by the brook Cherith, which is east of the Jordan.  You shall drink from the brook, and I have commanded the ravens to feed you there.”  So he went and did according to the word of the Lord. … And the ravens brought him bread and meat in the morning, and bread and meat in the evening…”

My Pinyon Jays are back.  Their seed-filled beaks hammering against the deck rails are keeping rhythm with my fingers on the keyboard.  They split the sunflower shells on impact.  More than a dozen are fast at work, and the sound is loud, annoying, if not haunting.  And yet I have adopted them, and to a large extent am lonely without them.  These jays, like crows and magpies are very gregarious; whereas my scrub jays prefer the company of no more than two or three.  Ravens will on occasion gather in groups, but like the scrub jay seem most content alone or with few.  All are extroverts compared to most passerines.

Last week I stood in the heart of the snow-piled City of Rocks – not another human in sight, nor a sound to my ear save one: a raven’s laugh. On similar junctures the voice was that of my favorite Corvid the Clark’s Nutcracker.  Almost exclusively his cranky call is heard at 6,000 feet sea level or higher.  The higher the better.  He is my companion of the mountain.  My Pinyon Jays and scrub jays prefer the lower altitudes, so that I am never deprived of the family.  Ravens have no preference or mortal allegiance, they are omnipresent and it would seem omniscient.  They know where they are to be and when, as if the Master shares His secrets and then bids them go.

The Big Year is but four days hence.  I know I can count on listing within the first hour of daylight the Black-billed Magpie and Common Raven.  I am reasonably assured of checking off the American Crow, Western Scrub Jay and Pinyon Jay.  Should I be so blessed by the Master of the birds, I pray He sends me a Clark’s Nutcracker.  That would be the ultimate Corvidae (pun intended), or as the kids say, that would be so raven’.

December 24, 2015

Now There’s a Good Bird

Filed under: Uncategorized — wfkeck @ 8:50 pm
Good Bad Bird

One of these is a good bird

Standing at the large picture window of the Old Cahoon house, I peer through the inch-thick glass, looking for a good bird.  The circa 1912, two-story brick house (aka City of Rocks Visitor Center) provides the perfect hunting blind for up close birding and photography.  Outside, three separate feeders are strategically positioned for maximum visitation.  At the moment, at least 75 birds have settled in for a meal.  To date, nearly a dozen species have discovered the sunflower seed buffet, spread daily thanks to the generous donations of park patrons.  Unfortunately, the majority of these feathered friends fail to qualify as a “good bird.”

Before I am accused of making value judgements regarding birds, let me just come right out and confess it.  There are good birds, and there are, well, birds of a lesser assessment.  It’s not their fault really, and the reasons date back to creation itself. For God created some things for noble purposes and some for ignoble, and this is the right of the creator.  Who is man to question his purposes? Has the potter no right over the clay, to make out of the same lump one vessel for honorable use and another for dishonorable use?  Did not the creator declare to the children of Israel that some birds were “clean” and could be eaten, but others like the vulture, raven, and cormorant were “unclean” and to be left untouched and despised?” Was not the dove a symbol of the Holy Spirit and the eagle a representation of strength and honor? On the other hand, have you ever heard the coot being spoken of in a positive light?

I know a good bird when I see one. Dark-eyed Juncos are ok, but there are just too many of them at the feeders.  The beloved male goldfinch is a good bird in full spring plumage, but in the dead of winter – not so much. House Sparrows, seriously? No.  I’ll take a House Finch sighting, only because they force me to discern the subtleties that differentiate the Cassin’s Finch.  A Ring-necked Pheasant dropped in a few days ago.  But what is considered a good bird on Tuesday, might not be so the rest of the year.  Pheasants are colorful and all, but they’re an introduced species from Eurasia (note upturned nose here). Three Eurasian Collared-Doves land near the northernmost feeder, scaring the crap out of the juncos…literally.  This dove species arrived to the Almo Valley about 2004.  I wonder if their ancestors were neighbors with the pheasants.

Twenty-five years ago I was an interpretive naturalist at Devil’s Den State Park in Arkansas.  As a pious birder there, I did my best to proselytize the field-tripping school children to embrace the religion of birding.  I recall one hike where we all had a close-up encounter with a beautiful Red-tailed Hawk soaring just above us.  “Look!” I exclaimed and pointed like all rangers are trained to do.  Some looked, some shuffled their feet, and one raised his imaginary twelve gauge and pumped two rounds into him.  Horrified, I chastised the boy – “That bird is federally protected!  You can’t do that!”  He nonchalantly replies, “My dad say’s they kill our chickens. What good is a chicken hawk anyway?”

Despite what some snot-nosed kid in Arkansas thinks, Red-tailed Hawks are “good” birds. Take my word for it.  And so is this Harris’s Sparrow that just crawled out from beneath a giant, undisciplined rosebush at the corner of the parking lot!  This species is most often at home on the east side of the Rockies, in the Great American Desert to be exact. The past three years it seems one (and only one) pays the park a visit. I will have to post the big news on Facebook later.  Just over 4,000 people follow the City of Rocks Facebook page, and I know at least a handful of them will be as excited as I.

So you might be wondering, how can I tell a good bird from a bad one.  It’s easier than sexing a chicken.  First you eliminate all of the bad ones: too ubiquitous, non-native, annoying call, ugly, drab plumage, occurs over all of North America in every habitat…need I go on?  Then, considering what is left, you have the good birds: colorful, few in number, hard to find, has a great song like “Quick three beers!” “Drink your tea,” or Jose Maria.”  Of course the absolute best birds are the ones not yet on my life list.  The funny thing is, however, when preparing for a Big Year, even a trash bird is loved the first time he is observed.  I’ll be counting on these Eurasian Collared-Doves to be right here on January 1st.

A Facebook friend recently asserted that there is no such thing as a bad bird, only a bad birder.  He must be one of those guys who likes to watch House Sparrows.  Clearly he is not one of the faithful. But I think I could convert him by the end of a Big Year.  Oh look!  Downy Woodpecker!  He just flew into the base of that Siberian Elm.  Now there’s a good bird!

December 20, 2015

A Big Year Primer

Filed under: Birding — Tags: , — wfkeck @ 3:22 pm
122015 photograph1

Planning the 2016 Big Year

Fingers rest at the keyboard on a quiet Sunday, December 20, 2015.  The sun is piercing through the late morning fog just out my cabin window, revealing intermittent views of Cache Peak.  Subtle hues of white and gray compete for attention, attempting to define what the day will be – mostly cloudy?  Partly sunny?  No matter; there will be birds at my feeder, flittering joyfully at the presence of new black-oil sunflower seeds.  And there will be anticipation by this avid birder of the moment, less than twelve days from now, when those birds count toward the 2016 Big Year.

A Big Year?  Many non-birding muggles have come to learn what that is, thanks to the 2011 film The Big Year, starring Steve Martin, Jack Black, and Owen Wilson.  These acclaimed comedians each portrayed real life characters who spent 1998 chasing birds and the coveted title of Best Birder in North America. A Big Year is a dedicated effort to see as many bird species as possible within a year.  The effort can be motivated by the spirit of competition or personal achievement. Of course the Big Year concept predates both the movie and the year on which the book was based.  Whether explicitly labeled or not, mankind has been chasing birds long before the painter John James Audubon or explorers Lewis and Clark.  I chase birds; and there will be birders chasing birds long after I join the cherubim of paradise.

I am sitting at my oversized self-important oak desk.  A 4×6-foot National Geographic map of the United States dominates the left wall.  Bookshelves behind me contain 36 personal journals, chronicling 35 years of the most recent 52 years of life.  The journal 2016 is poised and ready for ink.  Atlas and road maps lay cluttered beneath a wooden lamp that was turned on a lathe by my father – a Christmas gift given to his son back in childhood days that were defined more by chess and fishing than birding and chess.  The 2000 edition Sibley Guide to Birds rests easily within reach. I am planning my own Big Year.

In the movie Moonstruck, the actress Olympia Dukakis asked the question, “Why do men chase women?” and the answer came back, “Because men fear death.” This humorous if not partly accurate answer, causes me to wonder:  “Why do men chase birds?”  Is it because of the prehistoric practice that men hunt and women nest?  I think it unlikely, as there are most certainly as many women who chase birds as men. Is it because chasing birds is so manly? [A bow to sarcasm].  Is it because we fear death?  Will breaking the 300 species threshold in 2016 help to define the meaning of my life?  When my bird life list finally breaks 500 (something I should have achieved years ago) will it finally give me a sense of accomplishment?

As I sit and wait for the epiphany, a Pinyon Jay band of sixty descends upon my deck feeders like Frank Baum’s Winged Monkeys in The Wonderful Wizard of Oz.  My Black oil sunflower seeds are tossed and dispersed erratically to attentive Dark-eyed Juncos below.  And then it comes to me.  I chase birds, because I fear God – not as defined from the Hebraic word mora (terror and dread), but yare (awe and reverence). I revere what the Creator has made for me.  “And out of the ground, the Lord God formed every beast of the field, and every foul of the air, and brought them unto Adam to see what he would call them: and whatsoever Adam called every living creature, that was the name thereof.”

These days, the names (both common and scientific) are all given, and the Lord God does not parade the birds before me; but He bids me to go find them. And find them I must. “For what can be known about God is plain to them.  For his invisible attributes, name, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made.”

I never quite understood how rugged men of the mountain west could speak of fly-fishing as a religion until I watched the movie A River Runs through It.  Now hopefully it is socially acceptable to admit that birding is a religious experience.  I sit at my desk, plotting and planning, scheming and dreaming of trips to the holy lands in pursuit of birds – places like the San Pedro National Riparian Area, the Edwards Plateau, Ruby Mountains, Big Thicket, Cheyenne Bottoms, Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, Ozarks, and dozens more.  These lands are holy, because the Lord God has tucked His birds away there in ancient and pristine habitats; thus, there I will go.  In finding them, I will draw closer to Him.

A sacred pilgrimage can only be understood by those who set forth in humility, sacrifice, and determinationSuch is my Birding Big Year: humility, because I bare my soul, my success (or lack thereof) transparent to the reader; sacrifice, because instead of writing this blog, I could be birding; and determination, because the 2016 Big Year is an enormous commitment of time and resources over 366 days, and yet who can tell what a single day may bring.  I am determined to go, and I am willing to take you with me.

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