Becoming a Bird Nerd

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My mom has been chairing the Pacific City Birding and Blues Festival for the last few years. I’ve been tempted to attend a number of times, but have never made the trip from San Francisco to her little town on the Oregon Coast for the weekend-long event. We convinced Mom to move this summer to Gig Harbor, Washington, where my brother and his family recently bought a house, so this will be her last year as chair of the festival, and there was a bit of pressure for me to finally attend.


So at Christmas time, knowing I had a casual interest in birdwatching (aka birding), mom gave me a book called Birding without Borders, by Noah Strycker, with a note inside announcing that Noah would be the keynote speaker at this year‘s festival, and that she hoped I would join them. Well, I read the book and loved it. Noah is a talented writer who managed to weave together a travelogue with an account of his quest – and achievement – of the biggest year on record.

A Big Year is when a birder tries to observe as many species as possible in one calendar year. Noah decided to do this on a global scale – a World Big Year – traveling to all seven continents with the goal of observing 5,000 birds in one year, which would be far and away the biggest year ever. Well, he succeeded, ultimately observing a grand total of 6,042 species, which amounts to over half of the bird species in the world.

Pretty much immediately upon finishing the book, I made arrangements to attend the festival. Noah didn’t know it yet, but I intended to befriend him. His trip sounded amazing, and as a traveler and writer, I admired his year-long commitment to his project. But even more than that, I was impressed with his ability to actually complete his book upon his return, publish it, go on a book tour and gain such a following, all considering he wasn’t even 30 years old.

I did my own big six month trip with the objective of writing a book when I was 23; that trip began 16 years ago this month. And I have still not written that book. I was certain with Noah’s influence, I would be once again inspired to settle down and write my book.

Thanks to a flight delay, my trip to Pacific City took way longer than it should have, but I arrived Thursday night while Mom was at a meeting in Tillamook. Her dog Molly and I went for a long walk in the evening as dusk was falling. An owl and some song birds called from the trees near her house. Two deer froze as we passed them at the top of the hill, with the setting sun and Haystack Rock as a backdrop. A feral bunny munched on the grass across the street from her house, unfazed by the approaching human and dog. Pacific City Is an echanting little beach town.


Oh Deer!

The festival opened on Friday, and I joined a field trip along the Three Capes Scenic Route. This was a day of learning, and meeting lots of people who knew a whole lot more than me about birds. My freshly acquired binoculars came in handy, but I soon realized that the high-powered ~$4,000 Swarovski spotting scopes that my guides Ram Papish (wildlife biologist and artist) and John Rakestraw (writer and bird guide) had were by far the better instrument for observing sea birds at a distance. On day one of the festival I observed fifty-four species.

A wildlife rescue center called Badger Run brought some of their animal ambassadors to educate us about raptors. I LOVE raptors. We got to see a Red-Tailed Hawk, a Swainson’s Hawk, a Rough-Legged Hawk, a Great Horned Owl, and a Turkey Vulture. I had no idea Turkey Vultures were so sweet and charming. And the owl was deilghtful; he had pair-bonded with his primary handler and was downright affectionate with her, nuzzling up and talking to her. But my favorite of the bunch was the very pretty little Swainson’s Hawk, who looked lilac and peachy to me, and was just a doll. Meeting those birds (and even the lovely but invasive European Starling) was a highlight for sure.

That night there was a hilarious presentation/concert by a comedian/musician named Tony Starlight. Full of birding puns, beautiful photos of birds he had observed near his floating home in Scappoose, and even audience sing alongs with parody songs he and friends had composed, everyone agreed that he was a great change of pace from the typical blues performances that have been presented at Birding & Blues for the previous 13 years.

Saturday I went on two more field trips, revisiting one of the areas I’d gone to on Friday (again with Ram), and visiting a new area on the other end of town (with Mark Elliott and Lorelle Sherman). A highlight was stopping at an area with half a dozen or so nesting boxes with tree swallows busily preparing their nests. On Friday I’d had fun taking pictures with my woefully inadequate lenses, but here up close to the swallows, I finally had enough magnification to get some good pictures of these pretty, playful birds.

When we got back, it was time for Noah Strycker’s keynote speech. There was a little time before his talk for me to get my copy of Birding Without Borders autographed, then buy a copy of his older book The Thing With Feathers and get that signed too. He presented a slide show about his big year, and it was fun to hear him retell some of the stories from the book, and to see more of his photos of birds and his misadventures. He seemed like a happy and generous guy, energetic, and smart. It’s not surprising that he was able to get local birders from around the world to help him toward his goal. After the talk I remembered to get a selfie with him, and he asked if I’d be at the blues performance later. Even though I knew he’d be one of my field trip leaders on Sunday, I was excited by the idea of getting some one-on-one social time with him if the show might provide that opportunity.

Turns out it did. The performance by Karen Lovely and her band was way beyond what I expected – she has a killer voice, and I really dug her energy and the grooves of her songs. Plus she had an amazing guitarist, with some of the coolest looking guitars I’ve seen. One had laser-cut wood designs of gears and cogs on the front, and another was shiny metal with cool little cut-outs and pin-prick holes forming florets around the sound hole.

But sure enough, I spent a good deal of the evening hanging out with Noah. I think I played it pretty cool, not coming off as too much of a fangirl. I thought I’d be nervous trying to strike up a conversation with him, but it was really quite natural and comfortable. He was great to talk with – attentive and curious, asking questions about me, and just being present in the moment. It must be strange for him, going into social interactions with people who know so much about him already, when he knows nothing about them. He seems to have a handle on it though; it didn’t seem to faze him a bit. I told him I’d be on his field trip tomorrow, and told him I needed him to find me a Tufted Puffin. Then I moaned about it starting at 7:30am. He said, “I know! It should be 6:30!” Ugh. Birders.

Sunday morning came a bit too soon for my liking, with my wine buzz fading into regret, given the early start. But I made it to Cape Kiwanda just in time, and there was Noah, alongside Russ Namitz (Oregon Big Year title holder), and Wayne Hoffman (a superb birder, and an unexpected bonus guide). Ram even stopped by after a bit. Here we got to take a bit more time watching the sea birds, and I even caught a glimpse of a Tufted Puffin through the scope. I had missed seeing Atlantic Puffins both times I went to Iceland (not that I tried), and I kinda have a thing for them, so this was pretty cool!

We walked to the top of the dune on Cape Kiwanda, and watched for more sea birds. From there we spotted a Peregrine Falcon sitting still as a statue on another rock to the north. It looked enormous through the binoculars – a strange and confusing optical illusion, considering they are not very large birds. We also saw Stellar Sea Lions lounging on a buoy, and even a Gray Whale passing very close to shore! More of the charming, red-footed Pigeon Guillemots, more of the Common Loons, more Double-Crested Cormorants, more, more, more.

It was time to descend the dune and head to our next field trips. I got chatting about Iceland with another woman who was preparing for a trip there, and when we were almost back to the parking lot, another participant pointed out that I no longer had my backpack. Oops. Back up the dune I went, and by the time I got back to my car, everyone was gone. I fueled up with coffee and a citrus & marionberry scone at Stimulus Coffee, then headed back to Sitka Sedge State Natural Area for my final field trip.

Sitka Sedge is so new they haven’t even finished building the parking lot yet. After parking in a dirt area across the road, as I crossed I was nearly run over by Russ and Noah. (Guess I had it coming – I’d nearly run over Russ in the parking lot the day before.) They’d decided to come to Sitka Sedge too, in search of some bird or other for Noah’s Tillamook County list. After catching up with my group, I realized I was craving actual movement and solitude; these groups move slowly, sharing sightings and scopes, learning how to identify birds, and learning about their behaviors and migration patterns. After three days of that, I just wanted to walk through the woods and listen. So off I went, wondering how far the trail went, and how long it would take me to get to the ocean.

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Great Egrets

Along the way I spotted a few birds I kinda sorta thought I could identify (Marsh Wren, I’m lookin’ at you), and one bird sang tauntingly to me through the woods – a long and complicated song – but never revealed himself. Eventually I came upon Russ and Noah, who had stricken off ahead; they welcomed me to join them, and before long we heard the song again and they knew it by ear: the Pacific Wren. Then the bird flew into sight, easy as pie. Jerk.

Noah and Russ invited me to drive with them for a couple of hours to hit up some more hot spots in search of Noah’s bird. Everywhere we stopped, we’d walk really fast along a trail while they’d name birds they heard singing and calling all around us. I barely saw any birds at all, but when we’d get back in the truck, Russ would hand Noah his phone and they’d start rattling off a list of species they had observed, checking them off in eBird (an app by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology used to report bird sightings). I had been using eBird all weekend for my own checklists, but never trusted my brain to complete the checklists after the fact. I logged everything in the moment. Mental note: get better at taking mental notes.


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Not sad we went on those speed-hikes. JUST. LOOK. AT. THIS. VIEW.

We went back to all of the places I’d gone on my Friday Three Capes field trip, but we never did find Noah’s bird. Back to Pacific City we went, and it was time for beer. Russ had an appointment to keep, but Noah and I met at the Pelican Pub and had a beer and some food, and talked on and on for another two hours. So yeah, now we’re basically best friends, just as I had predicted. 😉

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Me and a couple of world class birders, NBD

Bird nerds are interesting people. They like optics: cameras, binoculars, spotting scopes. They like travel: racing around their city, county, state, country, continent, and planet to see more and more species of birds. They like lists, books, and records: gotta find those birds, know what you’re looking at, and tell everyone else so they can find them too. They like to talk. Boy, do they like to talk. Guess who else likes to talk? This girl! I’m not sure I love the racing-around-just-to-check-a-box part of birding, but I definitely like the experience of being present while out in nature, listening, looking, and observing. And so, of course, I filled my garden with bird feeders the day I got home, and now I’m planting flowers to bring more birds and bugs around. I’m upgrading my binoculars, and taking pictures of birds from my desk. I’m…writing about birding. Thanks, Mom.

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