Birders scan treetops and underbrush in an annual count that began 108 years ago
Started 108 years ago, the bird survey takes place across the country and in parts of South and Central America, and is the longest-running ...
Seattle Times environment reporter
Sue Thompson slipped from her perch in Queen Anne's Kinnear Park and, concentrating, slid alongside John Rehr and Adam Sedgley, their faces buried behind binoculars.
"OK, I've got two dozen robins, 20 bushtits, eight juncos and a golden crowned kinglet."
After a beat, she quickly confessed: "Not sure about the robins, though. Could be more."
Thompson, Rehr and Sedgley were among 180 people who scoured Seattle Saturday as part of the National Audubon Society's annual bird count. Started 108 years ago, the survey takes place across the country and in parts of South and Central America, and is the longest-running wildlife census in the world.
Birders scanned treetops and underbrush, the tops of buildings and the shores of Puget Sound, attempting to count every bird they saw. The tallies ultimately will be fed into a database that Audubon uses to track the health of bird populations nationwide.
For volunteers such as Rehr and Thompson, husband and wife, the count is also a chance to learn from experts. Sedgley, a staff member of Seattle Audubon, is one of the event's organizers and, Thompson whispered, "he's really good."
By early afternoon this trio, who spent their day primarily on and around Queen Anne, had spied hundreds of birds — 39 different species in all, from the lucky glimpse of a Townsend's warbler to the eighth Anna's hummingbird Sedgley watched zip by the window of Rehr's Honda.
"Fifty years ago you wouldn't find any Anna's in Washington," Sedgley said, as he ambled along the path at Kinnear. "But they've been moving north from California, expanding their range."
Suddenly he whipped around. Flitting near the top of a tree, emitting a little screech, bounced another Anna's.
"I see it now," Rehr said. Then he added sheepishly, "I thought it was the electrical wires buzzing."
Much of the count isn't visual at all. The winged creatures are tracked aurally, by finely honed ears. And yes, heard birds count, too.
Sometimes the counting is easy. But sometimes the birds are ... uncooperative. When Thompson's American robins descended on a holly tree, they bobbed and dove, making an accurate count all but impossible.
"This," Sedgley said, laughing, "is maddening."
When, a few minutes later, two birds swooped past his head, Sedgley chased after them, thinking he'd heard the call of a varied thrush. Below the park, traffic whizzed along Elliott Avenue.
"Nope," he said finally. "Guess I just heard car brakes."
This trio is familiar with the zealousness birding can inspire, but only Sedgley confessed to dreams of what birders call a "Big Year": a full-time, January-to-December, nationwide trek to spot as many different species as possible in 12 months.
"Travel the country for a year looking a birds?" Sedgley asked dreamily. "Yeah, I could enjoy that."
Asked about a feud, described recently in The New York Times Magazine, between a Texas birder who killed a piping plover-stalking feral cat, and the toll-booth operator who secretly fed the feline, Sedgley nodded in sympathy. In some circles, cat people and bird people don't mix.
"Oh yeah," Sedgley said. "That's a big controversy."
Just then, a sharp-shinned hawk landed on a branch, a common, though not abundant, predator — a nice find.
"Excellent!" Rehr said.
Craig Welch: 206-464-2093 or email@example.com
Copyright © 2007 The Seattle Times Company
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