My Mini Big Year: Confessions of A ReHatched Bird Nerd

Bognor Marsh



I’m supposed to be visiting my mother but it’s very early in the day.  We haven’t set a time and her memory problems add a certain timelessness to everything. So long as I show up and spend time with her, all will be well. A cold morning now has the makings of a fine spring day. I head for Bognor Marsh; my brother’s best gift to me was tell me about this place. You go out the Derry Line, he says – remember where Uncle Bob and Aunt Rene used to live. Sort of, I tell him. He’s still a local – I’m not. Well, anyway, he says, that’s kind of the area where the marsh is. Once he’s gone off to work, I fire up the GPS and, there it is. I’s a fifteen minute drive.I pass the sign and double back and park – the only vehicle in there. The morning is warm and the woods are filled with wildflowers and bird song. It’s too early for leaves so spotting birds should be much easier. Paradise!

May is my favourite month here. After a long winter, nature has to make up for lost time. No leaves on the trees yet but the rocky ground is carpetted with wild flowers – great swaths of dog tooth violets and tiger lilies, new ferns and wild leek. I hear the drumming of ruffed grouse. A Wild Turkey gobbles nearby and  I glimpse a gray shadow on a low ridge.

And a warm front has brought a windfall of bird species. A Rose-breasted Grosbeak streaks past. I arrange my camera and my binoculars and set out down the forest road. Bird songs are confusingly everywhere. I’m not that good with warblers anyway – certainly not with eastern warblers. I stop and find a seat on a block of dolomite and watch. It doesn’t take long. An Ovenbird sings very close to me, insistent. I search and search with the glasses and finally see him. No more than 5 feet away. I glass the surrounding brush. A male Redstart chases a female – flashes of red and white and then gone. A Yellow Warbler appears and then another. I count five species in as many minutes and move on. Movement off to my right. In the cedars, a pair of Black and White Warblers work the trunk like nuthatches.

I start admiring the flowers. A pair of Scarlet Tanagers almost slip past me but the red and black male is easy to follow through the leafless trees. I remind myself to keep focused.

I’m back at the Marsh on each of the next four mornings. The weather is glorious. Pisshing brings a swarm of warblers each time – Black and White, Blackburnian, Ovenbirds, Yellow-rumped, Black-throated Greens, Northern Parula and others. I even see a Worm-eating Warbler, rare here and likely carried north on the warm front. Now I’m hearing thrushes, a Swainson’s and then the ethereal song of the ‘Swamp Angel’ – the Hermit Thrush. And there are other surprises —a Broad-winged Hawk, a tubby Evening Grosbeak, the Wild Turkey.

The old road runs across the dolomite that underlies the whole county. I carry on until the forest opens and I can follow the boardwalks out into the marsh. Here, tree swallows feed and chase each other – it’s mating season after all. Their feathers catch the sun and flash an electric indigo. A White-throated sparrow runs up the boardwalk and perches in a low willow. Farther in a Grasshopper Sparrow sings, if its insect-like buzz can be called a song.

A Wilson’s Snipe flushes and buzz bombs back into cover. I hear the clunky chortle of Sandhill Cranes and search the distant margins of the marsh for the source. I finally spot the bird, rusty-brown backed strutting and preening. Two more cranes fly overhead. A Broad-winged Hawk appears going the other direction and disappears, its flight obscured by the surrounding trees.

I remember that I’m supposed to be picking up my mother and, aside from taking photos of goldfinches and chipping sparrows, I leave. The birds are different each morning and it takes real willpower to leave when I ought to. Each time, my mother seems to think that when I arrive is when I was supposed to arrive. I don’t correct her. I’m sinning and I know it. Later, on our drive, I spot a Peregrine and, a few miles on, a Merlin. Not bad for good old Owen Sound.



My Mini Big Year: Confessions of A ReHatched Bird Nerd


Gray’s Harbor Shorebirds April 25-27, 2014

Gray’s Harbor is a huge shallow bay on the coast of Washington state. The biggest down is Aberdeen, the hometown, I believe, of the late singer Curt Cobain. Aberdeen has definitely seen better days. Changes to the timber industry and other factors have left too few people in too many buildings – that’s my impression anyway. Hoquiam, where the Gray’s Harbor Shorebird Festival is headquartered, is another logging town.  I stay in Ocean Shores, a beach town that never seems overly busy. I like Ocean Shores. I’ve never been to a birding festival before so I approach the activity with some slight trepidation. I used to know a lot about birds, or so I thought, but having been to a few birder nights and been challenged on bird lists I’ve submitted to ebird, I am now acutely aware of how limited my knowledge is. The fact that I once was a keeper of birds in a small zoo and looked after the rare Rothschild’s Myna, African Crowned Cranes, Hill Pittas, African Grey parrots and the like doesn’t mean squat in the birding world. My confidence, gained from being the only person in most groups who knew anything about birds, has evaporated.

Registration is at the wildlife refuge office near Hoquiam. I arrive and pick up my package. I also check out the birding stuff for sale – a good selection. I buy a couple of bird books I’ve wanted, Rite in the Rain notebooks and a pen and, of course, a cap. No one says much.  leave for my car. Someone points out the Great Horned Owl on a platform in a ro of trees. good. I have the owl on my life list but not on my year list. Except that I haven’t yet thought about keeping a year list. That thought gels over the next few days.  I drive to the local airport and the entrance to the sanctuary. It starts to rain and then stops. I’ve signed up for trips that will allow me to escape a tour if necessary.

Wind and rain, driving rain and gale force winds. It’s the Shorebird Festival in Gray’s Harbour, which is the vast bay where the town of Hoquiam sits. I arrive at the viewing area half way around the boardwalk to find a dozen or so birders, coated and hatted against the elements, spotting scopes ready. The tide is ebbing and already large flocks of birds search for places to land. Several thousand Western Sandpipers swirl by me. Two Yellowlegs pass over. Several hundred Dowitchers cruise past. Mudflats appear as the water level drops. Shorebirds alight and immediately begin to feed. A thousand Dunlins materialize to my right. The birds move constantly. Suddenly all take wing. We look skyward. A Peregrine hunts the marsh. Shorebirds rise in bewildering clouds, hoping to confuse the raptor. In a flash the attacking bird plummets through a flock and rises again – a miss this time. The instinct to confuse an attacker with numbers has succeeded. This time.

I’m now soaked to the skin and hungry too. Time to go back to the motel in Ocean Shores to change clothes. Then I’ll get something to eat and warm myself up hot coffee. Two hours later, I’m refreshed and dry and the sun has come out. The beach is on the side of a line of dunes and small marshes.

Sun breaks through, lighting the beach. I pick out moving shapes, shorebirds large and small fling, alighting, skittering along the shimmering line between sand and water. Amazing. Hundreds of birds feed ahead of the advancing tide. Marbled Godwits by the herd, a strange Alice in Wonderland parade of the largish birds. Dowitchers, Dunlins, Western and Least sandpipers keep pace. Behind them the crashing surf. The Godwits drive their strange upturned bills up to the forehead into holes, and then draw them out and slurping down their rather disgusting-looking catch.

It’s not warm but it’s not that bad either. After the rain ended, the wind dropped too. Now it’s a cool spring evening and I walk for miles it seems, following moving herds of birds. Finally, eyes strained and brain befogged. I call it a day.

That night, I eat fish and chips at Bennett’s Fish Shack bar. I’m not an extrovert so ‘The Shorebird Guide’ is my companion. Even exhausted, I’m reading about birds. If anyone notices this strange activity (for a bar), they’re polite enough not to say anything. I keep buying books. I’m tired but I consider going to a movie but bone tired from walking and concentrating, I return to the motel and crash.

The next day, we travel with our knees jammed against seat backs in a school bus to various destinations around Ocean Shores. Lots to see. A Wandering Tattler becomes a reluctant star hiding from its fans. Some of us climb the massive basalt block jetty to get a better look. The bird, staring back at us, poses for the occasional picture – good. Gulls wheel and cry, Scoters and Loons cruise the surf. The guides are volunteers and very helpful. I learn a lot

At Oyehut, we find more birds – Common Loons, Green-wing Teal, Horned Grebes, a Western Grebe and Savannah Sprrows. The raptors are there too. Peregrines work the shorebird flocks, sending up spinning clouds of Westerns and Least Sandpipers, Black-bellied and Semi-Palmated Plovers, Dowitchers and Yellowlegs. The falcons pick out and take their meals at blistering speed, the kill surgically quick. A northern harrier rises out of the dunes in leisurely flight, overhead bald eagles call, an Osprey, carrying a fish, disappears into the distance.

My Mini Big Year: Confessions of A ReHatched Bird Nerd


I probably should never have watched the movie ‘The Big Year’. Until that time, I had never heard of competitive birding and it still doesn’t make a lot of sense. But, somehow, I got kind of hooked on the idea of building a list – two lists actually: a year list and a life list. My whole approach to birding changed. The how and why is what this tale is all about. Now that I’m half way through my Mini Big Year, it’s time to reflect.

I’ve been looking for and at birds since childhood. I still have the bird books my aunt Rene in England sent me when I was ten. Incidentally, I’m still l scan for Hoopoes when I travel in Europe. I’ve yet to see this bird, the image of which imprinted itself on my young brain, but I keep hoping.

Now, I’ve decided to renew my interest in birds, to go to the naturalist society meetings and to join bird walks. At the start, I learned a lot from young Geoffrey and his father, David, who led some of these walks. Then I learned about ebird from a presenter at a birder night and signed up. Ebird made a huge difference. More about ebird later. A shorebird festival  at Gray’s Harbor, Washington coincided with my yearly short excursion to the coast so I signed up for some tours. So far, I haven’t even thought about a ‘Big Year’. I knew I’d be in southern Ontario to visit my mother in early May. Warblers and other birds would be migrating en masse then. I hadn’t yet thought about going to Point Pelee either,  a five or six-hour drive away.

I hatched the Mini Big Year after the fact, somewhere between going to the Gray’s Harbor Shorebird Festival and Point Pelee. Once I decided to do a Mini Big Year, I had to consider what that meant. Since this was my project and since I was the only competitor, I could make up my own rules.  I didn’t get the idea until January had more or less gone, so my MBY would officially start on February 1. How many species would I shoot for? The winner of the official Big Year recorded, I think, 750 species. I would shoot for half that – 375 (if my math is right). Optimistically, I would record 400 species. I thought it might be fun. What I didn’t expect was that I would get a bit obsessive about counting species. The other thing I didn’t expect was that I would reconnect with my old love of nature and would become, once again, attentive to the timeless rhythms of the seasons in the manner of a hunter.