My Mini Big Year: Confessions of A ReHatched Bird Nerd

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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.

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