Becoming a Bird Nerd
September 3, 2013
Becoming a Bird Nerd
September 3, 2013
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By Haley Shapley
Photo by Michael Woodruff

Growing up near Lions Park in Bremerton, the only bird I can remember seeing there was a chicken in the form of a swing. After getting chicken pox at the age of 3, the next time I saw that swing, I gave it a good scolding and a little slap, assuming it was the cause of my red marks — a quite logical conclusion to draw, I think, although my family still makes fun of me for it.

So when I found out Lions Park is one of the stops on the Puget Loop of the Great Washington State Birding Trail, I had to go back to see what else I could find (of the non-contagious diseases variety).

A small, shiny bird fluttered 40 feet above the water before dive-bombing in search of dinner; gulls ably competed with fishermen for a meal, hauling catches away in their beaks; and graceful, long-necked cormorants zipped over the glistening blue waves just below their outstretched bodies.

I didn’t know exactly what I was seeing (a Google search is how I identified the cormorant), but I was fascinated nonetheless.

Birds, I found, have the power to mesmerize. Seattle-based Lauren Braden never thought much about them growing up in Illinois until one day in her teens when she saw a bright red songbird with black wings perched in a spruce tree in her backyard. “I did research at the library, and that really just opened up the whole world of birding to me,” remembers Braden, editor of Northwest TripFinder. “I didn’t call it birding then and I didn’t know it was a hobby, but I started noticing birds everywhere.”

The almost tropical-looking bird was a Scarlet Tanager, and for Braden, it’s what’s called a “benchmark bird” — one that gets someone hooked on birding.

She later earned the Master Birder designation by taking an intensive course offered by Seattle Audubon. To get in, applicants must be able to identify 80 to 100 birds by sight and 20 by song.

Braden is a self-described bird nerd, but what if you’re more like me — I’ve got the crow, the hummingbird, and now the cormorant down — and don’t know quite where to look, let alone how to identify the winged creatures zipping by?

In the Puget Sound area, it’s almost impossible not to see birds if you’re paying attention, but a great place to start is with Audubon Washington’s birding trails, self-guided routes for people who want to seek out birds. The seven loops cover the state and have about 40 to 70 stops each; details include descriptions of the habitat, what birds are hanging out in what season, viewing location suggestions, and how to get from a main road to the location. (Four loops touch the Puget Sound: Cascade, Olympic, Puget, and Southwest.) While most of the loops are done by car, some trails include paddling, biking, and walking routes. For the technologically minded, an iPhone app helps you find good birding stops nearby and outlines what you’re most likely to see in each area.

Audubon Washington’s Birding Trail Program Director Christi Norman was inspired to undertake the decade-long project to create the loops in order to provide an easy-to-use guide for people, particularly families, to get out and enjoy the beautiful habitats in which our birds live. “If you love something, you’ll protect it, but you won’t love something until you experience it,” Norman says.

When it comes to finding those beautiful habitats and all that resides there, the options are abundant. Washington is home to 346 annually recorded birds (and a few more that accidentally make it here on occasion), according to Norman, and Braden says you can easily see 50 types in a day just around the Puget Sound.

Beginners with an interest in birding would be wise to find the nearest Audubon chapter and look for a class or a field trip. This will give you tips on how to spot birds, how to efficiently use binoculars (the only piece of equipment you really need), and how to identify what’s flying around or hiding nearby. “Instructors will be able to show you a warbler and tell you what it is and explain that it just spent the winter in Guatemala,” Braden says. “Those stories around the birds are what make bird-watching so fascinating.”

While winter is the best time to bird around the Puget Sound, thanks to its role as a winter habitat for a wide range of species, there’s plenty to see year-round. Wondering where to start? Try these spots:

Point No Point, Hansville. Among the sandy beaches, churning tides, and thick marshes of this Kitsap Peninsula location are a huge variety of birds. “Point No Point is probably one of the best places to see waterfowl, loons, and ducks,” says Norman, whose favorite way to bird-watch is by sailboat. “You might see a Marbled Murrelet, which is just the cutest thing.”

Union Bay Natural Area, Seattle. Next to Lake Washington, this 74-acre public wildlife area provides a home for more than 200 species of birds, including ones that settle in the ponds ringed with poplars and cattails. “In terms of habitat in the city, I’ve seen more birds there than anywhere else,” Braden says. Keep your eye out for warblers, woodpeckers, raptors, eagles, and ducks.

Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge, Olympia. Songbirds, shorebirds, seabirds, and more abound at this estuary habitat refuge, where the freshwater of the Nisqually River meets the saltwater of Puget Sound. Among the 200 species annually are the Least Sandpiper, the world’s smallest shorebird at less than an ounce, and the Caspian Tern, one of the largest gulls (it looks like it’s wearing a black cap). Take a volunteer-led walking tour to get your bearings.

Whidbey Island. You could spend a full day on the state’s largest island, Braden says. Try Ebey’s Landing for European Starlings, Song Sparrows, and Winter Wrens; Penn Cove for Great Blue Herons, grebes, and kingfishers; and Langley City Beach for scoters and mergansers. You can also take the ferry to Port Townsend and bird-watch along the 30-minute ride. (Sea lions and harbor seals swim along this route.)

Spencer Island, Everett. Part of the Snohomish River Estuary, the 400-acre Spencer Island is a top spot for glimpsing waterfowl and shorebirds (deer, coyote, river otter, and small mammals and amphibians are also present). Short out-and-back trails take you into the thick of things, where Bald Eagles, Great Horned Owls, and Northern Harriers reside year-round.

Seward Park, Seattle. “Seward Park is really special, with an old-growth forest in a city, which is almost unheard of,” Norman says. “It’s the best place to see Western Tanagers. They’re yellow and red and black, and what could be more elegant than that?” The Seward Park Environmental & Audubon Center, an educational facility, is also located here.

Growing up in Illinois, where there are only two types of habitats, Braden quickly saw all the birds there were to see. In the Puget Sound, boredom with our ample population of feathered friends is nearly impossible — and we have our natural landscape to thank for that.

As Norman says, “Where birds thrive, people prosper.”

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