Tuesday, October 18, 2011

The Big Year

The Oregon birding email list, Oregon Birders Online, has been abuzz with reviews of the movie, The Big Year. I had read the book of that name which is a true story of three guys each trying to accumulate as many ticks (birds) as he can in one year... and more than anyone else ever has. The movie begins "This is a true story. Only the facts have been changed." And that was accurate. It was a movie and a pretty good one but more about chasing a dream than birding. It skimmed over the part that I liked least about the book: the enormous expenditure of fossil fuel while chasing birds. The movie was a gentle comedy, after all, not a political statement.

But whenever I start to feel smug about my type of birding, which is mainly on our farm, using no fossil fuels, I remember my many trips to the coast to monitor Black Oystercatchers, my even more frequent drives 6 miles up Agency Creek to check on American Dippers, and my monthly, November through March, 80 mile raptor route to count wintering raptors in my area. All are for what I believe to be good causes, but good enough to warrant all that gasoline? I drive a hybrid, but still...

Yesterday, on my way home from a haircut, I stopped at a site on my winter raptor route where we've often found White-tailed Kites, relative newcomers to our area. I didn't find any yesterday, but I did find a Northern Shrike. I immediately called birder friend Carol because I knew she did not yet have a Northern Shrike on her Yamhill County list for this year. Carol keeps county lists and state lists as well as a lifetime list. Carol was very excited when I called. She told me it had been a great day for birds already. She had found a Barn Owl roosting in a tree in her back yard. Barn Owl was another species Carol had not yet had for 2011 in Yamhill County. She then drove out to the Northern Shrike site and found it. The excitement in Carol's voice at getting two birds for her list in one day made me happy: especially happy to have had a part in it. We all need something to get excited about.

Yesterday, after returning home from haircut and Shrike adventure, I talked Johnny into driving up Agency Creek to check on Dippers. I found one singing non-stop not far below a nest site that I had located this spring. Downstream a hundred yards or so, but out of sight from the singing bird, was another Dipper foraging and giving an occasional short burst of song. I videotaped the singing bird. It's not a good video and difficult to hear the bird over the water's sound, but it lets me record a Dipper singing in mid-October. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iyYNa5_eKTI Why was it singing? Were they a pair, communicating over the noise of the rocky creek? Or was one letting the other know that this was his territory? It is questions like these that excite me and keep me going back to observe and try to understand these fascinating song birds that swim.

Today, Johnny and I drove to the coast and hiked The Thumb to check on Black Oystercatchers. This was the first time in two years that Johnny was able to climb with me. His back surgery in June has given him his life back. The photos are of him at the beginning of the hike, and on the last stretch up The Thumb. Yes, it's really as steep as it looks. I guess this is a Big Year for Johnny, too.

We found only one of the three pairs of Oystercatchers that nest on the offshore rocks below The Thumb, but what a glorious day it was: warm, sunny, with thousands of gulls in the air and on the water; hundreds of Brown Pelicans and cormorants on the offshore island.

After several hours of enjoying the weather and the scenery, we hiked back to the car and drove to Fishing Rock, where we had seen one adult and one juvenile Black Oystercatcher three weeks ago. On the way we stopped to photograph another mob of pelicans, these resting on the edge of Siletz Bay, by Cutler City (one of the six Lincoln City "neighborhoods").

Although no Black Oystercatchers were at Fishing Rock this nearly high-tide time, the ocean was full of birds, including Surf Scoters riding the breaking waves. And what beautiful breakers they were.

Relaxed from the sight and sound of the ocean and its birds, we left for the Bijou Theater and The Big Year. We met friend Caroline there. Afterwards, we all went to a restaurant and talked about the movie and our own ways of enjoying birds. Caroline has made two trips to Antarctica to see penguins with their chicks and would like to go again.

We three especially liked, as did many of the online birders who reported on the movie, one scene when a Big Year pursuer leaves his old and ailing father in the snowy woods waiting for him while he seeks out a Great Gray Owl... then feels remorse and runs back to find his dad calmly watching the Great Gray Owl in a tree nearby. They stood together, both excited to see the big bird.

One birder commented that he disagreed with the premise that the birder who captures The Big Year record is "the best birder in the world". I agree with that criticism. There are big names in birding but they are people who have written field guides or are ornithologists who know much more about birds than just how to identify them.

Yet all of us "birders" have one thing in common: we love birds. Some pursue their passion by flying around the world seeing as many of the fascinating feathered creatures as they can. Others spend it sitting and observing. All of us get excited over something about birds and the out-of-doors that is, perhaps, intangible and not easily explained to non-birders... although I think many of us secretly believe that everyone would be a birder if he put a pair of binoculars to his eyes and saw a brilliantly colored Western Tanager... or stood by some mountain stream and heard a Dipper sing.

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