“Where I sat in the forest, overlooking the Anacortes ferry dock in a drizzling dawn, Winter Wrens were all around me. The tiny brown sprites seemed bubbling over with energy that morning. They chased each other among the dripping branches with the comic ferocity of mice; one hopped quizzically across the toe of my boot; another investigated a cavity in a stump, a possible nest site, a few yards away. From far and near, from higher in the trees, I could hear them singing their varied ringing trills: the Winter Wrens, belying their name, were announcing spring. Tomorrow would be the last day of March” (119).
Where I stand near the forest, overlooking the Anacortes ferry terminal, a single Winter wren alights along the stem of a cattail, faded and worn. A handful of shutter clicks, and its quick departure ends my opportunity for a proper photograph. I’m still thrilled. The first time I encounter this small “little brown job” (as Kaufman and others describe certain smallish, brownish species, like sparrows and wrens) is within the very month that the Kingbird Highway author did so 48 years earlier as he awaited a ferry from Anacortes to Friday Harbor on San Juan Island in search of skylarks, ‘Kenn Kaufman hit the road at age sixteen and spent a year crisscrossing the country to see as many birds as he could, in a birding competition known as a “big year.”‘ While I’ve taken at least ten trips to the area in the month of March, wondering if I might see the same species he did ( buffleheads (check), gulls (check) and scoters (check)), his time at this place was brief. During my many visits, I typically see several other common species, like the American crow, American wigeon, Spotted towhee, Hooded merganser, Red winged blackbird, Song sparrow, and Great blue heron. Besides the wren, it is here that I see, for the first time in my 57-years-long life, a little brown job that I learn only after uploading my digital photos, is a Golden-crowned sparrow. According to The Cornell Lab of Ornithology, “This sparrow is one of the least known of our songbirds, particularly on its northern breeding grounds. It has been the subject of only a few laboratory and field studies, so most of what we know about it comes from scattered notes in scientific journals.”
Kenn Kaufman’s big year was famous for many reasons, one of them for the size of the carbon footprint that he left in search of the 671 species of birds that he observed in one year, which was, in a word…miniscule. Since then, many birders have succeeded at seeing many more species, like Sandy Komito, Al Levantin and Greg Miller, who, in 1998, battled it out on land and sea to become the king of The Big Year. I won’t spoil the compelling story of their adventures, well-told by author (and now birder) Marck Obmascik. The following year, an American woman named Phoebe Snetsinger, “famous for having seen and documented birds of 8,398 different species,” died in a way all too common for dedicated birders. More recently, Noah Strycker “set a record for a worldwide Big year of birding, seeing [over 6,000] of the world’s estimated 10,400 bird species in a continuous journey spanning all seven continents from January 1 to December 31, 2015, which he recounts in Birding Without Borders (note: he left a brobdingnagian carbon footprint).
I’ve never attempted a big year, a big month, or even a big day, but I’ve spent plenty of time awestruck by the beauty of birds. And I learn something new with every encounter. This month, I finally found out why “[o]ne of the most abundant birds across North America, and one of the most boldly colored,” Red-winged blackbirds, seem to spend a lot of time in the company of cattails. Ahem…the female “[t]ypically puts the nest near the ground (or water surface in a marsh), in dense, grass-like vegetation such as cattails, bulrushes, sedges, and Phragmites in wetlands; goldenrod, blackberry, or willow and alder trees in uplands; and wheat, barley, alfalfa, and rice plants.”
During my search for Winter wrens, I observed several different species of sparrows, including this one, the Song sparrow. The Cornell Lab of Ornithology says that “the male Song Sparrow uses its song to attract mates as well as defend its territory…[and] the female Song Sparrow is attracted not just to the song itself, but to how well it reflects the ability of the male to learn. Males that used more learned components in their songs and that better matched their song tutors…were preferred.” I’d have never mated as a male Song sparrow.
Hanging out at Ship Harbor Interpretive Preserve (SHIP) near the Anacortes Ferry Terminal this March has rekindled my love of reading, bird watching and photography, which have taken a back seat to other endeavors (like pickleball and trail running) in the year of the Coronavirus. This past week was my final opportunity to discover never-before-seen species before Kenn Kaufman’s “Tomorrow would be the last day of March” (119) deadline that I’d set for myself. In my experience, soft morning light is optimum for outdoor nature photography, so I typically avoid photographing in the afternoons, but my decision to stop by SHIP one last time at that very time was unexpectedly auspicious. I arrived (camera with telephoto lens and tripod in hand) just in time to observe a dozen Great blue heron alight on a tree directly in front of me, where they remained for several minutes.
Kenn Kaufman’s big year hitchhike across America led him to encounter hundreds of bird species, make dozens of friends, and travel thousands of miles across the continental U.S. In the end, he says, “[T]he main thing I’ve learned from the young man I once was and from his still-continuing adventures. Yes, it’s good to go on a quest, but it’s better to go with an open mind. The most significant thing we find may not be thing thing we were seeking” (316).
Kaufman, Kenneth. Kingbird Highway. Houghton Mifflin, 1997, pp. 119, 316.