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Bird by bird, citizen scientists pitch in

Jean Findlay, Gilbert Findlay and Ed Swan search for birds on Quartermaster Harbor during the annual count. - Michael Monteleone Photo
Jean Findlay, Gilbert Findlay and Ed Swan search for birds on Quartermaster Harbor during the annual count.
— image credit: Michael Monteleone Photo

It was like the call and response of a prayer in church as Sue Trevathan, holding a clipboard, read off the grand list of species at the end of a frosty but vibrantly sunny Christmas Bird Count on Vashon this past Sunday.

“Common loon,” she called out.

“Yes!” five or six people responded.

“Red-throated loon,” she asked.

“Yes!”

“Pied-billed grebe?”

“Yes!”

“Eared grebe?”

“Yes!”

“Western grebe?”

“Yes,” the response particularly enthusiastic.

“Pin-tailed?”

“Yes!”

“Canvasback?”

“Yes!”

“Virginia rail?”

“Yes, one,” a man answered.

“Wood duck?”

“No,” a few said, sounding disappointed.

And so it went for a good 10 minutes, as Trevathan, who organized this year’s count, read and the 20 or so birders gathered at the Land Trust Building responded. All told, 117 species were documented in the Vashon circle, a 15-mile swath that covers Vashon and Maury and parts of Pierce and Kitsap counties. Another 34 species — most of them considered extremely rare in these parts — weren’t spotted.

“It was a great day,” said Trevathan, wrapped in a thick fleece jacket and sporting a ball cap with the words “Bird Nerd” on it. “I was disappointed only in that my lakes and ponds were frozen, and I didn’t see any freshwater ducks.”

For 11 years, the Vashon chapter of the Audubon Society has been a part of what many say is the biggest and best example of citizen science in North America. The Christmas Bird

Count started 111 years ago, when hunting clubs would use the days after Christmas to see how many birds they could shoot. Frank Chapman, an ornithologist and officer in the then-budding Audubon Society, suggested a Christmas Bird Census as an alternative and, with 27 other birders, tallied 90 species on Christmas Day in 1900.

Today, it’s a ritual that spans the hemisphere and involves tens of thousands of volunteers in highly organized counts that take place sometime between Dec. 14 and Jan. 5. The numbers of individuals the counters report aren’t precise, but they are meaningful. “It provides a picture of how the continent’s bird populations have changed in time and space over the past hundred years,” according to the National Audubon Society.

On Vashon, more than 40 people in 20 teams participated in the census, fanning out across the Island’s forests and fields, circumnavigating ponds, walking marine shorelines and motoring out into Quartermaster Harbor.

This year, my husband Jim Evans and I — inexperienced but enthusiastic birders — decided to participate as well, joining up with Ed Swan, one of the Island’s most well-known ornithologists, at 4:30 in the morning, when the temperature hovered in the low 20s, Venus shimmered brightly in the eastern sky, and Vashon’s nocturnal species had yet to go to sleep.

We met Swan near Misty Isle Farm on Old Mill Road, climbed into his truck and proceeded to a series of forested spots where owls had been seen or heard in years past.

At each stop, we clambered out, stood silently and listened. Then Swan would hoot, first imitating the clear, flute-like call of the northern saw-whet owl and, after hearing no response, breaking into the deep and resonant “who cooks for you?” of the barred owl.

He began with the saw-whet, a small owl, because it’s preyed upon by the bigger barred and great northern owls — and if a saw-whet were nearby, it would become silent the moment it heard the hoot of one of its predators, Swan explained.

Spot after spot we went, trying to discern the faint bark of a dog from the possible hoot of an owl. Finally, in the distance, we heard a barred, moved closer and heard it again. Swan knew exactly where it was. “There’s a small pond in the woods near here,” he said. “A barred owl often hangs out there.”

A few moments later, we heard its deep, guttural hoot from a towering fir only a few yards away from us. Swan used a search light to try to spot the owl in the trees, but we couldn’t see it.

At daybreak, after more than two hours of searching and logging two barred owls on our list, Jim and I were ready for breakfast at Sporty’s, but Swan wasn’t. So we accompanied him on the next leg of the count. We boarded Vashon historian Bruce Haulman’s cabin cruiser, Vashona, named for a steamship that once plied these waters, and began a methodical search of Quartermaster Harbor.

On board with us were veteran birders Gilbert and Jean Findlay — he’s 75 and a retired English professor, she’s 70 and a retired school teacher — Pam Ingalls, a well-known oil painter, and Michael Monteleone, a photographer.

We stood in the bow of the boat, Swan with a large scope perched in front of him and a pair of binoculars around his neck, scanning the waters for the rich array of birds.

We saw an oustanding array: Three different kinds of cormorants — Brandt’s, double-crested and pelagic; small flocks of Pacific loons and occasional pairs of red-throated loons; large rafts of Western grebes, a graceful, long-necked bird now in decline in the Puget Sound; hundreds of surf scoters, which would hoot rhythmically as they flew out of the path of the boat; and, as we got further out into the bay, a lone pair of rhinoceros auklets, a stubby, deep-diving bird rarely seen except from a boat.

Swan, a blue wool cap on his head and red scarf around his neck, seemed unflagging in his enthusiasm and determination: He stood at the bow and counted stoically in the cold, while Gilbert logged the numbers until his scrawl, he joked wryly, became nearly illegible. The rest of us took breaks from the bone-chilling wind, stepping into the warm cabin to get the feeling back into our toes.

It’s science, but it’s also a spiritual trek for some.

“Seeing birds gets you out of your own little neuroses and reconnects you with the wonder of creation,” my husband said at one point.

I, too, felt moved and thought of that lyrical poem by Emily Dickinson: “Hope is the thing with feathers that perches in the soul, and sings the tune — without the words, and never stops at all.”

At the Land Trust Building, as people gathered to compare notes and eat bowls of spicy vegetarian chili, the conversation was animated and lively. Some of the finds were exciting to the veteran birders — four snipes, for instance, a northern pygmy owl and a greater yellowlegs at Raab’s Lagoon.

There were also birds that weren’t seen, though, and there was talk about the ongoing decline of the region’s marine waterfowl. Western grebes, for instance, have fallen dramatically in their numbers; scoters and goldeneyes are also in decline, though not quite as dramatically as Western grebes, Trevathan said.

Concern was also expressed about the state of great blue herons on Vashon; the birds’ eggs are raided by eagles, and their rookeries have all but disappeared on the Island, Swan said.

But mostly, it was an upbeat crowd, stoked, no doubt, by their many hours in the chill air of a beautiful winter day.

“I’ve been doing it for years,” Jean Findlay said, pausing over her bowl of chili. “You can’t have Christmas without doing the bird count.”

Besides, she added, “How often would I get to see a rhinoceros auklet?”

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