Spring songbird survey in Eastern Washington can be a crash-course in birding — and provides important data on birds.

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RICHLAND — This part of Washington is a surprisingly good place to see birds, especially in spring. Warm (but not hot) temperatures and lots of sunshine also, conveniently, make spring a good time for humans to visit.

The sage thrasher is among key species in sagebrush country. (Dave Menke / US Fish and Wildlife Service)
The sage thrasher is among key species in sagebrush country. (Dave Menke / US Fish and Wildlife Service)

These sagebrush and grassland plateaus that can look so desolate from the highway are habitat for dozens of bird species, and a series of wildlife refuges are stopping-off points for migrating birds. Spring is mating season, when birds are loudest and therefore easiest to find.

But at any time of year, a combination of many birds and an enthusiastic Audubon Society chapter makes this a great place to jump into birding.

Seeking songbirds

Birds are everywhere, but their populations are declining and they can use some human help. A group of about 40 people from Seattle to Spokane gathered in the Tri-Cities on a recent weekend to train for the second annual Sagebrush Songbird Survey.

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The vast expanses of shrub-steppe lands that birds such as sage grouse and sage sparrows require to survive are disappearing, fragmented by housing developments and agriculture. The first step toward protecting these birds is learning where they live.

The key species for this count — the sagebrush sparrow, Brewer’s sparrow and sage thrasher — are small, often hidden in low-lying brush, and sometimes hard to spot.

“Despite all the work we’ve done on these species, we really don’t have solid data on their distribution,” Matthew Vander Haegen, a senior research scientist with the state Department of Fish and Wildlife, told the group. “It’s difficult to survey enough areas to get a good estimate of how many birds are out there.”

That’s where the count comes in. This is the largest community science project ever for Audubon Washington, the statewide birder organization, and volunteers will fan out across much of the state from April through June, systematically recording the presence of sage-loving birds.

To participate in the songbird count, volunteers must be trained or with a trained person. But ways to get involved in spotting, identifying and saving birds are almost endless.

Birds of a feather

The songbird-count training was a general crash course in birding in general and identifying key species in particular. In an open area, volunteers hid behind clumps of sagebrush and randomly held up pictures of birds and played bird songs on their smartphones as volunteers scanned for them.

Technology is making birding easier: Apps help identify birds based on their appearances, their songs and when and where they’re found. Websites catalog bird sightings.

But while birding is notoriously information-heavy, much of its appeal is simple: It’s an excuse to explore the outdoors — and to socialize. In fact, many birders say they got into it not for the feathered friends but to flock with fellow humans.

“When I first moved here, it made people available to go and do outdoor activities with,” said Kathy Criddle, a member of the Audubon Society’s Lower Columbia Basin chapter. Beyond local outings, the chapter organizes field trips ranging all the way to South America.

“The nice thing about birding is, wherever you go, you can do it,” said Lindell Haggin, representing the Spokane Audubon chapter.

But beyond travel and recreation, many birders say the biggest satisfaction comes from volunteering on projects. “That’s where the camaraderie lies. When you do it, you have buddies,” Criddle said.

When she was out laying the groundwork for the songbird count recently, Criddle watched a pair of golden eagles swirling together right above her head. “Doing this volunteer work gives us an opportunity to see things we wouldn’t normally,” she said.

If you go

• The Audubon Society will host two more training sessions for the Sagebrush Songbird Survey, in Wenatchee on March 21 and Spokane on April 4. To find out more about the songbird count, including requirements and how to sign up, see wa.audubon.org/songbird-survey-eastern-washington-underway.

• For more about Audubon Washington, including volunteer opportunities: wa.audubon.org.

The Reach, a new multidisciplinary museum and community space on the Columbia River in Richland, offers tours in conjunction with local organizations, including the Audubon Society and other wildlife groups. visitthereach.org.