The recent movie "The Big Year" spotlighted birders who are wild about keeping lists of every bird they've seen. Here, meet some of Western Washington's most accomplished listers, with tips on how to get started.
The black phoebe is a jaunty bird with a dark head and back that contrast with its white belly, bringing to mind a miniature flying tuxedo. A rare visitor to Washington state, in December 2001 one turned up at the Julia Butler Hansen Wildlife Refuge along the Columbia River in tiny Wahkiakum County. On New Year’s Eve day, Marv Breece, of Seattle, trained his binoculars on the unassuming phoebe and positively identified it, thereby gaining a reigning position in the bird-lister pantheon. The bird was the 359th avian species Breece witnessed in Washington that year, earning him a state record that stands today.
There are thousands of birdwatchers in the state, but only a relative handful keep serious bird lists. Sometimes living up to the hyperbolic high jinks in the recent film “The Big Year,” bird listing paradoxically combines a competitive drive with sharing inside knowledge (i.e., where the birds are).
According to Ken Knittle, founder of Washington Birder, a state online bird-listing repository, around 130 birders report county or state bird lists each year. Knittle, of Vancouver, Wash., is an “open source” birder who loves to share his expertise with birders of all levels, even coaching Breece and other big-time listers. Though he has trained his eyes on birds in exotic locales worldwide, Knittle is proud of his record lifetime list of 175 birds seen in each county in the state of Washington, and doesn’t like to leave because “something rare will show up and I’ll miss it.”
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But why keep lists in the first place?
For Breece, who drives an airport shuttle when he’s not birding, it’s a question of motivation. Checking for holes in his lists and zeroing in on one bird gets him out of the house.
“That focus changes as I bird because you never know what you’re going to see,” he says. “That’s part of the fun — it’s like a big Cracker Jack box out there. The best bird of the day could be something you didn’t expect to see at all.”
Matt Bartels, who manages county list-keeping for Washington Birder, says for him listing is a healthy obsession. Basically, when he’s not working or sleeping, he’s birding. In 2007, Bartels set the King County record of 249 birds spotted. This year he’s already reached his personal listing best — recording 100 bird species in each of the state’s 39 counties. Bartels achieved this in October without fanfare after spying a chestnut-backed chickadee in Tacoma, an everyday bird that became exceptional in this case.
“County listing makes me look at the common birds more closely — a bird I can find any week in Seattle, I might have to think about what habitat (it would frequent) in Eastern Washington,” he says. “It keeps it new and exciting when you have to puzzle out where to find, say, a Lincoln’s sparrow in Adams County.”
Bartels says winter is punctuated by rare visitors from the Arctic and Canada, such as imperious-looking snowy owls (seen in Seattle on Thanksgiving Day), common and hoary redpolls, and white-winged crossbills.
“The surprises are always the adrenaline jolt. In the Puget Sound area, you never know what kind of odd duck might show up,” he says. In 2005 just such a rare dabbler, the Baikal teal from Asia, caused a stir in local birding circles when it landed at the Green River Natural Area in Kent.
Ryan Shaw, of Tacoma, is hoping for an odd duck or two before Jan. 1. With a state list at 348 and climbing, he’s aiming for at least 354 for 2011.
Shaw keeps more than 20 bird lists, but the ones he cherishes most are his state, Pierce and Grays Harbor counties, and Westport-offshore tallies. Though he works and attends school full time, Shaw still manages to lead spring and fall pelagic birding trips with Westport Seabirds. This allowed him to add some uncommon offshore birds to his state list this year, including the Murphy’s petrel, horned puffin and short-tailed albatross.
Though he once drove 20 hours to chase down a Nutting’s flycatcher in Southern California, Shaw says now he’s unlikely to take such an epic trek for just one species (known among birders as “twitching”). Though he admits he’s not sure what he’ll do if something extraordinary touches down on the other side of the state before New Year’s Day.
Making it a business
For Brian Bell, birding is a way of life. The chair of the Eastside Audubon committee responsible for researching locations for Audubon Washington’s recently released Puget Loop birding trail map (see sidebar), the retired environmental planner runs his own birding and natural-history guide business.
Bell’s bird listing hit a high point this fall when he logged his 400th Washington bird (the record held by Gene Hunn is 442 out of 505 species known in the state) — a vermilion flycatcher that strayed up from Mexico to the Ridgefield National Wildlife Refuge in Clark County.
“Four hundred is a significant point to reach — it takes some work,” he says modestly. Bell started birding informally as a child in Southern California but didn’t begin listing until the 1970s when friends started keeping bird records.
Bartels says listing appeals to something in his personality that was there long before he began birding.
“It used to come through in collecting baseball cards or CDs,” he says. “It’s a non-accumulative way of doing the same thing. There’s something listers share that doesn’t necessarily tie in to birds.”
Kathryn True is a Vashon Island-based freelance writer.