Steve Ellis, of Coupeville, took a page from the ‘big year’ craze among birdwatchers, but instead looked for bats, dolphins, weasels and the like.

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Illustration by Emily Eng / The Seattle Times
Illustration by Emily Eng / The Seattle Times

As the ferry pulled out of Whidbey Island’s Keystone dock into Admiralty Inlet on a morning last November, Steve Ellis braved a chilling wind out on deck, scanning the waters with a gaze more intent than those of other passengers.

He was nearing the end of a Mammal Big Year — like birdwatchers who set out to “collect” as many bird sightings as possible in a chosen calendar year, Ellis spent a year ticking off mammals in the same manner.

The boat was accelerating to cruising speed when he glimpsed the unmistakable beak of a dolphin as its sleek body dipped beneath the surface, just 30 feet from the starboard side. As it submerged, a second dolphin popped above the water, confirming Ellis’ identification: It was a common dolphin of the short-beaked variety — not at all common in Puget Sound; our resident harbor and Dall’s porpoises were already on his list.

Ellis was elated. Not only was this the first dolphin sighting of his life and the 69th addition to his big-year list, but he felt especially vindicated in “catching” this generally warm-water ocean-dweller. Following tips of reported short-beaked dolphins frolicking around Harstine Island near Olympia, he and his wife (and fellow adventurer), Martha, had already traveled twice to the far reaches of Puget Sound only to be skunked by the peripatetic cetaceans.

“I wanted to tell the ferry captain to stop, but I got really good looks at them — they have a beak that our porpoises don’t have,” he says. “It was a once-in-a-lifetime thing, but this is the kind of stuff that happens when you’re doing a big year.”

Lifelong list keeper

Ellis, who lives in Coupeville, on Whidbey Island, and works for the Coupeville School District maintenance department, didn’t rely on luck to achieve a 2016 total of 74 mammals in four states. A lifelong list-keeping naturalist who tracked hares and weasels through the snow of his boyhood yard near Anchorage, Ellis is active in the Whidbey Audubon Society, and keeps life lists of not only mammals (111), but also birds (421), butterflies (94), amphibians (15) and reptiles (14).

“I’m in the birding community, but I tell people if you’re only interested in birds, you’re only reading one page of the book — and it’s a really big book,” he says.

Ellis had toyed with the idea of attempting a mammal big year before, but in 2015, a near miss with a badger that barely escaped the front tires of his Dodge in Utah, and an auspicious brush with the secretive marten later that year in Oregon, prompted him to act. (Ironically, neither of these wily mammals made an appearance during his official big year.)

His experience shows that you don’t have to travel far or have a big budget to weave a mission like this into very local travels; Ellis recorded 30 mammals on Whidbey, and 58 in the state. The others were seen on road trips in Idaho, Wyoming and North Dakota.

Steve Ellis on the road west of Port Townsend in April 2016, during his Mammal Big Year. (Martha Schaefer Ellis photo)
Steve Ellis on the road west of Port Townsend in April 2016, during his Mammal Big Year. (Martha Schaefer Ellis photo)

“You need to study up on the various creatures and know where they’re going to be,” he says. “It’s different from birding where you just go to the habitat. You can’t do that with mammals — you’re trying to intersect their life at one point and place in time, and it’s remarkable when you can. They don’t want to be seen and, unlike birds, very few are vocal. If you learn their habitat requirements and some of their behaviors you can do it, just keep your binoculars ready, be out a lot and talk to people.”

Through talking to people Ellis had one of his most memorable mammal encounters. A naturalist friend told him about a long-tailed weasel seen near Oak Harbor. Ellis followed directions to the spot and crossed a field punctuated by hedgerows. Acting on a hunch, he focused in on one area, got down low to the ground and bellied up to a bush. He could hear something scampering around inside so he backed off, but then he circled back.

Illustration by Emily Eng / The Seattle Times
Illustration by Emily Eng / The Seattle Times

“I stared intently in there and suddenly came face to face with the weasel! It had a bird in its mouth, and it didn’t see me at first,” he says. “As long as I held steady, it didn’t move. It froze and we stared at each other for a few seconds until it turned and ran into thicker growth. It was only about 2 feet away!”

Other remarkable encounters include discovering a rare Townsend’s big-eared bat — its namesake ears rolled up in repose — hanging from the ceiling of a shelter at Ebey’s Landing National Historical Reserveon Whidbey (a bat-expert friend helped him with ID); observing a congregation of 27 yellow-bellied marmots sunbathing on the Republic High School football field in northeastern Washington; watching two baby black bears tumble in a sun-dappled forest in Montana’s Glacier National Park; and a Northern flying squirrel that graciously revealed itself at South Whidbey State Park on Ellis’ ninth attempt to record this bushy-tailed, nocturnal, old-growth-loving rodent.

Illustration by Emily Eng / The Seattle Times
Illustration by Emily Eng / The Seattle Times

Though a trip last June to Glacier and Yellowstone added some impressive mammals to the list — including grizzly bear, moose and gray wolf — some of the most interesting encounters happened closer to home — one even inside the Ellis home in Coupeville. One day last August, Martha Ellis heard noises coming from a wastebasket in the corner of the bedroom. Somehow a vagrant shrew (the only type of shrew found on Whidbey, this one living up to its name) had entered their home, seemingly asking to be counted.

Not all easy

Contrary to that find, most of his mammal “gets” were far from easy, and Ellis admits he became a bit obsessive about his quest, especially late last fall.

“It’s all I was thinking about toward the end,” he says. “My co-workers would be talking about a football game, and I’d be thinking, ‘Where can I get a Dall’s porpoise, or a striped skunk’ … not normal lunch conversation.’”

As the weather started closing in, Ellis took day trips every free weekend day and headed out hours before work, eager to nab just one more animal. He remembers slogging up a steep road off Highway 20 through a foot of snow late in December.

“A mile up at one bend in the road there was a short-tailed weasel, he’d already turned white — I earned that one!” he laughs. Also known as ermine (once a fur-industry staple), these mustelids turn completely white in winter except for the black tips of their tails.

On Dec. 29, with three days until his deadline, Ellis anxiously awakened at 4 a.m. and decided to head out toward the Skagit River. As a light snow turned heavier he knew he should head home, but not before he checked just one more side road. It was there that he saw a striped skunk “walking daintily cross the road” — the last mammal logged in his big year.

Illustration by Emily Eng / The Seattle Times
Illustration by Emily Eng / The Seattle Times

But he had to go to work

Steve Ellis feels proud of his tally of 74 mammals, and believes the count would have been higher had he been retired. (It was painful for him to miss out on pursuing leads such as when a fin whale — the world’s second-largest animal — strayed into the Sound on a workday.) In the future, he plans to try a Vertebrate Big Year, setting a number goal for each animal type: mammal, bird, reptile, etc.

One of the side goals of his Mammal Big Year was to inspire others to expand their appreciation for the incredible biodiversity of the Pacific Northwest.

“Just think of mountain goats and how they are designed for their habitat, or pronghorns or humpback whales — we have so much fabulous stuff here, the creatures are just marvels,” he says. “You don’t have to go to Africa to see wondrous things.”

 

Tips to make your ‘big year’ big

In addition to the advice of friendly fellow naturalists, Steve Ellis relied on these resources in his search for and identification of mammals:

A big year on the big screen

Want to tune in more to the “big year” phenomenon? There was enough drama and humor to make a 2011 motion picture, “The Big Year” (of the bird-watching kind), starring Jack Black, Steve Martin and Owen Wilson.