Birders of a feather gather for exercise, education, nature and camaraderie.
IT’S DAWN ON a cold and blustery morning, when most people are still recovering from holiday food comas. About 20 folks, many toting binoculars and scopes, huddle in a parking lot at the Center for Urban Horticulture near the University of Washington. They’re here for Seattle Audubon’s annual Christmas bird count. It’s a national event, always the Saturday after Christmas, no matter the weather.
Group leaders brief their teams. Toby Ross, who oversees the count for Seattle Audubon, answers questions, like, “What if a flying flock is headed toward another group’s jurisdiction?”
“If it has feathers and a heartbeat, we count it,” Ross says.
Volunteers chat quietly as they follow a typical bird-watching pattern: Walk. Stop. Listen. Look. The real socializing will happen in the evening, when many of the day’s 310 volunteers throughout Seattle convene for the post-count potluck dinner. Around bowls of hot soup, they share census numbers, celebrate their finds and bemoan the birds that didn’t show up this year.
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For birders, the hobby combines many good things: exercise (usually not too strenuous), learning, communing with nature.
And then there’s the camaraderie with people who share an interest that, not infrequently, grows into an obsession.
Many of these birders are retirees who have the extra time to pursue a hobby that can involve a lot of it. But others are younger. Among them is Peter Deng, who grew up here; moved to the Washington, D.C., area; then returned after graduate school. Another of his hobbies, running, introduced him to birding.
He volunteered for the Christmas bird count along with two of his friends, Katie Amrhein and AJ Chlebnik, both of whom work at the PAWS Wildlife Center in Lynnwood.
They’re relative newbies, but they’ve met many experienced birders enthusiastic about sharing their knowledge. “You don’t learn more unless you get out there,” Chlebnik says.
One of the group leaders, Louis Kreemer, is still in high school. Tall, soft-spoken and entirely focused, he pauses to count individual birds in flocks, one of his particular skills.
He was one of the birders Bill Driskell first met when Driskell was still mostly interested in more general nature photography. Now, Driskell joins bird walks and has even taken birding-focused vacations with like-minded folks. “It’s really a fun way to be with other people,” he says.
A few birders are locally famous, to the point that everyone in the group seems to know them, or at least of them. Those stars include Larry Hubbell, whose Union Bay Watch blog tracks birds in this area, and Connie Sidles, whom Driskell calls “Queen of the Fill” for her knowledge of the Montlake Fill’s birds. Kreemer is one of them, too. He has passed the Audubon’s Master Birder test, which requires identifying hundreds of birds by sight and call.
One of the best things about birding, its aficionados say, is that it’s open to people at all levels of interest and knowledge. Audubon’s guided neighborhood bird walks, held a few times a week throughout the Puget Sound area and open to anyone, are an easy entry point. Neighborhood Bird Project looks for volunteers for its monthly bird counts. But don’t be surprised, birders say, if you find yourself wanting to do even more.