Wednesday, May 23, 2012

The Murre, The Merrier

Sarah. Looks mean, right?
Sarah Swanson is a very nice person who thinks my blog is hilarious. But I repeat myself.

She wrote me a letter asking if I'd like to join her Audubon Birdathon group. It's a fundraiser. People can sponsor you with a flat donation or give you a dime or so for every bird you turn up. She hoped she wasn't being presumptuous. What Sarah didn't understand is that if you tell me you think my blog is hilarious, I will bake you brownies. I will pick up trash on your section of highway. I will paint your house. Of course I agreed to go along. "But I might not be very helpful," I pointed out. "I love birds, but I'm not good at identifying them." My brain is like a colander. It's well-ventilated, but real knowledge runs right through it, leaving behind the noodles of unrelated factoids.

Sarah didn't mind. Her fearless group is named "The Murre The Merrier," and I could be their mascot if nothing else.

Still, I thought this time I might come in handy. I'd just come off of a week of birding in West Virginia, home to 14,000 species of migrating warblers, and I got to where I could pick out those little treetop nuggets like nobody's business. Sadly, in Oregon we only have two warblers, Steve and Larry, and Larry is peevish and shy.

Even the white-crowned sparrow counted.
Sarah gathered her platoon of bird warriors and gave us the battle plan. We were aiming for 100 species. She and her husband Max Smith had scouted the territory for key locations, and she intended to keep us on the march to cover them all. There would be no dawdling on this team. This was not a walk in the park: this was full contact birding. Sarah slipped a sharp stick into her pocket and off we went.

Our little score card lists 376 bird species we might encounter in Oregon. Of these, a hundred are bashful, a hundred more are just passing through, and some, like the Flammulated Owl, are entirely made up. We began on the grounds of the Hillsboro Library. In under an hour we had bagged 30 species, including a confabulation of acorn woodpeckers and a great horned owl. Excellent, I thought. In another two hours or so we'll have this baby wrapped up. We moved on to a wetland. "We're looking for bittern, marsh wren, Virginia rail, people. Go, go, go!" We went, went, went. We scored, scored, scored. Sarah mashed us all back in the van and we hurtled off for the coast. Birding is always an adventure, not least because birders drive with their heads out the window and cranked up toward the sky, and they brake for no apparent reason.

The magnificent Max Smith, co-leader
Haystack Rock is an iconic geological wonder in Cannon Beach formed from millions of years of accumulated bird poop. We met up with our totem birds, the short, stout, plain little items inexplicably named Murres. Pigeon guillemots. Brandt's cormorants, their turquoise throats flapping in the sun. Sarah retrieved a cattle prod from the glove box and away we went again.

It was a sharp group. I was completely outclassed. Halfway through the day my strategy was to look for very recognizable birds we hadn't seen yet, but when someone else spotted the Great Blue Heron (#64), I had nothing left in my quiver, and was reduced to wasting everyone's time by pointing out suggestive sticks in the water and little lichen-covered bumps in the trees.

We racked up shorebirds by the plattersful, whimbrels rocking up and down like sewing machines, red-necked phalaropes spinning in circles like gears, and turned back inland, inching towards the 100th bird, the trumpeter swan. We reached a consensus on the trumpeter, after failing to find the tiny yellow spot that would mark it as a tundra swan (although, according to the field guide, some of the tundra swans also lack the yellow spot, and yes, this is deeply unfair). And then we scored a back-up snipe. Which we needed when the trumpeter swan was revealed to be somebody's pet. Sadly, birders are much burdened by ethics.

And then off we raced to a couple more spots in the woods before collapsing exhausted, twelve hours in, with a total of 105 species. Sarah stood proud against the sky, triumphant and satisfied, resplendent in fishnets and leather and stroking a small whip. Let it never be said birding is a sissified venture.

I, for one, am completely flammulated.

49 comments:

  1. I'm worn out just reading it. No beer, no bratwurst? Trojans all.

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    1. I'm pretty sure I didn't skip beer that day.

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  2. Fluff and feathers, that sounds like one tweet of a day. Congrats on your achievement.

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    1. Thanks. I'm not at all sure I ID'd even one of those birds, but thanks.

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  3. Having gone birding for just one day, I was so tired by the end of it I can't imagine bagging 105 in a day! Congratulations to all.

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    1. Of course, getting up early is half the problem. (And how did I get up at five a.m. or earlier for 32 years, exactly?)

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  4. " Let it never be said birding is a sissified venture." So well said!. As a birder since my youth, all I can say is "Amen, sister."

    Glad you had an interesting time. At 105 species, you had an exceptionally good day.

    Well done, Murre! (Oops, that would be Murr; sorry.)

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    1. Some of my favorite people lend me the extra E!

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  5. I not only think your blog is hilarious, I also just happen to need a new coat of paint on the house. What are the chances? Shall I pencil you in for Saturday?

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  6. HOly Crow! It sounds like the Birdtan Death March! It sounds like Cycle Oregon -- the sort of thing you do so you can be glad when you stop.

    YOur blog is hilarious. I want you to come to one of my knitter's teas because I also serve coffee, it's coming into sangria season, and only about half of the gals actually knit anyway. Bring some appliqué or hand finishing on a quilt or something. You are smart and funny and will fit in perfectly.

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    1. Okay, let me know. Hey, I did Cycle Oregon for seven years in a row. I missed the very first year, or I'd probably still be doing it, so as to not break the chain. (so to speak)

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  7. Glad it was you not me. I only recognize chickens 7 times out of 10. But it did sound like more fun than your normal treasure hunt.

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    1. Birding is like a scavenger hunt. I always liked those.

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  8. You are indeed hilarious! And a 'game bird' as well!;-)

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  9. This was a delightful and interesting post. Isn't the Hillsboro Library property home to a lot of acorn woodpeckers?

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    1. Yes ma'am, it is, I am delighted to say. Until this birdathon, I thought they only had them in California and points south. What goofs they are. I'm very fond.

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  10. Soon you'll be ready for a Big Year! I can't wait for that story!

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    1. Well maybe I'll be ready to see the movie.

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  11. That sounds like great fun, except for the parts about getting up early, and working hard for 12 hours. But I appreciate the warning, in case I ever do decide to join a group of real birders.

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  12. Well, now, Sarah doesn't look mean to me; you must be some kind of sissy ... wait, what? twelve hours? let me just retract that, and add that your blog is hilarious, and brownies would sure hit the spot ... if you're still offering ... hello??

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  13. Okay, Blogger's being a jerk again. Just ate another of my comments.

    I envy your successful outing - despite (or maybe because of) my ever-present binoculars and bird book, I rarely see anything of note. But we do have a lot of great grey owls and sandhill cranes out our way. At least they're big and easy to spot. :-)

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    1. If there's anything better than looking at sandhill cranes confetti-ing out of the sky, it's hearing them.

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  14. I go around and around with my wife on this subject - why can't you bird (nuts) just be happy looking at pictures of birds in a book? You can see them clearly, they don't fly off, and you don't have to cloth yourselves in Gor-Tex and drive a g-zillion miles to stand out in the rain.

    The book, the BOOK! They're ALL there!! Geeze.

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    1. Right you are. Next week I'm going to begin excerpting the dictionary for Murrmurrs.

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  15. ..."fishnets and leather and stroking a small whip." Are you sure these were birders???
    Or were you all hunting the elusive mercilous dominatrix species.

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  16. A Flammulated Owl sounds like something that got hit by a spell in Harry Potter: sorry, your owl can't deliver mail for two weeks because it has been flammulated. Must Google.

    Well, Murr, another one off the bucket list! Good for you, you good egg.

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    1. I really should look it up too. But I hate to be confined by actual meanings of words.

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    2. "A Flammulated Owl sounds like something that got hit by a spell in Harry Potter" That's hilarious!

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  17. Birdathon: a perfect combination of pleasure and pain.

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    1. And yet, you register no pain. In spite of being the driver. A very good driver.

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  18. I can't believe I made it into your blog. It's like a guest spot on my favorite TV show.
    I think all my Birdathon team members must love the whipping, because they come back for more every year. Just be glad you weren't with the Wild Turkeys team. They saw 230 species in 48 hours, drove all the way to Summer Lake and back, and were probably forced to reabsorb their own pee to cut down on stops.

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    1. I am now, with a sharp stick, firmly drawing a line at pee reabsorption. But we love to be whipped by you (just you, and nobody else but youuuu...)

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  19. Love, love, LOVE this one, Murr! But then, I can honestly say that about every one of your blogs...at least those I've read - which has been all of them since I discovered you. And as I recall, you are an excellent spotter, birdwise, as well as highly entertaining in person so I'm quite sure you contributed much to the team efforts besides just offering yourself as a mascot. But left unanswered: did you find any salamanders???

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    1. Who had time to roll logs when the Bird Nazi was in charge? I mean that in the nicest way.

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  20. I love birds, but I can't identify but a very, very few. I would have been flummoxed, too. But it still sounded like a lot of fun. :)

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    1. You and me, Rita. We'll practice. Someone (hey! It was Linda!) told me if I learned one bird a month, song and sight and everything, I'd be well along in no time. It made sense to me. Have I learned one bird a month since that suggestion? No.

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  21. I am also an ignorant lover of birds. Far too many of the ones I see are classifed as LBJs (a useful phrase I learned from another blogger). LBJs are little brown jobs and they flit around in trees defying anyone to catch a clear look at them, let alone a definitive photograph.
    I loved your reportage of a fine and exhausting day and smiled loudly throughout. Thank you.

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    1. Thank you for smiling loudly. That goes a long way.

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  22. Texas, which I call home, even though I'm homeless, has over 629 species of birds so seeing 100 at this time of year, usually doesn't take much more than keeping your eyes open. But here in Oregon, where I'm currently hanging out at Malheur National Wldlife Refuger, you do have much fewer species.

    But as a dispassionate observer of Oregonions, I think most of them only even consider Western Oregon and think of the east as a wasteland and don't think of coming her, except maybe to hike. However I've been leading bird tours every weekend during May and we regularly find 70 or more species, including LOTs of warblers in our three plus hour tour.(Our brochure lists 22 warblers that are seen here.)Yellow warblers are breeding here and their rapid, sweet,sweet,sweet calls are all along our Lower Central Patrol Road as they streak through the willows. . Chats are calling in several locations. Headquarters has had a black and white warbler, several Townsounds warblers, warbling vireos, an oven bird, Black-chinned hummingbirds, Bullocks orioles, Blackheaded grossbeaks, and Lazuli buntings which can be seen against a sky holding pelicans, white-faced ibis, harriers, Caspian and Forester terns and several species of ducks.

    The marshes hold ducks,several species of herons, including black-crowned night herons, waders, including dowitchers, avocets, and black-necked stilts. Virgina rails,soras, and American bitterns call and show themselves. We have great horned owls and golden eagles babies to watch. Sandhill crane colts are appearing. Several species of swallows fly and twitter around most of the bridges. In the evenings, we can enjoy views of borrowing owls, short-eared owls, and several species of foraging hawks. Oh yes, we host the largest population of breeding Bobolinks.

    And all of this is near Oregon's Scenic Hwy 205 so you have wonderful views of rim-rock and hills, marshes, and Steen's Mountain.

    So come on down and visit our birding hotspot, and stay at one of the Historic Hotels in Frenchglen or Diammond. Vist the hot spring in Crane - only $2.00 for the pond on Thursdays. And you can easily get 100 species and still have time for an afternoon nap.

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  23. I have no idea why I haven't made it to Malheur or the Steens yet. I've been up close and personal every other corner of Oregon while doing Cycle Oregon. Bobolinks are my favorite new bird and I put them as my ringtone on my new Cellular Mobile Telephone, but I might switch over to sandhill crane. Meanwhile, Marilyn, Steve and Larry say hi!

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  24. What a fabulous adventure! I'd love to be part of a Birdathon one day, just so I can end up completely flammulated.

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    1. Some people come through unscorched.

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  25. I don't know why you thought you'd be "wasting everyone's time by pointing out suggestive sticks." Now that's my kind of bird outing.

    Murr, have I told you your blog is hilarious? It is. ;)

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    1. You're going to send me a paint chip, aren't you?

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