Bird-watching 101

Clark County enjoys a unique cross-section of winged life

By Scott Hewitt, Columbian social issues & neighborhoods reporter

Published:

 

10 BEST LOCAL BIRDS

Eric Bjorkman isn't just a self-made bird expert. He's an avid photographer too. One hobby tends to leverage the other, he said.

We asked Bjorkman to list his favorite birds to watch and photograph in Clark County. Here's his top 10 list, broken out by season, along with his own photographs.n Osprey.

• Western tanager.

• Yellow-headed blackbird.

• Savannah sparrow.

• Solitary sandpiper.

• Ring-billed gull.

• Anna's hummingbird.

• Bald eagle.

• Great horned owl.

• Varied thrush.

Photos by Eric Bjorkman

On the Web:

Vancouver Audubon Society

Birders and Clark County checklis

Ornithological Society

Pamela Gunn's local birding blog

Ridgefield Wildlife Refuge birding by Gerry Ellis and Jenn Loren

Great Backyard Bird Count is underway around U.S.

One nationwide bird activity our local Audubon group doesn't organize is the Great Backyard Bird Count, which is happening right now, through Monday.

GBBC is a four-day event that seeks to create a real-time snapshot of bird populations. Individual bird-watchers sign up via http://gbbc.birdcount.org and then spend as little as 15 minutes -- or as long as all four days -- watching for birds and jotting down exactly what they saw and where they saw it. Registering at the website gets you local checklists and further instructions. The data you collect goes to Audubon and to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology at Cornell University, where scientists put it all together to see how birds and their habitats are doing.

Last year, according to Audubon, 134,000 checklists were submitted -- making it the largest instantaneous snapshot of bird populations ever recorded.

— Scott Hewitt

Clark County can get to be a little like Grand Central Station sometimes. And we're not talking trains and taxicabs. We're talking wings and waterfowl.

"There is a lot of traffic through here," said Eric Bjorkman, president of the Vancouver Audubon Society, while hosting a "Bird-watching 101" visit to the Ridgefield National Wildlife Refuge. "It's a pretty special place."

Late winter departures now underway: tundra swans, mew gulls, northern pintails, buffleheads, golden-crowned sparrows, rough-legged hawks, greater white-fronted geese and ring-necked ducks. Among others.

Incoming early spring arrivals: cinnamon teals, turkey vultures, Western tanagers, rufous hummingbirds, Pacific-slope flycatchers and black-headed grosbeaks. To name a few.

Year-round residents: pied-billed grebes, great blue herons, woodpeckers, Western meadowlarks, marsh wrens, red-breasted nuthatches, great horned owls, red-tailed hawks and bald eagles.

That's just a smattering of the vibrant airborne society that either comes through or stays put in Clark County. As aerial crossroads go, this is an unusually busy spot because of the habitats and climates that converge here. The west side in particular offers a mild and rainy winter and many thousands of acres of linked grasslands and wetlands — from La Center Bottoms to the Ridgefield National Wildlife Refuge to the Vancouver Lake lowlands.

All of these are close to the Columbia River and not far — as birds go — from the Pacific coast. They attract shorebirds from the west and "neotropicals" from the south, as well as a wide variety of migrating birds from the north and east, Bjorkman said.

On the east side of Clark County, there's the Steigerwald Lake National Wildlife Refuge, in its unique riverside perch at the mouth of the Columbia River Gorge and the foothills of the Cascade Mountains. Dense with oaks and cottonwoods and nearly at sea level, Steigerwald attracts "a lot of unusual east-side birds that you don't see anywhere else" in this area, said Bjorkman. "They don't belong here, but nobody told them."

East of there, of course, you're headed into the Columbia River Gorge itself, which starts out with lush, mixed forests and then climbs toward dryer, higher grasslands and scrubby desert. All these environments are rich with overlapping bird life.

It's all part of what's called the Pacific Flyway, a network of regional migration routes that stretches from the Arctic Circle to Patagonia on the southern tip of South America. Clark County has the good fortune to sit right at the convergence of many of those routes.

"You've got the mountains and the forests, you've got the river and the ocean, you've got the wetlands right here," said Sherry Hagen, another Audubon officer. "It is really rich."

Why birds?

What is it that humans love so much about birds?

"The colors. They're beautiful. They're free. They fly, they can go anywhere," said Hagen. "When you start getting out and trying to identify them, you realize they're not only beautiful, they're just fun to watch."

Not to mention the lovely landscapes, of course. When The Columbian accompanied Bjorkman through the southern River S portion of the Ridgefield refuge -- early on the sort of damp, misty, chilly morning that inspires some human snowbirds to fly south of here for the winter -- the quiet beauty of the setting was a treat in itself. What better way to spend a Monday morning than outside with the birds?

Bjorkman said his passion for birds began about 15 years ago, when some friends insisted on dragging him and his wife on an outing. He rolled his eyes and teased them that bird-watching "was for old people," he said -- but then he caught sight of a dainty little Western tanager, all red and yellow and singing its heart out, right in the thick of the city.

"I thought it was the most beautiful thing I'd ever seen," he said — and his wife, fortunately, agreed. "We thought, how could we have lived our lives here and never noticed that? What else is out there?"

Not everyone has always found local birds so easy to love — and to overlook. Explorer William Clark complained in his journal more than two centuries ago about a racket on the river that kept him awake and cursing: "I slept but very little last night for the noise kept up during the whole of the night by swans, geese, white and gray brant, ducks, etc., on small sand island close under the port side; they were immensely numerous, and their noise horrid."

Those words are famous among bird lovers, and they're even quoted with perverse pride on maps you can pick up at the Ridgefield refuge. Bird lovers such as Bjorkman take them in stride — while tilting an ear to parse the slightly different cries of Canada geese and cackling geese.

"I love the sounds of the refuge," he said. "There's so much going on."

But so much less than there used to be — so take comfort, ghost of Clark: the billion or so birds that travel the Pacific Flyway every year actually represent a decline in bird population, according to the National Audubon Society.

Sounding alarm

Many environmental watchdogs, from Audubon to National Geographic to the federal Department of the Interior, have all analyzed the data and come to the same conclusion: climate change, suburban and industrial sprawl, pollution and habitat destruction are all conspiring to wipe out birds. Species that were already considered endangered or threatened are vanishing fast; species that used to be plentiful are now considered endangered or threatened.

Audubon, which was founded in 1904 and has made a name for itself as an effective protector of birds and their habitats — through support for the National Wildlife Refuge system and opposition to widespread, indiscriminate hunting and pesticides such as DDT — in 2007 released a widely cited report finding that 20 common North American birds considered to be in "steepest" decline have lost at least 50 percent of their populations, dropping from 18 million to just over 5 million individuals in just four decades.

"Things are changing," said Hagen. When her Cascade Park neighborhood was new, she said, she could look out her window and see all sorts of birds "that we just don't see anymore. They don't have a place to nest here. Or we see them only in migration. They're going someplace else."

Plenty to see, do

Don't despair, bird lovers. There's still plenty of overhead life here in Clark County — and plenty you can do to get involved in bird protection.

Chiefly, there's the busy local Audubon chapter, which maintains a thorough website (http://www.vancouveraudubon.org) you can use to explore the area's best birding opportunities. You can also check out Audubon's monthly newsletter, which is full of members' triumphal bird excursions and sightings, and even emergency tips and contact information for when you find an injured bird. (Main pointer: if it hits your window and seems stunned, be patient. It may recover its bearings and take off on its own in an hour or two. If it needs protection from your cat, put it in a box with air holes.)

"Vancouver Audubon has monthly field trips that can range from up the Gorge to somewhere along the coast," Bjorkman said. "They're usually daylong trips that allow you to stay and participate for as long as you'd like."

Vancouver Audubon lobbies at both the state and local levels on relevant environmental issues. A recent newsletter pulls no punches about current Clark County leadership and environmental stewardship. Climate change, oil spill prevention and the need to fully fund state parks are the big issues for 2014, it says.

Vancouver Audubon even makes grants to local and regional organizations. For example, in November the group unanimously voted to donate $500 to the Malheur Field Station, a research and educational facility in remote southeastern Oregon. Closer to home, Audubon has supported the Columbia Springs Environmental Education Center and the land-banking Columbia Land Trust.

Extremely close to home — right in the palm of Bjorkman's hand during the Ridgefield excursion — is an iPhone application called iBird. Bjorkman's version is iBird Pro, and it's stuffed full of searchable identification, behavior and habitat information as well as photographs and illustrations — and, crucially, playable audio clips of bird songs. It's an undeniably evolutionary leap forward for bird-watchers who are used to burying their faces in bird books.

"I used to think a duck was a duck," Bjorkman said.