How to Win a Birdathon

WC should explain first what a Birdathon is. Other than a portmanteau, a construction of “birding” and “marathon.” Nominally, it’s a fundraising event, to generate those precious unrestricted bucks for a charity, usually a bird-related charity. But to a considerable extent, it’s also a hyper-competitive attempt to see as many bird species as possible in a 24-hour period. If you don’t think birding is competitive, you need to watch The Big Year.

It works like this: a team is assembled, consisting of birders, the more skilled the better. The birders obtain pledges of money – maybe twenty-five cents for each species seen. If you can find rich donors, maybe even a buck a species. Lots of donors. You map out your route. You scout nest locations. The team is critical; in the case of the Alaska Bird Observatory’s 2005 team, that involved assembling a team of Luke DeCicco, Nick Hadjukovich, WC and Mrs. WC. The young eyes of Nick and Luke – usually referred to collectively as Nuke or Lick – proved to be indispensable. We started in Valdez. We arrived in late afternoon and did some scouting. One reason to start in Valdez is that it has nesting hummingbirds, specifically Rufous Hummingbirds. In birder slang, a Rufous Hummer. Nuke were able to find a Rufous Hummer in a motel parking lot.

Nick and Luke spot a Rufous Hummer

Nick and Luke spot a Rufous Hummer

This is what passes for humor among birdathon team members, and this was before the thing actually started. The next morning we went to the late Tom Schantz’s house. When a real Rufous Hummingbird arrived at this feeder, we started the 24 hour clock. WC will slip chunks of his birdathon report to his donors in this blog post to give you a feel for how it went.

Tom Schantz also knew some of the hot spots we didn’t. As a result, we left his yard with 11 species, 3 of them birds we didn’t get at all last year, including a Steller’s Jay and several Pine Siskins. Down at the docks behind Peter Pan Seafoods a flock of mixed gull species produced not just the usual Mew, Herring and Glaucous-winged Gulls, but also a Glaucous Gull, both Double-crested and Pelagic Cormorant, Black-legged Kittiwake, Arctic Tern and, a real rarity, an Aleutian Tern.

But it’s a chore to pick individual gull and tern species out of a flock of a couple hundred birds. Can you find the Aleutian Tern in this photo?

Sorting Out Gulls and Terns in Valdez Arm

Sorting Out Gulls and Terns in Valdez Arm

And not all birds flock up. Sometimes the most interesting are solo, out in the middle of the Arm. You have to scan with a scope.

Scoping for Seabirds in Old Valdez

Scoping for Seabirds in Old Valdez

Again, quoting from WC’s 2005 birdathon report:

We got lucky in Old Town, the ruins of Old Valdez, finding a Ruddy Turnstone, a Wandering Tattler, a Cackling Goose and all three loons: Pacific, Red-throated and Common. A little further out in Valdez Arm we found a Common Murre and Pigeon Guillemot.

I was designated to scan the rocks for shorebirds. While I was trying, Luke picked up a Crested Auklet in the Arm. Not just a great birdathon bird; a lifer for me. And embarrassing.

Ruddy Turnstone in Flight, Valdez Arm

Ruddy Turnstone in Flight, Valdez Arm

We left Valdez with 72 species, a record pace. Kenny Lake, a half an hour along the Edgerton Highway, produced some very good birds, including a Ruddy Duck.  But that’s a well-known hotspot. No, the secret to winning a birdathon is this:

Okay. It’s a long, tedious drive from Glenallen to Paxson. There aren’t a lot of birds. The goal is to get through it quickly and get back to birding. I’m dragging along at 65 mph. Nuke are in the back seat. The windows are tinted. It’s drizzling and grey.

Nick sings out, “Bohemiam Waxwing.” Sure. But we stop, turn around. Drive back. And he’s right. And not right on the road, it’s 30 yards back in the scrub. Sigh. Ten minutes later, “Gray Jay.” He’s right again. Fifteen minutes later, “White-winged Crosbill.” Sigh. Freaking 50 yards off the road.

 And there you have the secret. Two young, very good birders, with young eyes and incredible spotting skills. That’s all it takes.

Well, actually, you kind of have to keep an eye on the young birders, too. Mundane things like an incoming tide sometimes escape their attention

Luke Just a Little Too Focused on the Bird

Luke was working hard to re-find an Eared Grebe out in Valdez Arm and failed to pay attention to the tide. Compettiive birdig does carry hazards for the unwary.

By the time we rolled up the owls we had staked out in Fairbanks and blitzed through the local Fairbanks hotspots, we had 130 species, shattering the old record of 117. So far as WC knows, that’s still the all-time record for species seen in a 24-hour period in Alaska. If someone wants to break it, they need to find two excellent young birders, invest a few days in scouting and, probably, start on a boat out past Valdez Narrows to pick up the alcid species there – Horned and Tufted Puffins, Murres, Auklets. Maybe a Northern Fulmar. And have a certain amount of luck.

But the key thing is those young eyes, with that superb pattern recognition. The kind that can pick out a Grey Jay on top a spruce tree in a forest of trees whose tops all look vaguely like birds. At 65 mph, in the rain, through tinted windows.

That’s all it takes to win a birdathon.

(There are still birdathons in Fairbanks. In fact, the Alaska Songbird Institute has one going this weekend. Details here.)