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Counting songbirds at the crack of dawn

By on June 27, 2018 in Articles with 0 Comments

Count by listening: Amanda Sherling concentrates to hear the song of early rising birds among the sagebrush. Photo by Marilyn Sherling
















By Marilyn Sherling

There’s frost on the outside of my car this morning when I wake up at 4:30 a.m. It’s 34 degrees outside.

Personally, I think there is plenty of room for one person to sleep in the back of my Subaru Forester. Just flip down the back seat, throw in a foam pad and your sleeping bag and climb in. No problem when the one person is short, like me.

But, two full grown adults? Not so comfy. Especially, when one of them is tall like my daughter Amanda.

So, what are Amanda and I doing up here in the middle of nowhere, sleeping in the back of my car in acres of sagebrush?

We’re counting songbirds — Sagebrush obligate songbirds — for the Audubon Society.

Amanda and I are both members of North Central Washington Audubon Society and we are volunteer participants in a multi-year study Audubon is conducting of songbirds who inhabit the sagebrush areas of Washington state.

Normally a survey team does one survey each month in April, May and June. But, since our Audubon chapter is short handed this year, Amanda and I have agreed to try and do two surveys each month. We picked survey spots that were not too far apart in the hopes of getting them both done by the 9 a.m. deadline.

So, that finds us sleeping in the car. Since our most distant survey spot is over 80 miles from where we live, we decided to drive up the night before and car camp.

I had picked up Amanda at 5 p.m. the previous day and we headed up the east side of the Columbia River to Orondo, up Pine Canyon, and east on Highway 2.

When we got to Moses Coulee, we took a left on the dirt road in the middle of the coulee and drove north seven miles to Jameson Lake where we planned to have dinner at Jack’s Resort before going on to our destination.

That night we ate the dinner special — bacon-wrapped jumbo prawns with a great salad, delicious green beans, loaded potato and homemade rolls. They also had homemade pie.

As we headed back to my car, Amanda said, “Did I pack my boots?” I confess that I haven’t seen them, and we discover that she has forgotten her hiking boots. All she is wearing on her feet are flip-flops — definitely not something to wear while scrambling through the sagebrush.

What to do? We are 55 miles from home. Do we turn around, go back, get the boots and then head out again?

I tell Amanda that she can wear my hiking boots and I will wear my tennis shoes, which really is not the best footwear for sagebrush. Or course, my boots aren’t the best for her, either, since they are 2 1/2 sizes smaller than what she wears.

We get back on the road, and by the time the sun is setting, we feel like we are in the middle of nowhere, 20 miles up a dirt road.

Actually, we are on a plateau on top of the western walls of Grand Coulee.

We retire to the back of the car to sleep. Ha! Like I said, it’s great for one person.

The next morning we wake to frost on the car and cold. Eventually we climb out, get our equipment (binoculars, GPS, sun hats, jackets and boots). If we weren’t conducting two surveys this morning, we would have taken our cameras, as well. But we are pressed for time this morning, and won’t really have time to photograph any birds we might see.

The truth of the matter is, sagebrush birds are very elusive. Most of our counting of birds is done by ear, listening to the songs and calls. Once in a while we get to actually see them. When Amanda and I first began with Audubon, we attended training classes where we learned to identify the target species by sight and by song.

Our target species are the Sage Thrasher, Brewer’s Sparrow and Sagebrush Sparrow. There are usually many more species in the same habitat, and those are counted as well. We often see, Vesper Sparrows, Grasshopper Sparrows, Western Meadowlarks and Horned Larks.

Identifying a bird by its song can be tricky when you are first learning this skill. The Sage Thrasher has a beautiful song that goes on and on and on and on. That’s one feature that helps to identify it.

The Brewer’s Sparrow has a buzzy song and most of the time sounds like a Rainbird lawn sprinkler. When you hear the bird give a couple of notes and then sing tsh tsh tsh tsh tsh tsh tsh, just like the lawn sprinkler, you’ve got a Brewer’s Sparrow.

Each month the site is surveyed by a different Audubon team. Audubon supplies a survey count sheet where the team records all birds seen and heard.

There is one survey, called a Traveling Count, recorded for the walk from the parking spot to the survey site (which has been previously marked with a pole and colored streamer). The team notes the time the walk begins, the temperature, wind, weather, the distance to the spot and the time it took to reach the spot.

We climb through the barbed-wire fence and begin walking toward the site.

It is a beautiful morning and we make note of species that we hear and see. It takes us 30 minutes to walk the third mile and find the flagged pole. We hear and/or see five different species along the way.

Once at the site, we wait two to three minutes for things to settle down and then we take the second count, called a Stationary Count. For this survey we also enter a sagebrush count — a number indicating presence of sagebrush within 100 meters of the site, 1-10, 11-20, 21-30, 30-40, or greater than 40. This site is quite lush, so the count is greater than 40.

We begin our 10-minute Stationary Count and again end up with five species. However, there is no Sage Thrasher or Horned Lark here, but we pick up a Sagebrush Sparrow and a Vesper Sparrow.

Since this is the last survey (June) to be conducted this year, we pull up the stake to bring back to the Audubon chapter head, and head back to the car. We conduct another Traveling Count, conducted in the same way as the first. Amanda’s feet — squeezed into my boots — are screaming at her, and she is anxious to be done.

On the way back we count six species. The Sagebrush Sparrow seems to have followed us out.

We finish here at 7:02 a.m., so we should be in good shape to meet our  9 a.m. deadline of finishing the second survey.

We climb through the barbed-wire fence, get into the car, and head south 10 miles to the second spot. Amanda can hardly wait to finish the second survey, so she can take off my boots.

The parking spot for the second survey is just off of Highway 17. We park the car and begin our first Traveling Count.

However, this spot is twice as far as the first, two thirds of a mile.

Amanda is gritting her teeth. One of the side effects of wearing my boots (other than pain) is that my footprint is smaller, and she finds that her balance is affected. She has a harder time walking on the uneven ground. And, it is definitely uneven ground.

We conduct these three survey counts in exactly the same way as the first site. However, this site has many more horned larks, 14 for the walk in. And, no Sagebrush Sparrow. They don’t show up as often as we would like.

The final Traveling Count is completed. We get back to the car at exactly 9 a.m. This was a difficult walk, especially in boots 2 1/2 sizes too small. Amanda sits down in my car and removes my boots. I think you could hear her exclamation of relief all the way to Wenatchee.

Our final consensus is, even with the negatives of sleeping in the car and hiking in too small boots, this was still a great adventure.

We love watching, listening to, and counting birds. We especially love getting out in nature. Next time, though, we won’t forget the boots.

Marilyn Sherling is currently retired and enjoys anything outdoors.  Amanda recently graduated from WVC. They both volunteer with Wenatchee River Institute and NCW Audubon.

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