Cindy was going to visit Germany with her cousin Greg for two weeks. The main objective was to see an area where their forbears hundreds of years ago had lived. Greg had studied in Munich during college and was familiar with the area and spoke some German. Well I don’t know how much studying was done, but he had fond memories and a good friend in Seattle still had family in the small town of Tubingen and would be there during September – a built in highlight. I had never been to Germany and still harbor negative feelings about the Holocaust and Germany’s role in WWI and WWII. Even if it had been a great birding trip I was not going to go. Three times in the past intentionally and three more times without a specific intent, I had done so called “Birding Big Months” – the goal being to see 200 species in Washington in that calendar month. With Cindy gone, and black lab Chica off to a dog boarding place, this would be the perfect time to try to add September to my list.
Unlike most of my posts, this one is not going to include many photos. Those will come in later posts. This post instead addresses the how’s and why’s of my birding or at least the kind of birding in a Big Month, The planning I do and some lessons learned. There is a bottom line – the results of the Big Month, but like so much in life, it is the journey that is most important. My birding projects are really all journeys – catalysts for new experiences. Not so much means to an end but an end to those means – using goals to push me and pull me to steps that would not otherwise be taken, people no otherwise met and places not otherwise seen. Following that thinking, there are three distinct reasons I enjoy doing a Big Month – maybe four.
The first is the simple one of just enjoying birding – my passionate activity that provides endless opportunities to visit interesting places, meet interesting people and see interesting birds. A second reason is that as I have said in many earlier blogs, whatever my job title may have been or my occupation, in the final analysis, the real activity was managing a project. I enjoyed establishing a goal, planning how to achieve it and then proceeding to execute the plan including making the adjustments along the way that are always part of the adventure. The third reason – maybe it is more a part of the second – is that I really enjoy logistics figuring out what is necessary to get to a goal, organizing the steps to get there and working out the relationships of time and place and sometimes people that are involved. This is where the tie-in to my birding experience, knowledge and access to resources come to bear. What can be seen. Where and when is the best way to see each targeted species considering that there are many variables and especially during a migration month like September, what is the window of time when any particular species is most likely to be in a particular place and how that place relates to the other places I must go to try for other targets. The fourth reason according to some would be that I am a bit crazy – up early, miles and miles, dirt roads, traffic, weird weather, and not the greatest food – all part of the project – not everyone’s idea of fun but very fun and engaging to me.
Other intentional Big Months had been January 2018, February 2021, and March 2022. Without a Big Month goal, I had also seen 200 or more species in Washington in April 2015, May 2013 and June 2014 – just productive months in years when I had done “Big Years” in Washington. When I first considered this project, I thought it would/should be fairly easy. I viewed September as a “shoulder month” – not the best for breeding birds but many would still be around for at least part of the month before migrating away – and not the best for non-breeding birds that would be returning from breeding grounds elsewhere – but some would make it back at some time during the month. In other words, I thought I would have not the best of both worlds but good samplings of each. My initial analysis grouped the birds into three categories: (1) Common/likely/probable; (2) Uncommon/less likely/possible; and (3) Rare/unlikely/just maybe to no chance. I checked Ebird bar charts for September 2020 and 2021 to see what had been seen in the month those years and found that 354 species had been seen – wow, I thought – this would be easy. First I removed 5 species that are not really countable – like Black Swan – and then I divided those observations into my three categories acknowledging that my groupings would be somewhat subjective.
Previous Big Months
Month/Year # Species
I allocated 49 species to Category 3 – either because they were very rare (like Philadelphia Vireo) or in a place I was not likely to go and maybe even unreliable there even if I did (like Boreal Chickadee or Spruce Grouse). Now I was down to 300 species – still looking pretty good. The next slice took out another 60 species – ones that were a lot more time and place dependent and could not be counted on even if I was at the right place – for example a Pine Grosbeak or White Winged Crossbill with a limited range and not always seen even if within that range. The last counting step was to figure the odds of seeing what number in each group, add the three together and see how likely 200 was – or better yet, what the likely number would be – assuming I would get to all of the places that were necessary to look for the target species. Without really getting down to specific time and place calculations, a rough best projection was seeing 85% of the birds in Category 1, 50% in Category 2 and 10% in Category 3. That projected to 204 plus 30 plus 5 for a total of 239. I added a couple of “surprises” – birds that had not been seen in either of the last two years and thought that 241 was a reasonable total to shoot for and hopefully achieve. There was one critical assumption built into the projections. I had been able to secure the last open spot on a September 24th pelagic trip. My projection (adjusted for probability) was to see 15 of those 239 species on that pelagic trip. Not essential to get to 200 if everything else went according to plan but a nice safety valve. As is usually the case not everything did go according to plan. I lost a couple of days due to non-birding obligations and did not make a couple of trips that were part of the original planning. Early on, I missed a lot of species that I thought I would have gotten and that had me thinking that the Pelagic trip safety valve would be essential. I had miscalculated the timing of some migrants – both arriving and leaving (like Tundra and Trumpeter Swans) but in the end it all worked out pretty close to plan or at least the adjusted plan.
I considered saving the final tally until after some additional posts had related some of the day to day experiences, but I am going to spill the beans here. The final count for the month was 236 species and my initial projections were not too far off. I had 213 Category 1 species (despite some unfathomable misses) and 4 Category 3 species – 1 less than as projected. The Category 1 overage was substantially negated however by a shortfall of 10 species in Category 2. Additionally there was one “surprise”, a Magnolia Warbler that had not been seen in September in either 2020 or 2021. So bottom line was 241 projected and 236 seen. That certainly qualified as a self defined 200 species “Big Month”, but looking back I coulda, shoulda, woulda done much better with some better planning and execution. Some better birding skills would help, too, of course. If I knew then what I know now and had really gone all out every day, I am sure that 250 species would have been seen and 270 would not have been impossible.
In earlier Big Months I had generally spent the first day chasing reachable rarities that had been seen the last day or two of the previous month. So for example on January 1, 2018, even though my birding was relatively close to home, it included finding rare a Blue Jay in Skagit County and an even rarer Rose Breasted Grosbeak at a stakeout in Seattle where those species had been seen the previous day. Similarly on February 1, 2021 my list included a Snow Bunting at Eide Road, a Ruddy Turnstone at Tulalip Bay, a Yellow Bellied Sapsucker in Everett and a Snowy Owl on Queen Anne Hill in Seattle. All were holdovers from the previous day and were rare or very rare. In both cases, since these rarities were close to home, I could combine them with other common/regular species in the same area to build numbers and momentum to start the project. In January 2018, the first day yielded 79 species, and on February 1, 2021 I had 64 species (but with better rarities).
For the first day of this Big Month, there were not any really rare birds nearby and I wanted to stay within an hour or so of my home. I targeted and missed Red Knot, Black Turnstone and Ruddy Turnstone at Tulalip Bay and made sure that I got Purple Martins near my home not being sure how long they would stick around. That first day approach may have felt better if I had gotten the Tulalip birds, but looking back it is pretty evident to me that my first emphasis should have been on species particularly in Eastern Washington that were going to be leaving soon and the earlier I had built them into the project, the better my chances would have been. They weren’t impossible later, just more difficult and as it turned out in many cases, they were species I missed. For example I missed Bullock’s Oriole, Common Nighthawk, Eastern and Western Kingbird, Cassin’s Vireo, Yellow Breasted Chat, Lazuli Bunting, Lark Sparrow, Olive Sided Flycatcher, Veery and Swainson’s Thrush. With better planning and targeted visits to Eastern Washington the first week of the month, I think I would have gotten most if not all of them, without sacrificing my sightings in Western Washington where I spent all but one of the first days of that first week. I say this because it soon became apparent to me that although species were shown as being seen in previous Septembers, often the majority of those observations were very early in the month. I also learned that unlike in the spring when birds are more active and vocal, such is not the case in the fall and even if birds were present, finding them was much more challenging. I am certain for example that there were Cassin’s Finches and Cassin’s Vireos in several places I visited, but without their calls and songs, I missed them. I could have changed my approach (including doing more birding with others to take advantage of additional eyes and ears to pick up that much more limited activity and vocalization.
So much for philosophy and approach. You know the results in general. Following blog posts will be specific as to place and time, species seen and missed and adventures experienced. Lots of photos too.