I have lots more blogs coming about Liberia AND the wedding, of course, but I had to start writing again somehow, so here we are.
Thanks to the generosity of some Washington birders, my 2017 ended in truly spectacular fashion. While searching for the local birding ‘gen’ online, I stumbled across post for a ‘Vashon Island CBC’, with a volunteer needed to help record sightings. I’d seen Vashon Island on a map of the area, and so I knew it wasn’t too far away. I sent off a hopeful email, and I waited. In a great stroke of luck, someone else was coming from my direction and agreed to take me from the ferry terminal at Point Defiance.
After doing some reading, I learned that CBC stood for ‘Christmas Bird Count’, and that it was an institution of American birding since 1900. One of the longest-running citizen science bird counts in the world, the 1900 count involved 27 observers in 25 places, yet 2012/13 saw some 71,531 people take part in 2369 locations, which is quite incredible. The data has been used for several important Audobon research papers into the state of American birdlife, and it represents an invaluable longitudinal study with little parallel. Though largely a US event, collaborations have occurred across the Americas which has seen birders in Colombia, Ecuador and Mexico take part. My (very) minor contribution to this mighty project was to be the Vashon Island/Maury Islands Marine Park CBC, found in Puget Sound, Washington.
I met a fellow birder called Roger by a hulking Chevy pickup in the darkness at the ferry terminal, and we across the sound before the sun had risen. A short drive along rural Vashon Island roads saw us arrive at the harbour, and we soon met up with Ed, a local bird guide and master birder, and Jeanne. He had his son in tow, and we ventured down to the jetty to meet the crew and our vessel for the day. I had been a little concerned about what our craft might be like, having had some exciting experiences out at sea when working for AK Wildlife Cruises, and I keenly appreciate quite how miserable a long day in churning seas can be, especially in a little boat! I needn’t have worried, as the MV Vashona was a magnificent-looking wooden cruiser from the 1980s, of ample size for many more people than we were to have aboard. It had a spacious cabin, with heating and a proper galley, with plenty more space below for storage. We would, of course, spend most of our time on deck in the cold, but I was feeling a lot more confident after seeing the boat!
As we exited the harbour, I had one of those rare Kodak moments that will live with me for as long as I live. As the sun rose over the Cascade mountains to the east, I could see rural homes dotted around the shore in between great stands of fir trees that surrounded us. The golden water was fringed with these great pillars of brown and green, and only the occasionally seabird disturbed the surface of the sea. The layers of trees stretched as far as the eye could see, and as the sun finally broke free over the mountains, each tree was cast in a glorious light that drew out the subtle undulations, ridges and furrows of the unseen ground below. An urgent ‘squawk’! overhead drew my attention upwards, and barely 10 metres above the boat were a pair of Bald Eagles, tussling and swooping in the morning light. Ahhh, nature! How magnificent you can be!
It was cold on deck, and my hands grew numb pretty quickly. I discovered that I couldn’t write effectively in my new gloves, and so I stuck at my task for an hour or so until I could take no more. Being British and all, I couldn’t show weakness with this kind of thing, and so I rejected the many offers of hand warmers that came my way. Culture, eh? In hindsight, I really should have taken the hand warmers… Tallying the species was a superb lesson in American species and birding in general, however. I quickly appreciated quite how good Ed and Jeanne were. I was sat in the centre of the bow, a little way back, whilst they both stood on the edge on either side of the bow, calling out sightings incredibly quickly. Roger and Ed’s son also chipped in with sightings, but it was absolutely the Ed and Jeanne show. I don’t think I’ve ever seen such competent, skilled birders before, and I’ve been around a few in the UK. Admittedly, this was their home turf, but still- if you are in the area, look them up for a tour.
Naturally, they did the majority of the spotting, and they were unerringly accurate, rarely needing to confer on an ID. My vantage point, coupled with the kindness of the birds to stay near, allowed me to build a reference to species mentally over time, and by the end, I was contributing my own sightings with confidence. I realised that I could definitely improve my birding skills, mind.
The birding itself was simply fantastic. We saw literally hundreds of Surf Scoter, which was one of my dream seabirds, and we saw both Black and White-Winged Scoter too, adding 3 lifers in one family. We had Goldeneye, Barrow’s Goldeneye, 3 cormorant species, Rhinoceros Auklet, Marbled Guillemot, Pigeon Guillemot, Loons, Grebes… The list itself has to be seen to be believed, especially when it comes to numbers! They suggested that sightings were down on previous years, which is quite incredible given the vast quantities we encountered. I added around 15 lifers, and the weather stayed throughout the trip. It was bitterly cold crossing the sound in the wind, mind, and I’m pretty sure my hands have only just defrosted from those few minutes. Thank you so much to all involved- one of the best birding experiences of my life, and I didn’t pay a penny.
The kindly Roger and I then proceeded back over Puget Sound on the ferry with a plan to twitch a Gyrfalcon that had been frequenting the nearby McChord Airforce base. The Gyrfalcon is a monstrous bird, being the largest falcon, and is known as the queen of the skies. Unsurprisingly, it is number 1 on my raptor hitlist. What followed was absolutely the dodgiest birding I’ve ever done, never wanting to stray too close to the fence in case security arrived, which had been reported earlier in the week. The fact that Roger’s telescope, when mounted on the back of his pickup, looked just like a technical mounted with a machine gun, was absolutely not lost on me. The Gyrfalcon didn’t play ball, not showing on the pylons next to the runway, nor in the tall trees beyond. I did discover a group of California Quail in the tiniest patch of scrubland near the airport, which Roger said was unusual for that part of Washington. Result! The very kindly Roger dropped me off nearby, and I owe him a tremendous vote of thanks for looking after me all day. American hospitality is simply superb, no matter what the media will tell you.
In true Billy fashion, however, Roger later sent a rather meek email stating that he’d had one last look at McChord after he’d dropped me off, and had connected with the Gyrfalcon.
Welcome to my life.
Regardless, it was easily the best New Years Eve I’ve ever had, surrounded in nature by beautiful wildlife and great people. What a day!