By Caryn Schutzler, Seattle Audubon Member

Seattle is a city of neighborhoods, each with its own unique flavor—from the Scandinavian enclave of Ballard to bustling South Lake Union, from funky Fremont to vibrant Columbia City, and everywhere in between. This is a series for the blog, Birding My Neighborhood, with volunteer, writer, and amateur photographer Caryn Schutzler. After her adventure in Seattle’s West Seattle community, she heads south to Rainier View to bird with Master Birder Etta Cosey.

Just what makes it a “good” bird day?

Sometimes all it takes to coax me out on the birding trail can be the lure of a good spot for coffee and delectable baked goods. Even inclement weather rarely deters the hardiest of birders. Knowing there’s a rainbow at the end of a long drive—be it unusual bird or warm cinnamon roll—can be all that’s necessary to entice birders to keep their bird-seeking-enthusiasm in focus.

But, whatever satisfies your birding sweet tooth, good birding is what we make of it. If we tend to seek only the rare or uncommon birds, we may tend to overlook the birds we have in our midst. Though recently tempted by posts on eBird and Tweeters of a Phainopepla in Sequim, Washington, had I not seen one in Tucson, I too would have gone in search of this spiky-crested, red-eyed vagrant. I muse what backyards it might have passed through on its way to Sequim from its southern environs. 

Phainopepla / Peter Thiemann / Audubon Photography Awards

Instead, I winged my way due south to Rainier View, neighborhood of Etta Cosey. Master Birder and fellow retiree, Etta is always glad to spend some time birding. But since she doesn’t consider Rainier View all that birdy, she suggested we visit a couple of her regular birding places. Not knowing the area, Etta offered to escort me. Only a few minutes from her house, we arrived at Kubota Gardens, a relatively small garden/park of only 20-acres, offering a verdant landscape to both people and birds.

Kubota Gardens / Kristin Wall 

From the main parking lot, Etta led me to her favorite spot. Tinged with crimson and ocher, winged euonymus and maples flanked the trail. Known more for its gardens than as a birding hot spot, Etta still tries to visit there a few times a week. We came to a solitary bench overlooking a sun-dappled ravine. Etta tells me she enjoys sitting here trying to hone her birding-by-ear skills.

As we stood there, a raptor swooped in from behind us and lit in a tree just across the ravine. While I fumbled with my camera, I guessed at it possibly being a Red-tailed Hawk. Etta zeroed in on it with her scope and determined it to be a juvenile by its pale plumage and bellyband.

Further down the path, Song Sparrows and Bewick’s Wrens bounced in and out of the undergrowth. Rounding the trail a Golden-crowned Sparrow emerged from beneath the scrub and perched before us.

Juvenile Red-tailed Hawk / Bettina Arrigoni

Female Golden-crowned Sparrow 

Not bad for a first visit.

Leaving Kubota, Etta and I chatted about birds, family, and food all the way to our next destination. I asked Etta about what she likes best about birding. She said she compares birding to piecing a puzzle together—gathering visual and aural clues—fitting it all together. And she works hard at it—studying her many books, photos, and apps. She says, “It’s so gratifying to identify a bird you’ve never seen before or to identify one that you’ve studied.”

We came to Cedar River Trail Park at the south end of Lake Washington in Renton where the mouth of the Cedar River offers open-area birding from a boardwalk and a solid place to plant our scopes. Etta prefers open-area birding as much for safety as for seeing her favorite bird. Nearby Lakeridge Park, Etta says is a “great area, but isolated.”  Known also as Deadhorse Canyon, it has a one-mile trail that follows a creek lined with native trees and sturdy bridges that cross it along the way.

From the boardwalk, we look out to the sandbar dotted with white and Etta tells me her favorite bird. “Gulls.” That would not have been my first guess. I struggle with gulls, a common malady for birders. Fairly abundant here, “gulls don’t scurry away so one can really study them,” Etta explains.  A Mew Gull caught her attention.

Western and Ring-billed Gull / Etta Cosey

Pied-billed, Eared, and Red-necked Grebes / Andrew Wietzel

She then spotted a juvenile Caspian Tern. My scope revealed its intricate plumage, part of the puzzle Etta described. Further scanning the water, Pied Billed, Eared, and Red-necked Grebes stole our attention, their diving impeding our ability to study them.

Canvasbacks drifted by. Etta’s keen eye and description of their sloping bills and heads helped me see details I’d not noticed before. Now I felt more competent identifying this duck—in or out of breeding plumage.

Female Canvasback 

I was smitten with Etta’s effervescence and enthusiasm. Our all too brief bird outing ended with a hearty bowl of chowder at Ivar’s at Gene Coulon park, a good spot for close up viewing of winter waterfowl. While we ate, we made our bird lists, noting our “three-grebe-day.” Etta shared a chart showing 46 plumages of a Herring Gull from juvenile to adult. She said, “I can’t think of another bird with so many appearance changes month to month over its lifetime.” Her dedication to studying gulls baffled but inspired me.

Back at Etta’s house, which she doesn’t consider all that birdy, she mentioned she’d had Lazuli Buntings once migrate through her backyard. Sounds pretty birdy to me!

Heading home to Wedgwood, I thought about Etta’s bird-puzzle analogy and I envisioned our neighborhoods as puzzle pieces. Each a piece of some greater puzzle, offering not only new places (pieces) to bird but also a chance to meet other birders. Even though we may not always know where we’ll go birding next or what birds (or bakeries) we’ll find, in the end it’s the birding itself that constitutes a good bird day.  Right? After all, like the Seattle Audubon bumper sticker states: “Bird Is A Verb.” But I realized the most essential piece of the puzzle is whom we bird with that is ultimately what makes a bird day “good.”  My few hours of birding with Etta, had indeed made it an excellent bird day, adding one more piece—and rare bird—to this complex puzzle we call birding.

And, it didn’t rain.

Please note: Etta would like to give special mention to a few of her birding mentors: Sharon Aagard, Pam Cahn and Georgia Conti.