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 outing in  Magnolia with award-winning author and wildlife photographer Paul Bannick, she heads to Ballard with Seattle Audubon Community Engagement Manager and master birder program graduate, Wendy Walker.

I met up with Wendy Walker the Community Engagement Manager for Seattle Audubon, bright and early at Café Fiore in her Ballard neighborhood. While drinking my half-caf latte, she went over our birding game plan.

First stop: Golden Gardens Park in the historically Scandinavian district in Northwest Seattle.

Spirited and jovial, Wendy offered to escort me on our birding excursion. Golden Gardens’ 87 acres offers a myriad of habitats making it possible to see not only songbirds but seabirds too.

Driving there, Wendy told me someone once asked her if she was a “serious birder.” Perplexed, she thought about it and answered: “I consider myself a whimsical birder. It’s more joyful for me that way.”

Wendy is indeed a thoughtful, expressive person and I like how she relates to the natural world in her easy, straight-forward, creative manner. For instance, rather than listening to the radio in her car, we listened to birdcalls she’d uploaded from a CD Bird Songs of the Pacific Northwest  into iTunes then added it to her iPod, creating her very own personalized playlist—perfect for studying. Since she is also in the Seattle Audubon Master Birder program, this has become her regular commuting “music.”

Arriving at the park, Wendy told me she enjoys birding in Ballard because of “the range of habitats! Ballard has saltwater, fresh water, marshes, forested and shrubby areas, and old orchard areas.” Reflecting further, she said, “It’s amazing what you can find if you look.”

From the moment we stepped out of her car at Golden Gardens, Wendy’s keen ear went to work easily differentiating between Golden-crowned and Ruby-crowned Kinglets and Black-capped and Chestnut-backed Chickadees. Her recordings are obviously paying off.

Community Engagement Manager, Wendy Walker © Caryn Schutzler

Koji & Amanda © Caryn Schutzler

Even though the hindrance of noise— aircraft, automobiles, and barking dogs—drowned much of the natural sound, Wendy was able to hear and distinguish birdcalls. I felt lucky to hear crows and gulls or woodpeckers hammering and the Red-breasted Nuthatch’s distinct nasal “ank-ank-ank.

Walking toward a patch of understory just beyond the cars, Wendy noticed a Hermit Thrush hopping toward us. Even in a parking lotbirding can be rewarding.

Barely down the path, we bumped into Seattle Audubon members Koji Yugawa and Amanda Cohn.

When they asked us if we wanted to see an Anna’s hummingbird nest, we replied immediately, “Absolutely!” (Does a bear…in the woods?) And they very kindly led us to it.

Built into a dangling tangle of ivy we saw one remaining chick sitting on the edge of the nest waiting to fledge.   

Moving on, Wendy noticed the flowering salmonberry. This valuable food source for resident and migrating birds, offers both nectar when in bloom followed by seed-bearing fruit.

Anna’s Hummingbird © Caryn Schutzler

Salmonberry © Caryn Schutzler

The further we walked and talked, the more I appreciated Wendy’s philosophical take on the idea of “going” birding.  She said, “The birds are all around us. . . it’s a privilege to travel to beautiful places to see birds, but it’s also rewarding to pay attention to the birds that are present wherever you happen to be.”  

Next, we headed to Carkeek Park, overlooking the Salish Sea.  

Wendy said, “I’m lucky to have Discovery Park, Carkeek Park, and Union Bay Natural Area all within five miles of my home.” She is participating in the Five Mile Radius Birding project, where people try to see as many birds as they can within a circle(5MR) from where they reside. Wendy says it allows her to limit her carbon footprint while still enjoy birding.

Ruddy Duck / Kelley Shelton

These circles in our interconnecting neighborhoods promote birding locally.  We can enjoy birds within a nearby area without having to go to the ends of the earth and miss what birds are right before us.

I asked Wendy what bird she enjoys seeing most in her neighborhood and she said she was excited to see Ruddy Duck(s) at Bitter Lake.

Though not actually in Ballard, they were still only four miles from her home.

Wendy told me she discovered the Master Birder program “is a stretch to be studying with this kind of intensity, but it’s also a huge asset for my job to know more about Washington birds. It helps me talk about our science programs and conservation efforts with more understanding.”

At the same time, Wendy says, “I can be methodical and study and still not take it too seriously. Conservation I take seriously; whether I see a specific bird on a specific day—not so serious.”

  “…I know my own interest [in birds] helps me connect with people who are just getting interested in birdwatching and to help them see the Seattle Audubon community as their own.”

This was evident as people stopped to ask what we were doing with our scope and binoculars. Wendy was always willing to talk about what we were seeing. I’d say “Community Engagement Manager” is an ideal title for Wendy.

Uff da! Just as we were ready to leave Carkeek, I realized I was missing an earring. Wendy kindly circled back to our starting point at Golden Gardens, but took a different route preferring to follow her father-in-law’s tradition of: “Never go back the way you came.”

And it was providential we did…even though we didn’t find my earring we saw beautiful adult Bald Eagles soaring overhead.

Back at my car, Wendy offered me one more of her Wendyisms: “Birding makes you more yourself.”

“How so?” I asked.

“When I’m fully focused on birds, I’m not focused on myself. I think the focus on another being and mindful of its self and not my self is freeing.

I learned a lot birding with Wendy: How to bird more conscientiously and mindfully, to consider the birds’ welfare in our shared environment/s and most importantly, not to take it so seriously.

Wendy and I may not have any Scandinavian ancestral ties to this neighborhood, but what could be better than a “not so serious” day of birding in Ballard? “Ya, sure, you betcha.”