Helen and Robin on their Birdathon Big Day | Photo by Robin Lutton
Birdathon is an annual Birds Connect Seattle tradition. Participants raise money from friends and family, and then join the friendly competition to count as many bird species as they can. You can enjoy the photos and stories from many of the 2023 Birdathon participants on the Birdathon page: https://charity.pledgeit.org/SeattleBirdathon2023
By Robin Lutton and Helen Pratt
Our Birdathon team, “Mom and Daughter Birding,” surpassed our most lofty imaginations on our Big Day, recording 107 species and falling nothing short of amazing. Taking place from 7:00 p.m. on May 27th to 7:00 p.m. on May 28th, the day evolved into a magical experience I’m not sure we could replicate—great weather, little to no traffic, birds literally flying to us instead of our searching tediously for them (some even exploding out unexpectedly right into our view). Our Big Day (24-hours of bird counting) plan was to wake up with East-of-the-Cascades species and finish with more familiar ones back home, with hopes to spot a few in between. This was in order to maximize the number of different habitats, in order to reach our 90 species goal. The Force was absolutely with us … maybe in part due to riding on the Millennium Falcon, Rise of the Resistance, and Star Tours at Disneyland the weekend before.
Helen and I started east on I-90 in our minivan playing Elton John and George Michael singing “Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Me,” with the stereo on full volume. While we hadn’t officially started our bird count yet, by late afternoon, each of us added at least four new birds to our respective life lists. It was looking hopeful. These included the Mountain Bluebird and Yellow-breasted Chat—species we’d been hoping to see for a couple years now. The male Mountain Bluebird literally looks like its bright blue plumage is glowing and the pair were feeding nestlings in a nest box. We were excited knowing we’d be able to backtrack to these same places the next morning to hopefully see them again and officially record them for the Big Day.
Mountain Bluebird | Evan Barrientos | Audubon Photography Awards
After setting up camp and finally retiring for the night we detected a very intriguing yet totally unfamiliar sound. I finally whispered to Helen, “Are you awake? What is that?” I know her voice when she’s excited about a new bird. “MOM! Common Poorwill came up on my Sound ID!” As it goes, a cacophony of Common Poorwills proceeded to keep us awake almost the whole night through…but not before quietly sneaking out of our tents to hopefully get a look at these nocturnal birds I never thought we’d see.
Helen emerged first, but by the time I extracted myself from the sleeping bag and unzipped the tent, what she had been watching had retreated to low grassy vegetation nearby. I held my breath for a long while, listening intently…then I spotted one–barely visible and flying low, silently hunting insects. While I scanned high and low for the Poorwills (and the Common Nighthawk too, which had already started to chime in), I saw the unmistakable silhouette against the dim glow of light to the west—a Great-horned Owl! Our Big Day had begun with a bang (or a hoot). Eventually the volume of the Common Poorwill’s vocalization “poor-will” faded and at last we drifted off to sleep.
Common Poorwill | Danny Hancock | Audubon Photography Awards
After the short night, the birding unit awoke before 4:00 am to a crescendo-ing symphony of songbirds – first the Robin, then several species of flycatchers, a grosbeak, the Yellow-breasted Chat (now I know where that one gets its name!), the Lazuli Bunting…and on and on. Soon, it was almost a challenge to detect an individual bird’s song from the vibrant chorus all around. Finally, the Canyon Wren uttered his (or her, as they both sing) “lovely series of sweet, liquid notes that descends and slows, trailing off in a series of doubled notes, often finished with a mewling call note or two” (the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s description). That call brings me back to the desert Southwest where I grew up, delighting my soul.
It was tough to leave such a lively birding spot behind, but there was so much more Big Day ahead and we needed to travel and count as efficiently as possible. Not long after leaving, something surprised us on the dirt road–a pair of Horned Larks darting around each other in what appeared to be a dance. Another one for the Life List: The male Horned Lark literally has black feather “horns” on both sides of his head, and is quite handsome. The sagebrush habitat smelled so fresh and felt so wide open. The day already seemed limitless. Along the rest of this road, we’d come across the Vesper Sparrow, Brewer’s Sparrow, the Sage Thrasher, the Say’s Phoebe, the Western Meadowlark, the Western Bluebird and more.
Horned Lark | Evan Barrientos | Audubon Photography Awards
Helen searching for birds in the sage brush | Robin Lutton
Part II: Surprises and Species List
Robin Lutton and Helen Pratt
2023 Birdathon Participants
Robin (mother) and daugher (Helen) are Birds Connect Seattle members who live in West Seattle. They enjoy spending time together birdwatching and adding new species to their Life Lists. Their Birdathon Big Day has become an annual tradition for them.
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