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The 48-hour Birdathon

 

Wild Turkeys Birdathon

Noah and the Wild Turkeys search for Ash-throated Flycatchers in eastern Oregon. (All photos by Tim Kurtz.)

“Ten minutes to go!”

As I stood at Yaquina Head on the Oregon Coast last weekend, my head reeled. Thousands of Common Murres jostled for space on the guano-stained cliffs in front of me, braying into my sleep-deprived brain, but my scope was trained on the seaweed-cloaked tidal flats below them. I hoped to pick out a Wandering Tattler, and the pressure was on. In ten minutes, a tattler, or any other species of bird I hadn’t seen in the past 47 hours and 50 minutes, would again become merely a tattler or any other bird. Until then, each new addition was worth roughly $164 for conservation.

Yaquina Head is a federally managed headland that juts into the Pacific Ocean, covered by seabirds in summer. A volunteer naturalist was hanging out on the viewing deck, pointing out the murres and nesting cormorants to passing tourists. I walked over and set up my scope next to him.

Sage Grouse lek

The convoy pulls up to a Sage Grouse lek at dawn.

“Wow, that’s even bigger than my scope!” he exclaimed.

“Seen any Wandering Tattlers?” I asked.

The man looked confused. He was supposed to interpret nesting seabirds for the public, not scan for obscure little gray birds along the gray shoreline. But he seemed intrigued, so I filled him in on a few details.

Over the past two days, along with 21 other crazed birders in three industrial-sized white vans, I had carved an ambitious transect across Oregon, from eastern deserts through pine forests, across the Cascade Mountains, and through the Willamette Valley, to finally arrive here at Yaquina Head, on the coast. Our group, dubbed the Wild Turkeys, was spotting birds to raise funds for the Portland Audubon Society; friends and relatives had kindly promised pledges per species seen during the 48-hour event. We had pulled out all stops to track down as many birds as possible, forgoing sleep, meals, and sanity en route. With ten minutes to go, we were perched at 221 species—a respectable total indeed. But we wouldn’t stop until the clock officially ran out.

The volunteer looked impressed. “That’s a lot of birds,” he agreed. “What was the best one?”

Wild Turkey

The Wild Turkey seen by the Wild Turkeys.

I tried to think back along the route, but my mind balked. How to choose between the Sage Grouse lek, the Grasshopper Sparrow teed up in evening sun, or the wetland at Summer Lake that came to be known as, simply, Magic? With so much ground covered, the Wild Turkeys had seen so many birds (including a real Wild Turkey) that I had trouble remembering them all.

Portland Audubon kicked off their annual birdathon 33 years ago, inspired by a similar event that had been started by Point Reyes Bird Observatory. Different teams of birders take to the field each May to rack up birds and pledges. The Wild Turkeys have been at it since the very first installment, and have fine-tuned their approach over the years: At first, it was a 24-hour event, but then, one year, they just kept going. After all, you can find more birds in two days than one. Less sleep equals more fundraising. The Turkeys never looked back.

Salt Creek Falls

Hoping for Black Swifts at Salt Creek Falls.

I have done plenty of 24-hour big days, but this was my first experience with a 48-hour birdathon. Runners know that a marathon is more than twice as exhausting as a half marathon, and I’d say the same applies to birdathons: Anyone can survive one intense day, but back-to-back efforts require real dedication. On Friday, I stayed up ‘til 1:30 a.m. owling, then got up at 4:30 to continue birding. On Saturday, I managed four hours of sleep. (Good training for Peru’s eight-day-long Birding Rally Challenge competition, which I’ll be attending next month.)

Over the years, the Wild Turkeys have met their share of unavoidable mishaps. One year a van hit a deer. Another year a team member wandered into the woods and it took half an hour of desperate searching for the rest to find her. There have been various minor injuries in the line of birdathoning. But perhaps the worst was one year, decades ago now, when the team used three personal cars to transport themselves across the state: When one car died, it was abandoned and the team crammed into the other two; but when the second car’s engine died, birding had to take a back seat for a while.

This year, the only anxious moment came on a remote gravel road in the eastern Cascades. Rental Van #2 stubbornly refused to start, only minutes after being parked. Luckily, jumper cables were found, Van #1 jumped it back into life, and our bird-crazed convoy kept trucking with barely five minutes elapsed. No sweat.

Seal Rock

The Wild Turkeys end their 48-hour birdathon on the Oregon Coast.

Due to a quirk of this particular event, the two-day period begins in mid-afternoon on Friday and ends at the same time on Sunday. The exact time depends on when the first good bird is seen, and requires a bit of strategy. After some discussion, we had decided to roll the starting clock to our first and only Swainson’s Hawk, which meant that the 48-hour hourglass ran out at exactly 2:05 pm.

With seven minutes to go, a cry went up. “Peregrine Falcon overhead!” The new sighting had a certain symmetry: Two hundred twenty-two species at two to two. The Wild Turkeys searched in vain for a Wandering Tattler, but a raft of Greater Scaup made #223, our last added species of the weekend. We grinned at each other as the final seconds ticked down, and a bottle of Wild Turkey made celebratory rounds in the parking lot for the birds we had seen—and the nearly $40,000 we had raised for bird conservation—while Yaquina Head’s volunteer naturalist watched with amusement.

Can’t wait ‘til next year!

More information about the Portland Audubon birdathon can be found here.

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