As December comes to a close so does our Family Big Year. Although, December is a crazy busy month for us we made time recently to check out the Ridgefield National Wildlife Refuge in an attempt of adding a few more bird species to our Big Year list.
The Ridgefield National Wildlife Refuge is a birder’s paradise with over 5,300 acres of water, wood, and field habitat for birds. From October to May visitors must stay in their cars to avoid disturbing wintering waterfowl. However, there is a 4 mile road through the refuge that visitors are allowed to drive, which gives great viewing access. In addition the refuge offers a guided auto-tour via CD that provides an overview of the refuge and the wildlife species that might be seen.
While most of the refuge is closed to foot traffic during the fall and winter there is a viewing blind that remains open and can be accessed via a short path. The blind looks out on one of the ponds and provides a great view of Tundra Swans, Coots, and other waterfowl.
Although, birding while driving can be a little bit difficult (especially for the driver) it is a really great way to see a large number of species in a relatively short period of time. During our visit we counted over 15 different species of birds and hundreds of individuals. We also added one new species to our Family Big Year list bringing our total up to 114!
We are finally settled in our new rental house in Vancouver, Washington! Leaving Montana and heading towards a more populated area we were afraid that we would lose the access to wild places that we love so much. However, we have been pleasantly surprised with how many parks and wildlife refuges exist in the greater Vancouver area. We were even more delighted to find out that there is a homeschool group that gets together for “Wilderness Wednesdays”. We love to get out into nature whenever possible, but what a great idea to make a special trip to a favorite nature based destination every Wednesday.
For our first “Wilderness Wednesday” we headed east of our new house to the Steigerwald Lake National Wildlife Refuge in Washougal. When we arrived there were two school buses in the parking lot bringing local school kids to the refuge on a field trip. It was great to see so many kids out in nature. The Steigerwald Lake National Wildlife Refuge is is comprised of 1,049 acres of wetlands, woodlands, and field that border the Columbia River. The diversity of habitats makes it a great place to view a variety of birds.
We didn’t have to make our way very far down the refuge trail before we started seeing birds. From song birds to water birds our three hour visit at the refuge was packed with bird sightings. In total we ended up viewing 15 species of birds, four of which were new species for our Family Big Year. On our way down the path towards the Columbia River we were most excited to spot three Hooded Mergansers. The coloring of the male is really something!
However, our trip back from the Columbia River to our car was even more exciting as we passed by a small section of woodlands and heard an owl hooting. We stopped to listen and used our best owl imitation to hoot back. The owl responded and we called back and forth for several minutes before spotting the owl tucked up close to a tree trunk. It took a while before we got all five of us to clearly see the owl and just as we were able to leave a second owl swooped down and perched on a lower branch giving us an amazing view. We were able to snap some great shots of what we can now tell was a Great Horned Owl (although it looked really wet). Then both of the owls flew off over the water to a second patch of woodland. It was really an amazing sight!
When we finally made it back to the car we were exhausted. Even though we had only walked about 2 1/2 miles we had worked hard looking, listening, and observing new bird species. It turned out to be a very successful Wilderness Wednesday and we can’t wait for the next one.
Smoke from nearby forest fires has made its way to the Flathead Valley and our usually brilliant blue sky is now overcast. This past week we headed to the northern end of the lake and the haze was so bad that it felt like we were canoeing at dusk even though it was noon.
The north end of Flathead Lake offers a stark contrast to what we are used to in the Lakeside area. The Somers end of the lake used to be home to a saw mill and railroad tie factory and the remains of industry can still be seen in old pilings and buildings.
Along the shoreline the water is very shallow and sandy compared to the rocky shore that we usually swim off at West Shore State Park. The Younger Fives had a ball jumping out of the kayak and running along the lake bottom while we floated along behind them.
With the overcast sky it seemed like we were canoeing along an ocean bay instead of on Flathead Lake. The bird spotting was thick along the shores of the lake with geese, gulls, and osprey spread out in the shade of the large cottonwood trees. We all enjoyed the change of environment even though we were still on the same body of water.
We were all really excited to visit the Willapa National Wildlife Refuge near Ilwaco, Washington on our recent vacation. The refuge is made up of units near and along the Long Beach Peninsula. The variety of habitats from old growth forest, to marshes, and open ocean make this refuge a great place for bird watching, hiking, and just enjoying the coast. The Cutthroat Climb at the Headquarters Unit was a huge hit with the Younger Fives. You will definitely want footwear that can get wet during the spring. The Leadbetter Unit at the tip of the Long Beach Peninsula was great for birding along the bay, but the trails to the ocean were all flooded past thigh level. We ended up visiting the refuge on several days and would love to return to do some camping on the island portion of the refuge.
As a family we started to get interested in bird watching back in the spring of 2015 when we lived in Wyoming for a while. During this time we spotted many migratory birds passing through the area and made a trip to see the Sandhill Cranes at the Grays Lake National Wildlife Refuge. Our enthusiasm for bird watching only increased when we lived on Vancouver Island and had the pleasure of viewing bald and golden eagles as well as many species of seabirds.
With 2017 just underway we made a decision the other day to work towards a “Family Big Year”. A Big Year in terms of bird watching is a competition between birders to see who can identify through sight or sound the largest number of bird species in one calendar year. A great film with Steve Martin, Owen Wilson, and Jack Black was made based on the book The Big Year: A Tale of Man, Nature, and Fowl Obsessiontelling the story of 3 men who tried for a Big Year in 1998. We highly recommend watching the film or reading the book to learn a little more about this fun birding competition.
While we don’t expect to get anywhere near the 780 species of birds spotted by 2016’s Big Year winner, we have set a family goal to spot 105 different bird species in 2017. All five of use will have to see the species in order for it to count towards our total. We are all super excited about this challenge and have already had up close encounters with Wild Turkey, American Crow, and Bald Eagle. The kids are diligently tracking each species we see, researching more about the bird’s characteristics, and studying up on basic birding techniques.
We were very fortunate to be able to tap into the resources of the Flathead Audubon Society who make learning about birds in our area fun and interesting. They offer Educational Trunks to homeschoolers and we were fortunate to start off our Family Big Year by borrowing their Common Birds of the Flathead trunk. The field guides, CDs, and pictures inside have been a great resource in getting our family up to speed on what common species of birds we should be looking for in our surrounding area.
In order to record our Family Big Year we will keep a list and photo gallery of each bird species that we spot in 2017 on the Nature On The Fly page of our blog. We can’t wait to see what this big year will bring!