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!
With our Family Big Year in full swing we decided that it was time to purchase a decent birding camera. We were in the market for a point and shoot with a decent zoom for under $300, which narrowed the field quite extensively:) In the end our two main contenders were the Panasonic LUMIX DMC-FZ70 16.1 MP and the Canon PowerShot SX530 HS. The Lumix beat out the PowerShot in almost every field except for the fact that it was heavier. We really wanted this camera, but it is out of stock everywhere except Amazon.com and that is with a 1-2 month delivery period. On the other hand the PowerShot was available with a memory card and carrying case package at Costco and would be delivered in just a few days. We were too impatient to wait for the Lumix and liked the fact that we could return the PowerShot directly to Costco if need be. So, the PowerShot won out.
Good fortune was with us today as our brand new camera was delivered at roughly the same time that a huge flock of Waxwings were feeding in the trees across the street. After an agonizing period of waiting for the battery to charge up a bit we returned outside to test out the 50x optical zoom. While holding the camera steady with such a high zoom is no easy feat we were richly rewarded with some fabulous photos of Waxwings. At the same time a Bald Eagle was perched in a nearby tree and humored us as we crouched below the tree for 10 minutes trying out our new camera and snapping his picture.
Just as we came inside the Waxwings decided to feed from the Mountain Ash in our backyard and stop for a drink at our winter bird bath (this time of year we are in a constant struggle with Old Man Winter to keep it from freezing up). From behind our patio door we hardly had to use the zoom at all to snap some great shots of these gorgeous birds.
The photos came in handy as we are still trying to work out the difference between Bohemian and Cedar Waxwings. It appears that we have had both in our neighborhood in the past few days as they feed on the Mountain Ash berries. However, when they are busy flying to and fro it can be hard to tell for sure which is Bohemian and which is Cedar. From what we have read a yellowish belly and white undertail coverts equals a Cedar Waxwing, while a gray belly and chestnut undertail coverts is a Bohemian Waxwing. We are still too novice to feel confident in our on sight identification, but having quality photos to check back over really helps. As our Family Big Year continues we are sure that our new camera will come in handy.
Cedar Waxwing – Not the yellow belly and white undertail coverts.
Bohemian Waxwing – Note the gray belly and chestnut undertail coverts.
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!