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It's a Bird, It's a Plane — No, It is a Bird

Audubon 48-hour Birdathon

There are seven of us in the van. Assorted and the same, some of us have known each other for more than thirty years; some of us are strangers. We are male and female, spread in age from fifty-somethings to those in their young twenties, a mix disparate and similar. Whatever our background or differences, we are a team with a common goal: to count as many birds as we can.

I am not a practiced birder, but I like it and I am game. I can spot them pretty good. What I cannot do well yet, is actually identify them. I am not particularly a group person either, but I am enthusiastic about this trip, a marathon bird-count fund-raiser for the Audubon Society of Portland. It's a 48-hour mad-dash trip from Portland to Newport on the coast, then across the state to Malheur National Wildlife Reserve in the extreme southeast corner of Oregon and back to home base again.

Because I live in rural Clackamas County, I have, in the very recesses of my mind, qualms about traveling with this group. I frequently hear the disgruntled grumblings about the city and the arm of Metro. I hear the fear, the uneasiness, the myths, the resentment toward city folk as though urbanites carry an infectious disease, certain to cripple livelihoods and morals. And here we are, the heinous criminal element: a bunch of weirdo bird-nuts from the city. I ignore my uneasiness. I’m willing to be sneered at, ridiculed, and talked about as we stop frequently to gawk, binocular-laden, gazing skyward, because what scoffers do not know is how much fun this is.

After a low count in heavy rain at Newport, we stash our damp selves at Beverly Beach State campground in yurts. This is luxury camping with heat and lights and bunk beds with good mattresses, and showers and indoor toilets only a quick sprint through the woods. At dawn, my yurt mates and I are awakened by the sound of ducks overhead. Rather, we are awakened by our intrepid leader, Mike Houck, announcing, “wood ducks” from his top bunk a split-second before the rest of us actually hear them. OK, so he’s the expert. We pack up, rouse the others and hit the road for eastern Oregon.

As we stop near Corvallis in pursuit of white woodpeckers, we soon learn that we are lucky to be in our van. The rule is that at least two people must identify a bird for the count — either hearing or seeing. Houck tries to make certain we all confirm our count, but some teams are hustled back into their vans as soon as two, usually their leaders, concur, an unnerving experience for the rest. (“Kingfisher.” “Yep.” Whoosh, everybody back in the van.) Some even use boom boxes with recorded birdcalls to lure the birds in; we have Houck. When he calls, they appear.

We stop for dinner at a steakhouse in Burns where the waitress flirts with the guys and asks if any of them are doctors. Alarmed, we ask if she is OK. She reveals that she is looking for a doctor who will miraculously change her life and swoop her out of town. We offer that she can come birding with us, but she gives a disdainful look. I guess we’re a pathetic answer to her prayers. After dinner, we forge through the high desert in the moonlight to Malhuer, where we stay overnight at the field station in the dorms, a former job corps site, run by the government. Meals are taken in a common mess hall that is shared with other groups, but we’ve already had dinner and will leave too early for breakfast.

At daybreak, we hit the road again, cruising along canals and ditches. We see what have become some of my favorite waterfowl in the dawn light — cinnamon teals, ruddy ducks, stilts (those red legs!) and avocets. By the time we arrive in the tiny town of French Glen, we are famished and decide to have breakfast at the old hotel, the news of which soon spreads lightning-like to the other groups, and for which we take ample ridiculing.

We may have taken the time for all of us to identify our count, and we may have had bacon, eggs, hash browns, pancakes and strawberry waffles at the French Glen Hotel, but we are no slackers. We have 194 species, second by only a few to one of the frantic crews. And I am not ashamed to happily have invaded the rest of the state as one of those weirdo bird nuts.

Audubon Society of Portland‘s field trips — birding, nature walks, workshops, etc. www.audubonportland.org

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