Swamped by Gratitude

So fellow travelers, as I alluded in a recent post there’s a story to be told about an annual event known as Birdathon.

Once a year our local chapter of the Audubon Society holds a day long birding challenge known as the Birdathon. Birders have twenty four hours (midnight to midnight) to find and identify by sight and/or sound as many different species in a set region as they can.  It is a “one and done” checklist, which means it doesn’t matter how many robins you see, once you spot a robin, that species is checked off. Teams can also use it as a  fundraiser for the OAS, by taking pledges towards their checklist totals.

Birdathon takes place on the Saturday in May following Mother’s Day Sunday, which used to conflict with a major music event my daughters participated in. Family first and the need for mom’s support to calm nervous soloists trumped crazy birding events, until ten years ago when the NYSSMA solo weekend was permanently moved to April. Suddenly free to participate, but acutely aware of my inexperience, I emailed the event coordinator and asked if there was a team I might tag along with.  “Sure, meet us at Onondaga Lake Park, near the marina at 4:30.”  Folks that’s 4:30 AM  and for the record considered a “late” start by Birdathon standards. Turns out I was meeting the team at their third stop of the morning.

Its not hard to recognize a birder, even in the dim pre-dawn mists of 4:30am. They’re the ones wandering the paths, heads cocked to one side listening, eyes to the tree line, binoculars the size of small canons draped around their necks. The  local Birdathon Coordinator, spotted me right away, probably noting my cute little pocket binoculars which looked more like decorative jewelry. Two other teams, a pair of older gentlemen and three women about my age soon joined us.

As we scouted around I caught sight of a signature long black neck and head moving submarine like above the water of Onondaga Lake. “Is that a loon?” I asked tentatively.  Five pairs of binoculars and one spotting scope swiveled towards my line of sight. “Might be a cormorant, they are more common on this lake.”  “Hold on, I see a collar ring. ”  “Yep, that sure is a loon.”  ” Nice spotting Deb.”   Birders are quite welcoming to newcomers, still a good sighting always creates a kind of instant camaraderie.  Dave asked if I wanted to ride along with him, since he was running solo.  I said I’d be honored.  I offered to drive indicating I had four wheel drive and would not hesitate to use it if called for.  Besides I knew Dave placed in the top three of final counts every year, we’d be safer if I focused on the road and he focused on spotting.

The day that followed was one wild and crazy adventure. We trekked from one hot spot to another, driving across fields (making good on my promise to kick it into four wheel drive numerous times), finding,  losing, then finding trails through woods and wetlands. I saw my first hummingbird nest while the team chased an elusive warbler through a thicket.  I learned the difference between red tailed and broad winged hawks.  We were fooled by countless catbirds and mockingbirds as they teased us with their mimickery throughout the day. The highlight of the day came at sunset, as dozens of teams converged on a field to find a bird so rare it had not been  seen or heard in our region in over thirty years.

I came home late in the evening, beyond tired and yet so full of stories of the long day’s adventures, my then eight year old daughter was intrigued and asked if she could go with me if I went the next year.  So began the seven year run of Team Loonatics.

Our first year out featured some of the worse weather conditions possible for birding. Driving rains, blustery winds and unseasonably chilly temperatures made it feel more like November than May.  It made our chosen team name seem all the more fitting but we were on a mission and it would take more than typical Central New York weather to stop us. Armed with nothing more than several pairs of binoculars, a reliable atlas (these were pre-GPS years) a good color birding reference and a couple copies of the official checklist, we hit the road well before dawn.  Our only defense against the elements were several layers of clothing, topped by rain jackets a thermos of hot chocolate and a sizable stash of road snacks.

We braved gale force winds on the coast of Lake Ontario , waded through puddles at our local nature center and were chased by cantankerous geese at Onondaga Lake Park. At any moment I expected my little adventurer to say she wanted to head for the warmth of home, especially because the birds were so few and far between. Not once did she complain. Every bone chilling moment only made each find more precious.  She kept checking and rechecking our list on which I had highlighted the species we would most likely be able to find and identify to help us reach our goal of fifty different birds before days end.

There was the moment as we waited out torrential rain sitting in the car sipping hot chocolate that Emma spotted a small warbler hunkered in a bush.  Or the one where we thought we spied an eagle sitting on a fence post only to realize as we crept slowly closer that is was in fact a wooden carving, which as realistic as it was, could not count towards our total.Our funniest moment had to be towards sunset, as we sat in the car eating pizza parked by the canal at Fair Haven State Park.  Spying a bird I knew we needed but too tired to speak a complete sentence I blurted out “Tern, Emma tern!”  Baffled, she looked at me saying “What?  Turn? Why? Which way?”  as she shifted left and right until she followed the line of the frantic gestures I was making with my half eaten pizza slice.  Cruising up the canal was a Common Tern.  “Oh that kind of TERN” she said and we both dissolved into helpless laughter.

By the time we called it done, our checklist count totaled fifty six species.  When I woke her as we pulled into the driveway sixteen hours after we set out, she yawned and said ” That was great. Can we go again next year?’

We did take the challenge the next and every year after for seven consecutive years, each time adding to our goal. We braved voracious mosquitoes tracking down swamp sparrows and marsh wrens, skirted poison ivy to catch a glimpse of an elusive pair of nesting red headed woodpeckers, marveled at an osprey catching it’s dinner, one year we were one of only three (out of 80) teams to see an egret on its brief stopover at a local wetland park, another year Emma spotted a warbler so rare we doubted the find until other birders confirmed the same sighting. By our last run in 2013 we just topped the 95 mark. We had our sights set on hitting the one hundred mark however a change in date for a significant marching band event ended our official birdathon run last year. She was honestly disappointed, so much so that she opted to spend most of Mother’s Day birding with me.  It might not have been an official Birdathon count, but we had a great time. We still bust a smile every time we spot a tern.

As for me I am simply grateful to have had at least one day every year where my daughter willingly spent an entire day with me.  Each year as she grew through the turbulence of pre-teen to teen years, my heart would leap for joy when she asked if we were going out for Birdathon.  That’s something you wont find on any official checklists but it will always count a great deal to have on my life list.


The elusive egret, captured by Emma on my little pocket camera.

Editors note:  for another Mom’s perspective on passing forward the love of nature, check out my friend and fellow CGBF blogger Jennifer Bowman’s entry about her trip to see the Silver River Monkeys with her son Sean.

Walk gently on the path my friends and may adventure find you ready.

Deborah H Rahalski

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