ELLENSBURG — Because it’s there.
Plus, it’s a chance to be outdoors, a look at what’s changing all around, a time to be together.
And, just maybe, a Redhead duck or a Pygmy Nuthatch will perform a fly-by.
For 10 years, on the first Saturday of every month, a group of Ellensburg folks meets shortly after the sun rises and walks for a couple of hours or so, searching for elusive (or not so elusive) prey.
They’re birders with the Kittitas Audubon Society. They never know who will show up, but for the past 120 First Saturdays, someone has always been there, through sleet, snow, wind, rain, hail and blistering heat.
They spot Steller’s Jays and Ring-necked Ducks in their binoculars, catch up on news of each other and tread down a familiar path, the Irene Rinehart Riverfront Park. The route and routine are so familiar now that First Saturdays have become second nature.
“It’s like an old friend,” explains Jan Demorest.
Starting now on their 11th year, 14 hardy souls (out of a membership of 170) gathers on a brilliantly sunny Groundhog Day morning — at 20 degrees, crisp but clear. They’ve chosen a glorious day — with a backdrop of mountains and snow. They walk along the Yakima River and Recer Creek, through stands of cottonwood, red ozier dogwood and willows, beginning their golden transition to spring green.
Jeb and Gloria Baldi started the First Saturday tradition in 2002 as a way to get outdoors and see which birds were showing their colors.
Because they keep careful data on birds spied each month, the group expects plenty of Downy Woodpeckers and Black-capped Chickadee to appear.
On cue, the Downy, with a jaunty splash of red on his pate, announces himself early on the walk, tap, tap, tapping up a cottonwood.
The goal isn’t to see something remarkable in these parts, such as a Red-shouldered Hawk (although that would certainly be appreciated), but rather to be a careful chronicler of a time and place and habitat.
“It’s not so much that we’re looking for the unusual, it’s the different types we see,” Jeb Baldi explains.
Through the years, the group has spotted 126 different bird species on First Saturday.
“Since about 360 birds are commonly seen in Washington, that means we’ve seen about half, and we think that’s a lot,” Baldi says.
Although they always trod the same wooded path, it doesn’t get boring, Demorest maintains. “You learn something new every month.”
Birding requires a sensitivity to surroundings, as well as keen eyes and ears, she says. Two members, Marilyn and Gerry Sorenson are considered the eagle eyes, credited with usually spotting birds first.
Tom Gauron might be known as the ears. Traveling with an iPod loaded with 300 different bird songs, he plays one near an overgrown thicket to see if a Song Sparrow will respond.
“Song Sparrows are very inquisitive,” Gauron explains. “If there’s one here, we’ll see it.”
Soon enough, several arrive, and yes, they’re singing. Suddenly, the spot is teeming with sparrows, Juncos, goldfinch and chickadees, all vying to be heard.
It isn’t just terrestrial life they’re after, either. The creek and river draw in waterfowl, as does a semi-frozen lake, just thawed enough for hooded mergansers to swim around, looking for lunch.
Someone spots a streak of orange and blue in the distance, a kestrel, who flies to a telephone wire to perch.
If he is lucky, he’ll be one of the recipients of the new cedar boxes Audubon members are building. Steve Moore explains that kestrels are declining in various parts of the country, so the idea is to give them a safe space to nest so they can regenerate their numbers. It’s an attempt to offset the number of birds lost every year to cats, cars and a changing landscape of more houses and less open space.
“One third of the birds in Washington are on the decline,” Baldi laments.
Talk turns to the two wind farms visible in the distance, and the possible effect they may have on bird migration. Moore notes, “There have been reports of bird fatalities around wind farms, but that hasn’t been quantified.”
Sharon Lumsden admits she’s not a fan of the towering wind generators. “I don’t think they’re green. That’s my personal opinion. They kill birds and bats.”
But therein lies the rub. The National Audubon Society supports wind generators as a source of green energy, Baldi notes.
While Auduboners love birds just as birds, they also see them as a marker of what’s going on in the larger world.
Birders care deeply about preservation of habitat and maintaining the health of the planet, Lumsden explains.
They point with pride at the progress made in the Recer Creek Floodplain Restoration Project, a stop on their walk. It’s where Recer Creek had once been straightened and used as an irrigation ditch. Three years ago the city joined with civic groups, high school classes and Audubon members to reclaim the area for habitat building. Volunteers planted trees to restore the area to its natural riparian state and let the creek meander again.
“It’s to do good,” Baldi explains.
Doing good is one reason these folks come out to hike the same trail, no matter the weather. There’s value in observing the same spot month after month, year after year, they point out. It’s akin to keeping an oral and visual history of the land and wildlife, observing what’s there and what’s missing.
If they see American wigeons in February most years, then suddenly there are none, that gives them pause. Is habitat dwindling? Is the area warming? Or is it natural? Through the years they’ll have a record.
Then there’s the pure joy of showing up every month, not sure what’s in store.
“I’ve been coming for four years, and I find interesting things I wouldn’t see otherwise,” says Diane Gauron. “It’s a nice way to get up early and stretch your bones and see what’s flying through.”
However, they’ve been known to cheat — a little. One January, when it was about 5 degrees, the group gathered at the trail head at 8 a.m., then promptly skedaddled to a restaurant for breakfast, returning an hour later to start the hike.
“You never know what the weather will be like,” Baldi confirms. “Last year hoary frost was all over the area; it was just gorgeous. The river iced up like a margarita. Then in the fall, the greens and golds were beautiful.”
By the morning’s end, they have racked up 28 different species, particularly pleased with a Brown Creeper, Bewick’s Wren and Golden-crowned Kinglets. An honorable day’s work.
“It’s a good excuse to come out,” says Baldi. “If you need an excuse.”