Writer-photographer Don Anderson teaches at Jewell High School. In this essay he describes his passion for birdwatching.

The new snow crunched underfoot like a saltine cracker. It would be a couple hours before the sun rose over Steen’s Mountain, but the sky was starting to lighten.

My friend Mike Carter and I had driven more than 400 miles, slept in a freezing yurt, bribed a local rancher, and gone without breakfast, all to experience something unique in birding: the mating ritual of the sage grouse.

After driving for miles on crusty back roads that couldn’t decide if they wanted to be impassibly muddy or slick with ice, we began to suspect that the rancher had led us astray, when the land opened up to a small clearing the in sage brush: the grouse’s mating area or lek. We stopped the pickup and snatched our binoculars from our backpacks. There they were, just like the rancher said they would be.

The male sage grouse with their tail feathers fanned and their large air sacs distended made an eerie percussive sound that carried through the cold morning air. The sound reminded me of a vacuum pump. Mike and I high-fived, replaced our binoculars with cameras and began shooting away as the sly female grouse appeared on the scene, deciding which male to mate with.

Life lists

Birders will go to great lengths to witness a new bird. As they become more experienced and see more species, each new bird becomes a cause for celebration. It’s like buying a new car, or traveling to a new country. Some say that you can tell a true birder from a pretender by their life list. A true birder always has a life list tucked away in their favorite bird book, and the life list is like a sacred document to them. It is a record of all the birds they have seen and where and when they first saw them.

Once I lost my life list for a week and was seriously panicked. When I finally found it, it was like a doctor told me I no longer had cancer – that’s how relieved I felt. All the same, anyone who enjoys looking at and identifying birds is a birder. You don’t have to be obsessed, you just have to be curious and delighted.

We are fortunate in Oregon at having some of the best birding opportunities in the United States. Part of this is because of the diversity of climates in our state, everything from alpine to seashore, to high desert. It is also due to the long legacy Oregon has had in taking care of its birding habitat.

The North Oregon Coast is a favorite for birders all over the country because it has a unique combination of rocky shores, swamps, dense forests, and open meadows. Though we don’t have the variety of song birds as do the deciduous forests of the east, we more than make up for it in the variety of waterfowl that inhabit our coastline.

Making a start

Whenever introducing someone to the Oregon Coast, one of the first places I take them is the south jetty at Fort Stevens State Park. Just driving in there they are likely to see all the usual suspects (herons, eagles, terns, gulls, etc.), but are often surprised with excellent views of harriers, spotted sandpipers, harlequin ducks, great egrets, and various owls, among dozens of other birds.

Watching squadron after squadron of brown pelicans fly by the jetty’s viewing stand at almost arm’s length is one of the most spectacular birding experiences and gives chills even to veteran birders. When schools of anchovies get pushed next to the jetty, the resulting melee of seabirds is breathtaking. Hundreds of pelicans plunge into the sea and emerge with pouches full of fish. The gulls then harass the larger birds into spilling their fish and the gulls, terns and cormorants clean up the aftermath.

A few hundred yards inland, the birding is quieter, but no less beautiful. A flock of cedar waxwings sweeps through the air with a metallic tinkling sound, lighting on a hawthorn bush and depriving it of its berries. In a swamp a blue heron trolls for small fish and frogs and yellow warblers peer out from perches seemingly inviting the curious birder to explore further. Suddenly a loud splash turns heads and an osprey emerges from the water with a trout and flies off to feed its young, and itself, at a nearby nest.

Why we do it

Birding has many rewards. It lets us share natural world with our friends; it gives us an appreciation for some of the most beautiful and unique creatures on earth; it even encourages exercise and healthy living. But perhaps the most rewarding aspect of birding is that it lets us tune out the electronic civilization that constantly surrounds us and tune in the simple beauty of our planet.

Birding lets us get back into the natural world, even if it only for a few minutes at a time. “I don’t ask for the meaning of the song of a bird or the rising of the sun on a misty morning,” novelist Peter Hamill said. “There they are, and they are beautiful.”

      

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