Birdathon Awards

The winner with the most observed birds in the elementary age group celebrated with his family

The winner with the most observed birds in the elementary age group celebrated with his family, but his sister wasn’t so excited

Our first annual Birdathon to raise money for the Chattanooga Audubon Society came to close this Saturday when we gathered together to award prizes.  Due to the fickle weather that fluctuated between sunshine and pouring rain every half hour or so, the event was moved into the visitor’s center.

This little one wasn't a birder, but she sure enjoyed modeling

This little one wasn’t a birder, but she sure enjoyed modeling

The event kicked off with hot dog roasting over the fire.  However, the use of the fireplace had to be timed carefully–the Chimney Swifts nesting in the chimney are only out so long in the evening and we wanted to make sure we didn’t asphyxiate them with smoke when they came back to roost for the night.


We didn’t have to worry about the heat–the fire didn’t get hot enough to roast the marshmallows at the end of the evening.  This was probably for the best.


It was a lot of fun to meet the kids who participated and discover how much they and their families had learned about birds in the process of Birdathoning.  They had a similar experience to what I think most birders have when they get started–the sudden realization that we’ve been missing an entire world of incredible creatures that surround us every day.

Kyle MC'd for the Evening

Kyle MC’d for the Evening

Birding can be addictive.  It creates a sense that someone has been pulling one over on you and you become determined not to let them get away with it anymore.  Like you’ve been part of a big cosmic joke because you haven’t noticed the Hooded Warbler singing over your head or the Scarlet Tanager feeding in the tree tops.

Most Bird Species Identified Award (prize of a bird feeder not shown)

Most Bird Species Identified Award (prize of a bird feeder not shown)

It’s a great analogy for how many of us live our lives–so busy and so worried all the time–thinking, thinking, thinking–that we don’t notice where we are or what’s around us.  For me, listening for birds, watching for birds, spending time looking at them carefully and listening to their songs to really see them, really know them is not just a process of identifying a bird; it’s an experience of seeing and hearing with intention and purpose.  Of seeing with intensity more of the world that is and less of the world in my head.  And being rewarded with wonder and awe in return for paying attention.

The top fund raiser award (who also got a bird feeder)

The top fund raiser award (who also got a bird feeder)

All in all, it was a satisfying first go.  We raised a fair amount of money for a small band of 23 people.  We got 19 children interested in birding and their moms got excited about it, too.  We had a lot of fun in the process and some of us added many birds to their life-lists (myself included).  I got to bird with several talented birders who taught me new things, and I even got a couple of decent shots of birds in the process.

Certificates were also given to "judge" participants who weren't eligible for prizes--Linda identified 123 birds during the event

Certificates were also given to “judge” participants who weren’t eligible for prizes–Linda identified 123 birds during the event

If that wasn’t satisfaction enough, I was given a really nice gift by my fellow organizers for importing the event from Columbus and helping to plan it.  They even gave me flowers.  I felt a little guilty, but it was nice to be appreciated.


Birding with Enthusiasm

Tuesday night, I set up the coffee maker and set the timer so it would start brewing at 5:15AM.  I put out the clothes I would wear for rowing.  Everything I needed was ready to go so that when the alarm went off at 5:30AM and I was stumbling around disoriented and wondering why in god’s name I continue to get up at 5:30AM, I wouldn’t have to think.

Wednesday morning, hot coffee in hand, I looked at my schedule for the day and there, low and behold, was a bird walk on my calendar for 7:00AM.  As in a bird walk I was leading!

Startled by my oversight in planning, I shifted gears, pulling together my bird walk backpack and gathering binoculars and my camera.  I pulled up the flashlight app on my iPhone and went searching in the darkness for a different outfit.

I admit I was feeling slightly resentful about giving up my rowing time as I imagined sitting alone in the park waiting for others who never show up.

At 6:50AM, it wasn’t even the crack of dawn yet.  I sat in darkness until I was surprised by a silhouette that turned out to be the Audubon property manager.  Next, a father with 4 enthusiastic children arrived.  Then, a regular from the condos arrived.  I stopped feeling bad about missing rowing.

I started my lesson about birding during fall migration.  I talked slowly and told more stories, hoping the sun would rise.  Every time a shadow went by, one of the children would turn, point, and shout, “What was that bird?”  I need to find out what kind of coffee they drink in the morning!

The amazing thing was how much the kids knew about birds.  They knew which birds were locals and which birds would not be found in Tennessee (even during migration).  The girl immediately recognized a Brown Thrasher she had barely seen for a split second.  Her older brother told me all about the birds he sees at his feeder at home.  Their father told me the interest in birds was the kids passion.  I thought that was pretty cool–also an advantage of home schooling.

I didn’t do so well on photography that morning.  First there wasn’t enough light.  Then I was just a bit flustered by all the questions and exclamations (LOOK!!!  THERE’S A CARDINAL!!!  LOOK!!! THERE’S A TURTLE!!!  LOOK THERE’S A BLUE HERON!!!  LOOK!!! THERE’S A SQUIRREL!!!).

As much fun as it is to be surrounded by little people who think everything is fascinating, it does make it a little more challenging to take a moment to shoot.  I’ve filled in the photos a bit with some leftovers from the previous walk and one shot of Cody, an unreleasable Red-tailed Hawk who has appeared in this blog several times as part of the S.O.A.R. raptor program.  I saw Cody again over the weekend, but that’s another blog post.

Finding Sanctuary

I discovered tonight that I’m almost out of digital photos I haven’t used in a blog post!  Who knew a year of blogging could use up 9 years of digital photos?  I’m going to have to start searching the archives again–there have to be more photos in there!

I did discover these series of shots taken two years ago during an annual trip to Portland, Oregon.  Pat and I went to the local Audubon Society Preserve there and did a hike through their woods.

It’s an amazing property for many reasons.  First, it’s been meticulously maintained as a natural, native habitat.  Most people don’t associate “meticulous maintenance” with “natural, native habitat.”  Usually, we think of a golf course.  Unfortunately, as I know from volunteering at the Audubon Society here in Chattanooga, without ongoing hard labor to remove the invasive species that pop up every time one turns one’s head, they get out of control and turn native habitat into something completely foreign.  It’s unfortunate we humans can’t agree that invasive species shouldn’t be sold or planted.  Until we do, those of us who value preserving native ecosystems have a lot of work to do to prevent those habitats from being overrun by the rest of the population’s right to decide what to plant on their own property.  But, don’t let me get on that soapbox.

The Portland Audubon Sanctuary is a 150 acre property of dense forest, including a stand of old growth trees, a pond, and a creek that’s carved some small hills within the already hilly Portland topography.

Walking through the forest area made us think we were in the rain forests of the Olympic Peninsula of Washington state.  We didn’t see too many birds while we were hiking.  Those we did see were a tough for me to ID–somehow, even the birds that also live in the East looked different enough that I couldn’t feel confident I’d correctly identified them.

When we stopped at the lovely gazebo on the pond at the sanctuary, we discovered a group who was out watching a Northern Saw-whet Owl perched in a tree and up so high that without binoculars, it couldn’t be spotted.  Fortunately, a kind man let me look through his so I could see it, too.  It was about the size of a Screech Owl (tiny) and very adorable.

The Portland Audubon Sanctuary also boasted some spectacular fungal growths.  Between the mushrooms and the weird, coral-like growths, I didn’t mind my limited success at birding (especially since I was without binocs).

In addition to the Sanctuary, they also provide rescue services for injured birds and keep some unreleasable birds on display for educational purposes.  This mean being guaranteed to see some interesting birds even if nothing in the woods showed itself.  I particularly liked the Americal Kestrels on display.  They looked like they were making faces at me.

It’s a great place to visit and support if you’re ever in the Portland area.

Winging It

On Saturday afternoon, I went to a Chattanooga Audubon Society fund raising event as a volunteer for S.O.A.R.  S.O.A.R. was there to do their 45 minute long educational program on birds of prey in support of the Audubon.

The challenge for John and Dale was that the program was in a large field outdoors, potentially tempting free flying birds to head for the trees.

The challenge for me was to see if I could get any good shots of the birds.  I am planning to make a screensaver to give away in exchange for donations at an upcoming event.  Unfortunately, I’ve never seen the program before, so I am completely winging it (yes, a pun).

I chose my new 70-200mm lens thinking because it’s faster, it will help me freeze more movement.  Given that it was a bright sunny day, I probably would have done better with my 100-400mm since I didn’t really need the speed.

I put my camera on a tripod and set it at its maximum height thinking I’d have a better angle catching the birds flaring before they land.  Unfortunately, I didn’t consider the need to separate the birds from the audience.  I would have been better off getting really low–well, not sure my knees would have been better off, but my pictures would have been.

I also needed to be as unobtrusive as possible so the birds didn’t get confused and fly to me.  No one wants a bird of prey to land on their unprotected flesh.  As a result, I tried to stay in one spot and not move around much.

In addition to being in a fixed position, up high, with too short a lens, all my subjects were in motion.  John and Dale are constantly moving.  When I am looking through my lens, I can only track one of them, but I need to know where the other one is to predict what direction the bird will fly.  Looking away to locate the destination person caused me to miss more than one good shot.

My lack of experience using the continuous focusing mode also did not help.  I had issues with losing focus. I’m not sure what I did wrong, but I’m going to have to do some more practice with continuous focusing mode.  It was depressing to see perfectly framed and timed shots that were totally out of focus.

In the end, I have some fun snap shots, but nothing to put in the screensaver.  I spent an insane amount of time trying to salvage one of the photos by blurring away the distracting background.  Unfortunately, the photo doesn’t look right now–see if you can tell which one I majorly doctored.

At least I learned a lot for the next time.  And, none of the birds flew away.

As for Tisen, he couldn’t come to the event with me–birds and dogs don’t mix well.  But, I included another shot from his nap with Red Dog.