Steve Shunk’s involvement with serious birding started simply enough.
“One of my colleagues who was a birder handed me a pair of binoculars and said, ‘Try this, you’ll like it.’ ”
That moment led to a life of birding, his own touring company for birdwatchers, co-founding East Cascades Audubon and the Oregon Birding Trails program, a book, and speaking gigs at bird festivals, including the Sept. 15-17 Puget Sound Bird Festival in Edmonds.
Shunk will be the keynote speaker Friday.
Twenty years of studying woodpeckers led to his favorite topic: woodpeckers.
“I’m known for having an excessive streak … I’m really interested in entering the world of birds without disturbing (them), seeing birds up close, seeing feathers and behaviors.”
The path to Shunk’s book started at the Cold Springs Campground near Sisters, Oregon, about 10 years ago, after following a tip from a local birder.
“In a couple of months, I found eight species of woodpeckers there. I was intrigued, started doing research. Were there this many species in other places? Why were there so many here? What ecological conditions allowed this diversity?”
Eventually he pitched a book on woodpeckers to an editor. Given a green light, Shunk’s research led him to many states for field research. The result was the “Peterson Reference Guide to Woodpeckers of North America” in 2016.
“I also made it my mission to read everything ever written about woodpeckers in North America, starting with Capt. Cook,” Shunk said.
“I like being an interpreter. It’s a challenge to bridge the gap between ornithologists and birding … to translate some of the scientific jargon. I looked at the book as an opportunity to interpret everything I could about woodpeckers to the general public.”
Shunk appreciates woodpeckers’ unique niche.
“They’re one of the most specialized bird families in the world,” he said. “Most of that is related to anatomy and how that anatomy makes the specialized lifestyle. Knowing what’s going on inside a bird and being able to watch them in the field, so I can interpret what I know into the reality that I see happening. Not all ornithologists are birders; they do research and publish papers, but aren’t in the field that much.
“I see woodpecker behavior in the field, and take what I learn and write and talk about it. That’s part of my motivation.”
Shunk entertains and educates during his lectures. His talks include how a woodpecker can slam its head against a tree with ferocious power and speed without injury, how several species of woodpeckers can exist in the same stand of trees, and how lost habitat affects woodpeckers and how the loss of woodpeckers affects other animals.
“It’s a great way to reach a large number of people very efficiently,” he said. “I want to reach as many people as possible, getting them into birding, which then can lead them into more conservation. If they love birds, they want to conserve, want to see new birds, want to see rare birds, and all of that needs a healthy habitat. It’s also a way for birdwatchers to go out birding with a local expert.”
Shunk will present “How Woodpeckers Can Save the World” (or at least your local forest) at 7:30 p.m. Friday in the Edmonds Plaza Room, 600 Main St. Doors open at 7 p.m. For more information, go to www.paradisebirding.com.
Puget Sound Bird Fest
The 13th annual Puget Sound Bird Fest Sept. 15-17 in Edmonds offers something for everyone interested in birds. Keynote speaker Steve Shunk starts the festival at 7:30 p.m. Friday by focusing on woodpeckers. Ongoing events Saturday and Sunday include an exhibitors, children’s activities, plus a citizen-science mini-symposium on Saturday that focuses on local bird and habitat studies.
Then come the hard choices.
Saturday’s talks include “Beginning Bird Identification,” “Birds in Our Midst” (gardens for birds and people), “Better Bird Photography,” “Sarvey Wildlife Raptors” and “Seabirds of Puget Sound.”
Sunday’s events include all-day bird viewing and interpretive activities at the Edmonds Marsh overlook; guided walks at the Edmonds Marsh, Willow Creek Hatchery, Point Edwards Trail, Pine Ridge Park and Scriber Lake Park; “Seabirds of Puget Sound;” woodpecker prowls with the keynote speaker; “Puget Sound Birding Cruise;” a field photography workshop; a ranger-led beach walk; native plant sale; and a wildlife habitat and native plant demonstration garden tours.
While most events are free, some require payment and reservations, such as looking for woodpeckers, some of the guided walks and the three-hour boat cruise.
For a schedule, location of events, fees and registration, go to pugetsoundbirdfest.com.
About Steve Shunk
Steve Shunk, Friday’s keynote speaker at the Puget Sound Bird Fest in Edmonds, is not one to drop everything and chase across the countryside to see a rare bird. But he will if “a rare bird is showing somewhere relatively close, and it’s a bird I might not see again in my whole life, it’s worth going to see.”
That special bird showed up at Carkeek Park on Aug. 31, enticing Shunk to rise at 4 a.m. and leave Bend, Oregon, in search of the extremely rare swallow-tailed gull. Only two confirmed sightings in California have been reported in North America. They are rarely seen north of the Equator, and breed almost exclusively on the Galapagos Island.
That rarity brought dozens of birders from as far away as Chicago and Phoenix.
Shunk missed the gull at Carkeek but eventually added the bird to his life list by spotting it in the Point Wells area. The gull later made an appearance in Everett.
“Maybe it will hang around for the Bird Fest,” Shunk said.