Persistence pays off for Edmonds birders

  • By Sharon Wootton
  • Friday, December 5, 2014 1:30pm
  • Life

Blair Bernson and Samantha Robinson headed to the Brewster area last month with one goal: Find the Northern hawk owl, rarely seen in Washington.

It’s a mid-sized owl without ear tufts but with a long tail that sets it apart from other owls. Conveniently, it is active only during the day.

“It’s a wonderful, incredible bird generally seen somewhere in the state once or twice a year, sometimes none,” Bernson said.

Finding an uncommon bird involves luck as well as skill.

“We spent hours and hours and hours and someone else came by and he found it. He called me on my cell phone and we went over and saw it. We had been there six times that day and hadn’t seen it.”

Two years ago he had looked for a hawk owl near Ephrata.

“We drove around and around and around and didn’t see it,” he said. “Finally we headed home and stopped at every single bird that we’d see and sure enough, seven miles from the one spot it had been seen before, it flew into a tree over our heads.”

The Edmonds resident calls the hawk owl “charismatic,” a very appealing bird that draws birders to it, and a description that could apply to eagles, or most other large avian predators.

But there are other birds that are special, too, some that you wouldn’t expect to be on Bernson’s charismatic list.

“Look at the common starling,” he said. “There are zillions, flocks of hundreds or thousands. It’s a ‘junk’ bird that if you really look at it in good light in its breeding plumage, it’s beautiful. The blue-eared glossy starling in South Africa is so common that no one pays any attention to it. It’s beautiful, too.”

Why dash off to find a specific bird?

“Part of it is the hunt or chase. It’s the passion or obsession or illness, depending on how you see it. Man has a need to collect,” Bernson said.

Early in our interview, Bernson stopped to take a call about a report of a rare bird in the area, the spotted redshank.

The birding world has changed dramatically since Bernson started birdwatching in the 1970s, birders communicated with each other using telephone trees and word of mouth.

In the 21st century there are list serves, Internet, emails, digital photographs that can be easily shared, cell phones and more birders taking advantage of the technology.

Now retired, Bernson has a more passionate approach to birding.

“Or it may be I had as much passion back then, just that other things were occupying time and space,” he said.

Bernson has what is known in birding circle as his Big Year, the marathon of bird counting, in 2013 when he observed 365 species in Washington.

“I didn’t start out for that to happen but it gets to the point of ‘Well, why not go for one more?’ Then December rolled around and it got crazy,” he said. “One day I did a 750-mile trip. You only see some birds in certain seasons.”

Birders have a philosophy: Birding is an excuse or reason to insert yourself into some wonderful areas, enjoy the environment and the birds.

Recently, Bernson and Robinson looked for a specific bird but couldn’t find it.

“It didn’t matter. It was a gorgeous day,” he said.

Columnist Sharon Wootton can be reached at 360-468-3964 or

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