Sometimes, if you want something done, you have to do it yourself. Friends Ken Knittle and Scott Ray had hopes that the Washington Ornithological Society would publish a checklist by state and county for birders who wanted to find the most likely places to see specific species.
When that didn’t happen, Knittle, his wife Laurie and Ray, decided to tackle the project on their own. The Washington Birder website became a work in progress over the next nine years, hit the internet in 1993, and continues to be updated.
“Every year we tweak the numbers to get a better picture of abundance, and we give recognition to birders who find a county bird first,” he said.
Knittle became fascinated with birds while in college. He and friends covered most of the mainland states. They spotted a bird new to Texas, the brown jay, common in Mexico.
According to the National Audubon Society’s website, “… brown jays crossed into Texas in the 1970s; they are still very scarce and local there, found only on a stretch of the Rio Grande below Falcon Dam.”
Many common bird species are found in all of Washington’s counties; turkey vultures, crows and house sparrows, for instance. But different species differ in abundance and location. A bird can be listed as common, uncommon, usually seen every year, rare, have less than five records — or even hypothetical.
Using those categories as a guide, birders can weigh their opportunities of seeing a specific bird. Crows, for example, can’t easily be found in all counties; rock doves are hard to find in Wahkiakum County.
“Just because a bird can be common in someone’s back yard doesn’t mean it’s common everywhere,” he said.
Knittle picked the brains of birders to use the codes. Keep in mind, he says, that counties like King, Snohomish or Skagit have far more birders than a county such as Walla Walla, which would lead to more sightings.
“This not a field guide,” Knittle said, but a guide to where to start looking for a specific species that you want on your life list.
There is a section that documents “new species,” birds that are first sighted in a specific county. Much of that list is also acceptable by Washington Ornithological Society’s records committee, which verifies (or not) proposed new sightings submitted to the WOS.
In 2017, for instance, first sightings were accepted for a falcated duck at Padilla Bay, a slaty-backed gull at Neah Bay, and red fox sparrows in Seattle and in Bingen in Klickitat County.
The site also has Big Day and list reports, and county comparisons.
While wabirder.com is clearly low tech, it is a testament to the 20th-century version of spreading information about birds, even without the bells and whistles.
In another column, we’ll look at a website that has all the bells, whistles and avian details one could imagine, the 21st-century high-tech way to locate birds for your life list.
Owl tech. For 25 years, western forests have been managed to protect habitat for endangered spotted owls by retaining more than 70 percent of the canopy cover. An unintended consequence is that dense levels of canopy can leave forests prone to wild fires and at risk during droughts.
Remote sensing technology has offered a different path, as detailed in the journal Forest Ecology and Management.
Scientists have found that the amount of cover in tall trees is the key habitat requirement for spotted owls, not total canopy cover; and that spotted owls generally avoid the cover of shorter trees.
The results offer a way to reducing small-tree density through fire and thinning without reducing nesting options for the owls.
Researchers believed that the 1.2-million-acre study using Light Detection and Ranging imaging (LiDAR) is the largest spotted-owl study yet in terms of acreage.
The University of Washington participated in the study.
Columnist Sharon Wootton can be reached at 360-468-3964 or firstname.lastname@example.org.