November 21, 2002 - Seattle Post-Intelligencer: Ethiopia RCPV Eugene Hunn is expert Washington State birder

Peace Corps Online: Directory: Ethiopia: Peace Corps Ethiopia : The Peace Corps in Ethiopia: November 21, 2002 - Seattle Post-Intelligencer: Ethiopia RCPV Eugene Hunn is expert Washington State birder

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Ethiopia RCPV Eugene Hunn is expert Washington State birder

Ethiopia RCPV Eugene Hunn is expert Washington State birder

Emerald City is home to a surprising variety of winged species


Bird-watchers drive all over the country to pursue their passion, heading up to the Skagit to see eagles and raptors, ferrying to Whidbey to watch ducks and grebes or journeying to the forested foothills to find woodpeckers and songbirds.
Zoom Loren Callahan / P-I
Kinglets hang out in dead trees above Union Bay.

Stop and look around Seattle proper, however, and you might be surprised. Within five minutes of the Space Needle -- as an eagle glides -- a dedicated birder might see 100 species in a day.

"I'd say Seattle has a great diversity of species," says Eugene Hunn, known locally as much for his birding skills as for his credentials as a respected University of Washington anthropologist.

"If you look around the country, coastal areas are much richer than the interior areas and, of course, it's a function of latitude as well. We

have this tremendous confluence of marine habitat and freshwater, some forest, limited open country, plus it's temperate. It rarely gets bitterly cold."

This was all abundantly demonstrated on just the first stop of a recent Seattle Audubon Society field trip, "Circumnavigation of Lake Washington," led by the indefatigable Hunn, who began by setting a 100-species goal.

Our lake-circling adventure started at the UW's Union Bay Natural Area, the former site of a municipal dump and now a local birding hot spot known as the Montlake Fill. In minutes among the meadows that now cover 30-some feet of garbage along the shoreline near Husky stadium, 11 of us -- ranging from fledgling to seasoned bird-watchers -- were seeing some pretty amazing sights.

We spotted pretty yellow-rumped warblers, Bewick's wrens, chickadees and song sparrows browsing in the bushes, and overhead -- attempting to browse on them -- a sharp-shinned hawk.
Seattle Audubon Society
Zoom Loren Callahan / P-I
From left, Virginia LaPre, Joyce Larson and Tom Weir search for birds during the recent Seattle Audubon Society field trip "Circumnavigation of Lake Washington."Kinglets hang out in dead trees above Union Bay.

"It has a rounded bill," noted Hunn. "It's a forest hunter; feeds mostly inside the canopy on birds."

Nearby a northern flicker hung upside down on a branch to reach some berries. This locally abundant woodpecker, if seen up close, is quite colorful -- a mottled rust and tan with a slash of red on the back of a blue-gray head.

Crows, perhaps the loudest and most ubiquitous local bird, were everywhere. "Ten thousand night-roost on Foster Island (in the Arboretum). In the morning they fan out over the city. They're really smart birds," Hunn said, adding with a grin, "They'll take over the world."

Moving to the edge of Union Bay, Hunn spotted an American bittern, a less common marsh bird with a long-striped neck that provides an uncanny camouflage against cattails and reeds. Even with binoculars and Hunn describing where it was, it took a few minutes to locate it.

This odd, long-legged creature moved slowly along the edge of the marsh, once slipping on a wet log, and at one point adopting an angled stalking position, its neck forward and long yellow bill poised patiently.

Suddenly it made a stab and had a small fish or frog momentarily in its bill, but dropped the wiggling creature.

Out on the bay bobbed hundreds of wintering ducks -- coots, buffleheads, mallards, gadwall, widgeon, canvasback, greenwing teal, ring-necked, ruddy and the ridiculously large-billed shoveler. We also saw blue herons, a bald eagle and Canada geese. Hunn spotted pie-billed grebes, the first of five grebe species we saw that day, one short of the six that can be seen in Washington.

"They're similar to loons, but in a family all their own -- a radically different evolutionary grouping," explained the encyclopedic Hunn.

As we stopped near a small pond while preparing to leave for another corner of the lake, a lone peregrine falcon glided low over the pond, not more than 40 feet high.

This caused a ruckus among the group, someone spotting it and Hunn quickly identifying it. A fascinating, sleek, blue-gray falcon, the pergrine is capable of 200-mph dives, typically skewering its prey in midair. "He's got the pigeons in the stadium riled up," Hunn said as the bird flew near the bleachers.
Mallard on Union Bay
Zoom Loren Callahan / P-I
A mallard glides along Union Bay.

We left and caravaned to Seward Park, stopping first at the Stan Sayres pits and noting a variety of ducks and gulls. After shoreline observations, we took a trail through the park's magnificent old-growth forest -- one of two remnants in a city once surrounded by them -- spotting winter wrens, golden-crowned kinglets, the elegant cedar waxwing and the peculiar brown creeper.

A funny little songbird with mottled brown plumage and a long, thin tail it uses for support, the brown creeper forages for insects with its curved, bark-probing beak by creeping up mature conifers -- always up, never down -- sometimes in candy cane spirals.

On the trail, I asked Hunn -- between breaths, since he walks at roadrunner pace -- how a learned anthropologist became so passionate about birding.

It began in the 1960s when he was in the Peace Corps in Ethiopia.

"I was always interested in natural history. One of the guys there was Mike Huxley, one of the (noted) Huxleys, and he was a very avid birder," said Hunn, 59. "He'd go out birding and come back so excited saying 'Oh, I saw this and this.' " So I got a pair of binoculars and gave it a try."

In the late '60s, his studies took him to the Bay Area.

"Back then there was a group of real fanatical hippie bird-watchers and I fell in with them. They were really developing field identification to a fine art at that time. It's really caught on since then. There are many dozens of really good bird-watchers in Washington now."

According to a 2001 U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service survey, some 18 million Americans took at least one trip specifically to watch birds in 2000. About 46 million total watched birds around their homes. Birding is often now described as one of the fastest growing types of outdoor recreation in the country. It makes huge contributions to the economy -- of this I have no doubt, since several of the birders on our recent trip carried tripod-mounted spotting scopes that cost hundreds of dollars.

One was Pam Cahn of Seattle, who also volunteers as an observer at a blue heron rookery near Discovery Park. She said one of the neat things about birding is that you can do it anytime, near or far.

"Gene Hunn has a wonderful reputation for knowing so much about birds in this area," she said. "I like to know about places close, so it's nice to find out about these locations on Lake Washington."
Northern shovelers
Zoom Loren Callahan / P-I
Northern shovelers, two males and a female, dabble for food among the marsh grasses of the Montlake Fill.

Another great opportunity for local birders is the Audubon Society's annual Christmas bird count, this year on Dec. 28. It is a single day of the year when Audubon chapters throughout North America survey defined areas and count every bird they can. Some chapters have been doing this consistently for 50 years.

"Each person has a leader and an area, and starts at 8 a.m. -- some start at midnight to count owls," said Alan Roedell a Seattle Audubon member on the trip around the lake. "It has some statistical value in that you can compare one year to another and determine trends."

However, it is as much a social as a statistical event, the one day each year when avid birders join for an all-out birding effort. A typical Christmas bird count in the Seattle area will total around 120 species.

By this time on our circumnavigation, we had seen upwards of 60 and shuttled over to Renton and the mouth of the Cedar River. Here a virtual herd of gulls flapped overhead and sat on sand bars feeding on the scarlet carcasses of this year's abundant sockeye salmon run. Avid birders delight in gulls because they can be a challenge to identify, and we saw many species: ring-billed, Bonaparte's, mew, California, herring, Thayer's, glaucous-winged and westerns.

However, while I appreciate their valuable role in the aquatic environment, gulls bore me, perhaps due to long association (being a longtime salmon angler) and their abundance. I was ready to move on after five minutes. Off in the distance, though, we did spot a fairly unusual species in a small flock of greater white-fronted geese. We moved on to nearby Coulon Park for a better look, but added no more species there.

Then we headed north to Juanita Bay Park in Kirkland, a rich little corner of the lake with an active beaver colony, a known location for the sometimes elusive Virginia rail, another marsh bird, and my favorite duck, the hooded merganser.

Try as we might, we could not spot the rail. But we did hear its call several times, in response to a recording of it played by Hunn with a small tape recorder. We did see the merganser, but too far out in the bay to appreciate its delicate, almost cartoonlike appearance, with a flared "hammerhead" crest and tiny golden eyes.

Another treat was a bald eagle that noisily perched in a Douglas fir tree not more than 50 feet off, and a downy woodpecker flitting about the trees looking for bugs.

Our final stop was Log Boom Park in Kenmore, rampant with gulls, cormorants, grebes, ducks.

Our grand total: 69 species, short of the goal, but not bad for a day on the town.


# Useful resources include Gene Hunn's "Birding in Seattle and King County" (Seattle Audubon Society, 162 pages, $7.95) and Seattle Audubon's recently launched online species guide, Hunn is updating the book, published in 1982 and thus dated, but it describes top local birding sites and types of birds found here. BirdWeb is a guide to 350 species regularly found in Washington, with photos, range maps and information on habitat, behavior, diet and distribution.

# Seattle Audubon's home page at lists the group's field trips, which are open to non-members, and provides other information on the organization, founded in 1916 to protect natural environments for birds and other wildlife. You also can call 206-523-8243.

# Seattle Audubon is asking local birders to name candidates for an official Seattle bird. Possibilities include the ubiquitous American crow, the noisy but colorful Steller's jay, the marsh-probing great blue heron and the Anna's hummingbird, the only hummer to winter here. Check out the group's Web site (see above).

# To participate in the annual Christmas Bird Count on Dec. 28, call 206-523-8243, Ext. 8.

P-I reporter Greg Johnston can be reached at 206-448-8014 or

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Story Source: Seattle Post-Intelligencer

This story has been posted in the following forums: : Headlines; COS - Ethiopia; Ornithology; Birds



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