Kestral Krew's Big Day
by Phil Kahler
How many bird species can be seen in a single day? At 3:00 am on May 5, the Kestrel Krew, an enthusiastic group of 8th grade students from Tualatin Valley Academy, began their quest to find the answer.
The Kestrel Krew began as an idea planted by John Gatchet when he shared stories about some of his Big Days of birding with my students. For the past five years, John has been leading my students on bird watching ventures to Fernhill Wetlands in Forest Grove. This year several of my students continued watching birds on their own time, so when they asked me if I would take them on a Big Day, I knew they were serious.
The American Birding Association defines a Big Day as “a single-team effort in which the primary objective is to identify as many bird species as possible during a single calendar day.” We weren’t quite up for a midnight-to-midnight birding adventure, so we settled on 3:00 am to 8:00 pm, a full seventeen hours of bird watching bliss. Dave Irons, content editor for BirdFellow.com, volunteered to scout out local bird habitats, and then created a detailed itinerary and Google map for us.
By 3:30 in the morning we arrived at Nobel Woods Park in Hillsboro. As we quietly made our way in the dark, Dave sounded off a series of hoots; almost immediately a pair of Western Screech Owls answered Dave’s calls. We had scored our first bird!
When we reached Killin Wetlands, the dawn chorus of bird song was in full swing. In the pre-dawn darkness we identified Red-winged Blackbirds, Marsh Wrens, and Virginia Rails by their songs alone. We heard a Great Horned Owl call from the fir trees down the road, and as the early morning light began to illuminate the landscape, an American Bittern flew just five feet over our heads!
We made several stops in the Coast Range Mountains to find warblers, woodpeckers, and jays. By 9:00 am we had identified over fifty species, and were headed for the coast. At Ecola State Park we observed wave after wave of migrating shorebirds and loons winging their way north. Near Nehalem the students witnessed a large cloud of Cackling Geese take to the sky to escape the talons of a Bald Eagle. By 3:30 pm our species count was up to 112 and it was time for ice cream at the Tillamook Cheese Factory.
We made our last stop at Jackson Bottom Wetlands where at 8:30 pm, we counted our last bird, a Eurasian Wigeon. Overall, the Kestrel Krew covered over 200 miles to see wetland, coastal mountain, and beach habitats, and identified 139 bird species in a single day! Kolby Somers echoed the thoughts of his classmates, “It was very interesting how many birds we identified just by hearing their calls.” Most of the eighth graders said they would definitely do this again. “This trip was a real adventure,” says Mark Janta.
The Kestrel Krew included students Zack Fritzler, Mark Janta, Danny Rivera, Albert Roman, Katrina Santiago, Kolby Somers, Lucas Kahler, Kris Somers, and Nels Nelson, and was led by Dave Irons and Phil Kahler.
Phil Kahler teaches science at Tualatin Valley Academy in Hillsboro where he maintains a large bird feeding station and observation blind for his students. His students collect and submit observation data to eBird.org as part of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s BirdSleuth program.