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Meet the Trail Community: Birder

Posted by Anna Roth at Jan 09, 2017 03:05 PM |

Learn how one birder went from novice to manager of a monthly bird count in a now-lush Seattle park.

For WTA's 50th Anniversary, we're highlighting trail users across Washington state. Hear what hiking means to them, and the future of their on-trail pursuits.

You stop a lot when you walk Seattle's Magnuson Park with Jan Bragg. You examine trees and plants that park-goers pass every day without a second thought. You see birds you might otherwise never have noticed. You realize—or remember—that everywhere is habitat, and you begin to see the park in a new way.

Jan Bragg at Magnuson anna roth
Jan Bragg at Magnuson Park -- her preferred birdwatching haunt. Photo by Anna Roth.

An early taste for nature

Though Jan is an avid birder now, her early affection for nature wasn’t focused on birds. As a child, it was the woods, not the birds of New Hampshire that impressed themselves on Jan’s spirit.

“When my sister and I went to summer camp, she was really into sailing, so she pushed me into it, too, but if I ever couldn’t get into a sailing course, I would sign up for a nature course. I can still see the trees and the trails. They had reddish bark and reddish roots, and the smell … I don’t remember birds, I just remember hiking the trails and learning about the trees.”

That love for nature morphed into an interest in butterflies, and when Jan went to college, she went to a biology field station for ten weeks in Northern Minnesota, where she chose to study botany.

“They offered ornithology, but the botany professor was rumored to be really quite good, so I signed up for that. We went hiking, and canoeing, and I remember thinking those people chasing around learning birds songs were …” She twirls her finger by the side of her head. “I was really glad I wasn’t doing that, but of course now it kills me that I wasn’t one of them.”

Becoming a birder

In fact, it wasn’t until years later, when Jan moved to Seattle, that she came around to birding. She received a flyer in the mail from the Nature Conservancy. They were hosting a bird walk at Nisqually, and Jan and her husband decided to attend. Thero North (an early pivotal figure at Seattle Audubon) was the leader, and she had a tape recording of a Virginia Rail, a skinny, elusive bird that’s the inspiration for the phrase, 'skinny as a rail.'

“They are made for wetlands so they can walk between the reeds, and they’re very hard to see. Thero played that recording, and this rail walked out and everyone in the group went crazy because it’s so hard to see a rail.”

jan bragg recording a bird sighting anna roth
Jan records bird sightings using a smartphone app. Photo by Anna Roth.

But her luck in sighting this shy bird wasn’t the encounter that hooked her.

“Later that day, Thero heard an Orange-crowned Warbler. First of all I couldn’t believe she could hear it and know what it was. Then we couldn’t see it—it just took forever to find. But we found it. They don’t look like much but the fact that this song was coming out of its mouth and I could see its lips moving.”

She flutters her hand over her heart and smiles, “It just got me.”

Listen: The bird that transformed Jan into a birder

The sighting at Nisqually inspired her to join a Seattle Audubon Society birding walk in Vantage, which cemented her passion for birding.

“The leader was Gene Hunn, and he heard a Bullock's Oriole (formerly known as a Northern Oriole). So we went to look for this bird. I looked up in the tree and I saw this bird, and I thought I had died and gone to heaven. It’s bright orange, very striking. Being able to use your binoculars to see a bird and watch it singing or in its habitat … there’s just something incredible about that.”

Jan’s involvement with Seattle Audubon grew steadily after that. Her time spent outside was on field trips, then by taking classes through Seattle Audubon. It didn’t take long for her to become a Master Birder through a program modeled after the Master Gardener Program.

“It’s a two-quarter class. At the time, it was free of charge but you were expected to give back in hours. It amounts to about 100 hours of volunteering, so I did the Neighborhood Bird Project at Carkeek Park and then here at Magnuson.”

binoculars for birdwatching anna roth
The tools of the birdwatching trade. Photo by Anna Roth.

Now, through the project, she teaches new birders, and gets a lot of returning customers.

“I teach mostly beginners because I really think it’s important to get people in the tent. Get them hooked and interested and provide them opportunities to pursue their interest without being intimidated. It has been one of the fun things for me, to see people come as beginners, stick with it and become really good birders. Several have taken the Master Birder class and become master birders themselves.”

Fighting for the future

The Neighborhood Bird Project counts occur monthly, but Jan visits the trails at Magnuson Park nearly every day. The trails weave through a lush habitat now, vastly different from just eight years ago, when parking lots and buildings covered the 30 acres of wetland area.

Today, ingenious solutions like water-sharing with the nearby USGS building allow for constant circulation of water, a problem that often stymies wetland managers, but is essential in a healthy wetland ecosystem.

collage of birds at magnuson park anna roth
The wetlands of Magnuson Park are a thriving wetland habitat for many bird species. Left to right: Lincoln Sparrow, Great Blue Heron, American Wigeon, Spotted Towhee. Photos by Anna Roth.

As we walk, Janice uses an app to verify and record species of birds that we see and hear. I ask her if she brings binoculars on every walk and she nods, smiling.

“My husband always asks if I have to bring them every time we go out. Yes! What if I see something I need for my Life List?”

Birds we saw at Magnuson Park in a day

4 Gadwall
10 American Wigeon
4 Pied-billed Grebe
1 Cooper's Hawk
1 Anna's Hummingbird
7 Northern Flicker (Red-shafted)
60 American Crow
2 Black-capped Chickadee
2 Golden-crowned Kinglet
1 Ruby-crowned Kinglet
10 American Robin
2 Cedar Waxwing
2 Dark-eyed Junco
2 Golden-crowned Sparrow
4 Song Sparrow
1 Lincoln's Sparrow
3 Spotted Towhee
12 Red-winged Blackbird

We see plenty of birds in our hour long stroll. Pied-billed Grebes, Great Blue Heron, Red-tailed Hawk, American Crows, American Wigeons, Lincoln's Sparrow, and Spotted Towhee. The number of bird species here continues to grow. It's quite different from nine years ago.

When the wetlands were first put in, it looked like a moonscape," she says. "There were ponds with woodchips around them, and there were plant cuttings in the ground but there was no biomass. It took a lot of time and weeding and watering to get the plants to grow, but now it's established and the plants pretty much thrive on their own. So today, birds are using it, and we can study this habitat to try and understand how bird populations change over time.”

And data from the Neighborhood Bird Project can help inform future changes.

“When we started the Neighborhood Bird Project we hoped to have five years of data. Now we’ve been doing it for nearly 21 years. With this much more data, you can really see trends.”

And working together for a common cause may be the trend going forward. Jan shared a final thought before we parted ways: “We need all trail users. We need to work together to make sure that they’re there in the future. Trails need everyone.”

Whether you’re a birder or a bowhunter, trails need everyone who uses them to speak up for and protect them. Find out how you can get involved.

Want to get to know the birds in your neighborhood? If you are interested in finding out more about field trips or adult classes offered by Seattle Audubon Society, go to