by Joe Meche
Here we are once again, in the heart of winter and over the year-end cluster of celebrations, waiting for the season’s holiday dust to settle so we can dive into 2024. It’s the time of year when we have either made or already broken the life-changing resolutions we thought sounded good at the time we made them. We often look ahead to the hopes and plans and perhaps even a few schemes for the New Year, while occasionally looking in our respective rearview mirrors to see how the past year went.
Maybe you had to be there, but 2023 arrived with a weather-related event which spanned the year-end holiday festivities. Heavy snow on Christmas Eve, the night of our traditional family gathering, compromised our roof system and the ensuing snowmelt and ice dams became a month’s long series of repairs. These were stopgap measures to ensure that we could hold off the elements into spring. I managed to batten the hatches sufficiently, but it cut into the time I’d rather have spent birding during my favorite time of year with wintering birds.
Fortunately, the weather gods held off long enough for us to get into milder weather so I was able to get out enough to keep me from whining. Decent weather stayed with us right into mid-March and the Wings Over Water festival in Blaine. Since Covid interrupted this annual event, I’m unsure at this point if we celebrated our 19th or 20th year. Either way, the festival was and still is a success with the next edition already in the planning stages for 2024. Sign in to the website at www.wingsoverwaterbirdingfestival.com to check on the schedule as it becomes available for all events, especially the ones that will require pre-registrations. Some events will have limits on the number of participants so be sure to sign on early.
Cindy and I had our traditional spring and fall road trip/getaways, together as well as separately … one was transatlantic and the other was an in-state loop. While she went on a walking tour to Athens and a couple of the Greek Islands, I headed east by south by west and finally north to return home. Cindy’s timing was almost perfect while mine was a week or two early or late for the best birding in most venues. Nonetheless, my own journey of discovery took me to a few places I had wanted to see for quite a while.
There were highlights in every corner that I covered, and I made a few notes for my next trip in early May of 2024. From my first leg across Grand Coulee country, I found that Soap Lake will be my central focus next year for two of my favorite shorebird species … the American avocet and the black-necked stilt. Though other shorebirds were present, these two were the spark that got me back into the road-trip rhythm … the rhythm I felt I had lost driving across the dry and desolate Waterville Plateau.
As I left Soap Lake I headed for the Columbia River where I crossed at Vantage on the way to Umptanum Creek and all the birds that were on my list. The next morning dawned bright and clear as I followed the Yakima River downstream to the lovely foot-traffic-only suspension bridge to cross the river to where the best birds would be. It was in the parking lot where other birders informed me that I was a couple of weeks too early for the best birds!
Another target location on the big swing was the tiny hamlet of Bickleton which bills itself as the “Bluebird Capital of America.” This was another planned stop that was a disappointment, especially when I heard from the locals that I was two weeks too late! I did, however, find one nesting pair in the cemetery north of town. The best compensation came in the form of quite possibly the best cheeseburger in North America. I ate it with delicious home fries at the cemetery as a male mountain bluebird made repeated trips to its nesting box, while I took photos between bites.
I became a little road-weary after a long day between Grand Coulee and the Columbia Gorge on my way south. I was very lucky to find a perfect campsite right on the river just before it started to rain. The rain was a pleasant interlude throughout the night, especially after the long run through dry sagebrush country. I reminded myself that I was in Washington as I listened to the fat droplets on the roof.
After an early morning departure on my way to the coast, I paid a first-time visit to the much heralded Ridgefield National Wildlife Refuge. This refuge was a highlight on the trip, and, after I did two circuits on the auto-tour loop, I made a promise to return. The only negative thing was that it’s practically in Oregon and not so easy to make it a habit to visit more often.
After Ridgefield and a run for the coast, I was back in birder heaven when I reached the fabled marina at Tokeland. I camped just up the road and was at the marina at sunrise to greet the brown pelicans and marbled godwits, which didn’t disappoint. I spent the entire day there with great birds and plenty of food and drink. This is a very special end-of-the-road place for birds and those of us who watch them. On the following day, I made stops at Westport and viewed the shorebird bonanza at Bottle Beach before heading north to Port Townsend. I returned just a couple of days before Cindy returned from Greece. It was a toss up to see which of us had a better getaway.
As we got back into the rhythm of being home, we decided, after a set of memorable circumstances, to move. So we did, leaving behind the place where we lived for the past 23 years. Moving took a good deal of time and effort, but not enough to keep us away from another tradition: the annual Grandkid Camping Trip! Silver Lake was the location we chose, mainly after all the grandkids voted it their all-time favorite. So we took a little break and got back to work with the move and preparing our old place to sell and/or rent. Yes, it was a busy summer!
The big finale for 2023 was, as it usually is, the Christmas Bird Count. The main difference this year was under the heading of unusual since, for the first time in 30-plus years, I sought and found someone to share my territory. My ongoing struggle with the effects of peripheral neuropathy was compounded by a severe bout of sciatica. The message here is to never take for granted the ability to walk … normally! I celebrated my 80th birthday on the first day of November so I expect these are just examples of what the Golden Years have in store for me.
All of which brings us to the beginning of another year and the great adventures and good birding that lie ahead. When you get right down to it, life is good … so carry on!
Joe Meche is a past president of the North Cascades Audubon Society and was a member of the board of directors for 20 years. He has been watching birds for more than 60 years and photographing birds and landscapes for more than 40 years.