Crossing the Cascades in May, my car bulging with as many belongings as I could fit, I was shocked to behold endless miles of rolling hills painted in light ecru. After 15 years by Puget Sound and 30 years in New England, I was used to green. How would I learn to love this strange new land that would become my “forever” home?
Close to Walla Walla, I did notice green (or at least blue) in the distance, but the first things greeting me at my new home were the plaintive cries of a mourning dove and numerous little brown birds flitting in the bushes and nesting behind my chimney stack. I had a deep affection for Seattle crows, which I had fed a LOT, but little birds hadn’t excited me.
Still, I put out the bird feeder, and even more little birds appeared. Even with Peterson’s Guide to Birds in hand, I could not link the various stripes, beaks and wings to any identifiable bird.
So, I signed up for the Birds and Habitat class through the Quest program at Walla Walla Community College, taught by local naturalist Mike Denny. I thought I was just going to learn how to identify common birds coming to my feeder. Silly me. Instead I fell in love … with ecru fields and blue mountains and all sizes of birds.
A fledgling birder must also be a fledgling “habitatist.” To study birds in Walla Walla County — especially under the tutelage of Mike — is to discover the interweaving of geology, history, botany, human progress, weather, natural diversity (not to mention natural selection) and cycles. In this county, we have everything from marsh to sand dunes amid elevations going from 300 feet in the west to 4,500 feet in the east. This all leads to tremendous diversity in plant life and thus in bird species.
Walla Walla, which is at 1,200 feet in elevation, receives an average 19 inches of precipitation a year. Contrast that to 6 inches in the western part of the county and 50 inches in the eastern part. The county distance of 39 miles yields a new habitat every 1,000 feet.
Mike told us: “Here in Walla Walla County, there are unlimited opportunities to see and learn about native birds. This county has the highest number of bird species documented in all of Eastern Washington. We have a bird checklist, and right now there are 354 species on this list. It is a living document, as the list grows by two to three species each year.”
This diversity was overwhelming to me, since I couldn’t even identify the few species of birds at my bird feeder. Where to start? I needed advice on equipment, locations and birding practice. So, of course, I went to Mike. Check out the various boxes on these pages for his answers.
And what about all those unidentified birds in my back yard? Dark-eyed junco, song sparrow, European starling, black-billed magpie, downy woodpecker, northern flicker, sharp-shinned hawk, American robin and house sparrow, I think. Now, if I can just get them to hold still.
Many thanks to Mike Denny!