January 1st, 4:00 amPort Ludlow, Washington USA
I reached over and swiped my iPhone as soon as my alarm went off. I had come out of a deep sleep, already awake before my phone alarm sounded. I still don’t understand why but I manage to do this on most early mornings. Today was the day, it was a new year. My year list reset at zero, a feeling that most birders who use eBird can relate to. A blank slate, a year of birding surprises. Every bird is exciting again as it was the first time it was seen.
I went upstairs to find that Papa and Nana (my mom’s dad and stepmom) were already awake, and eagerly handed me a glass of pomegranate juice spiked with ginger ale to wake up my taste buds. They had already made me sandwiches and packed snacks for me to take on my day trip. Family is the best! They had thought of everything, down to bite-size chocolate bars. Even the note left on my sandwich would come in handy later in the day, when my lunch was being inspected by (hungry?) Canadian Border Patrol agents while I was being detained.
I packed up the car, and walked up the hill to the top of the driveway in the cold air. At 21 degrees, a thin layer of ice crystals coated everything. I could see my breath in the moonlight, shining down in long shafts through the dense boughs of Cedar and Douglas fir, illuminating the sparkling moss-covered rocks and prehistoric sword ferns. At the top of the driveway I played the call of a Northern Saw-whet Owl from the Sibley app on my iPhone. The cold, biting silence answered each broadcasted series of toots, eagerly filling my ears full of nothing but hushed antcipation. My mind raced with the possibility of what was out there in the woods, feathered and furry creatures alike. The silence was suddenly broken by an unidentifiable noise, an eerie call from a creature my memory recalled seeing in an Aesop’s Fables book as a child. Years ago, my uncle had encountered a mountain lion guarding a kill along this driveway, and his story has stuck with me into adulthood. I wondered if I would have any similar encounters this year...
The dark coniferous forests flew past at 60 miles per hour for two straight hours as I drove northwest towards Port Angeles to catch the first boat to Canada. For nearly two weeks a Redwing (A Code 4 thrush from Asia) had been reported in a Vancouver neighborhood, and it seemed like a good place to start my year. I had planned on driving and taking the ferry, but I quickly improvised several days ago after learning that a round-trip ferry would cost me over $130- an expensive price for a new bird. I would have to save my money for future trips, where an airplane ticket or rental car might be necessary in a good, old-fashioned rarity chase.
A Barn Owl floated across the road illuminated by my high beams, suspended like a floppy marionette from invisible wires, floating across an empty stage. I saw the heart-shaped face, outlined in the glow of my flood lights. In a moment it was gone. The white undersides and floppy wing beats reminded me of the first Barn Owl sighting i had, flying across I-5 in Fife, while driving home from buying my first parakeet with my own money. I think I was in 7th grade...
First bird of the New Year! Check.
The year’s first lesson in economical-birding presented itself as I pulled into the first “Daily Parking” lot. They wanted nearly $20 for daily parking. So did the second and third lot I passed. Seriously? In Choteau, Montana people would park along the curb, leave their keys in their running car as they would buy groceries. There was room for all in Montana. But apparently not, here in Port Angeles. I opened ‘Maps’ on my iPhone and looked around. Aha! A Red Lion Hotel, just two blocks from the ferry terminal. I parked outside and went in. A younger woman, close to my age was working the front desk- I was in luck! I opened with a compliment and giant smile, followed by an explanation of my planned birding foray into Canada. What began as a $5 daily parking fee turned into a free parking slip, for hotel guests. With a wink and a “Happy New Year” I was out the door with free parking for the day!
House Sparrows called out from a roosting tree somewhere in the parking lot hidden from the lights. I was sure it wouldn’t be the last time I hear them this year. I unloaded my dad’s bike from the car, packed and double-checked my bags to be sure I had all the necessities: my passport, extra batteries, GoPro mounts, and the biking directions to “the Redwing spot”. After grabbing some snacks from my snack box, I locked my car and pedaled off into the morning.
At the ferry terminal, the crepuscular light made for some exciting birding. After securing my walk-on tickets going both ways, I braved the wind chill in hopes of knocking out some easy birds. I weighed the option of driving around to Ediz Hook, a spit I’d birded before, but with an hour until departure, I decided to focus on the immediate area. A couple mergansers, a Long-tailed duck, Glaucous-winged and Mew gulls, and Mallards (oh boy!)
On the ferry I realized forgot my phone charger. I’d only be gone a day (hopefully) and with my phone on Airplane Mode, what would go wrong?
To be continued…
The rest of the story will be published in Christian's book ‘My Life in Birds’ available in 2017!
Ferry across the Strait of Juan de Fuca