Flocking to the byways

A group of birders gathered Saturday to see how many wild turkeys they could turn up in a day.

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WALLA WALLA - Early Saturday morning they flocked together in the parking lot of Whitman College's Harper Joy Theatre, as the creatures of habit have done for 10 years now.

They commiserated about the weather, chuckled at each other's jokes but mostly contemplated the day's mission.

The covey stood in a circle as the cold wind blew, a total of nine birders who are members of the Blue Mountain Audubon Society.

Their numbers were lower than expected, what with the weather and, of course, the rumor of a vermilion flycatcher still in the area.

"That's a true birder...," the group's leader, Tom Scribner said, referring to the couple that opted to chase flycatchers instead of turkeys, "...when you go off to find a female vermilion flycatcher in winter plumage."

The group chuckled at a joke that only bird nerds would understand.

Then after a short wait, they lit off to seek their beak.

The tools they would use: keen eyes, a pair of binoculars, hand-held short-wave radios and three all-wheel drive vehicles - two Toyotas and a Subaru.

"You have to cover a lot of area," Scribner said.

Back east, he explained, birders tend to park and walk.

But when you are covering an area from Walla Walla to Dayton, the best method is to drive, stop when you find what you are

looking for, then walk a bit.

The first bird that merited a stop was a great blue heron, as the caravan of birders pulled over at Five Mile Bridge over Mill Creek.

Binoculars were thrust to eye level and the heron was spied, but there were no turkeys.

Two red-tailed hawks, a great horned owl, a belted kingfisher, an American kestrel and two northern shrikes later, there still was no sightings of Meleagris gallopavo.

"We had a good time and the camaraderie is always a good part of it," Audubon Society member Chris Howard said.

All morning the members traveled from Walla Walla to Dixie.

A trip that would take 10 minutes by highway ended up taking two hours to cover roughly 30 miles at a pace no faster than 20 mph.

"Where are all the turkeys?" a voice asked over the radio.

"Gobble gobble Gobble," came another voice.

"I knew there was one someplace," the first voice answered.

The two Toyotas and a Subaru took Mill Creek Road, Scenic Loop Road, back down Mill Creek Road, up Meiner Road, up Spring Creek Road, down Tracy Road, down Biscuit Ridge Road and then a short stop before turning on the highway and heading to Dayton.

"This has been a really down day for birding," Scribner said.

"I think the birds are hunkered down," Howard added, citing the weather.

But there were highlights for the morning, especially seeing two northern shrikes.

The birds are also called butcher birds because they impale insects on thorns and then eat them, sometimes days later.

Even though turkeys were scarce, the scenery was more colorful than a peacock's tail, as patches of freshly tilled brown ground contrasted against fields of green sprouting winter wheat. At one point, a red-tailed hawk was spotted in a field of yellow wheat stubble that had yet to be tilled, and in the background, the autumn colors of the Blues enticed the birders further up Scenic Loop, where the first covering of snow had already turned the colorful mountaintops into all-white cones.

"For me it was worthwhile. Driving the back roads. The view. It was just breathtaking," Howard said.

With an air of confidence the nine Audubon members left Dixie and headed for Dayton, sure that they would find what they sought.

"We went up Coppei and got around 70 (turkeys) in there with two little small flocks," Howard said.

Then near Wolf Creek the group chanced upon a massive flock of 125 birds.

"They were coming up and landing in the trees … there was a bunch in there. And in fact at one point a white-tail deer fawn ran right through the flock of turkeys," Howard said.

The nine birders counted 225 turkeys on Saturday afternoon, then called it quits around 3 p.m. and headed back down the mountain.

But they'll be back each month to look for different birds.

To learn more about the local chapter of the Audubon Society, go online to blumtn.org.

Alfred Diaz can be reached at alfreddiaz@wwub.com or 526-8325.

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