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"This is the story of how I became a birder and decided to bird at every National Wildlife Refuge" Karen

There are so many things I love about birding. I really enjoy being outdoors, using a camera and the excitement of being on the hunt for a bird. I never know what I will see or if I will be close enough for a good look or a good photo but the anticipation of "a moment with a bird" is exhilarating. 

Birding and National Wildlife Refuges

Birding is definitely for me, I enjoy generating data about bird observations. It gives me great satisfaction to know the data I have submitted to eBird will be used by scientists to study bird populations. Birding provides me the opportunity to learn something new every day.

There are over 900 bird species in North America and over 9000 in the world which is astonishing but even more amazing are all the people who share the love of birds.

I enjoy spending time at National Wildlife Refuges because they remind me of our past, and our present and future commitment to wildlife conservation.

When I visit and bird at a National Wildlife Refuge, I can’t imagine being anywhere else.

January 2011 My first trip to bird and visit a National Wildlife Refuge

My first birding experience was over Martin Luther King Weekend, January 2011 at Pea Island and Lake Mattamuskeet National Wildlife Refuges. A couple of weeks before Christmas a group of my friends were sitting around my kitchen table Friday night after square dancing. There were 10 of us that night, each person sitting at the table was suppose to tell what he/she wanted for Christmas. Rick said he wanted to go to The Outer Banks to bird over MLK weekend. I said that sounded like a good idea and everyone else agreed. Rick rented us a beach house at Nags Head and planned 2 days of birding.  One of the couples asked their adult Son and Daughter-in-Law to join us during our birding weekend at The Outer Banks.  Their Son was interested in birding and had taken a birding class in college, it would be great to have one more experienced birder with all these first time birders. We all enjoyed our wonderful birding weekend.  We shared meal preparation, played games, square danced and enjoyed the hot tub at our beach house.  Our first day of birding, we hiked around North Pond at Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge, without a pair of binoculars I was unable to get a good look of the many species of birds observed. Our second day of birding, we drove the wildlife drive and hiked some trails at Mattamuskeet National Wildlife Refuge. Once again, without binoculars it was difficult to get a good look of the many ducks resting at this refuge but I was excited to realize this National Wildlife Refuge was managed to protect wildlife and I was welcome to observe wildlife along the many roads and trails at this Refuge. Thanks so much to Rick and Elaine for introducing me to birding and to National Wildlife Refuges.

March 2011 National Wildlife Refuge Map

Soon after we returned home from our January birding trip I ordered a National Wildlife Refuge map. When the map arrived I was thrilled to see there were National Wildlife Refuges in every state. As I began planning a trip with my husband to Oregon and Northern California for May 2011, I decided we would visit the National Wildlife Refuges along the Oregon and Northern California coast. A few days before we were to fly out to Oregon we had to cancel our trip because my Mother was hospitalized.

July 2011 Camera and Binoculars

I purchased an inexpensive digital zoom lens camera that allowed me to ID birds from my photographs. Mark gave me a pair of 10 x 56 Nikon binoculars as a gift. I was thrilled to be able identify birds with my photos and my new binoculars and looked for opportunities to go birding. 

 

October 2011 Spark Bird

While at Topsail Island for our vacation I could see some birds resting on the distant sandbar. Barely able to see them I took a photo with my zoom lens but still could not ID the species. When I finally pulled the photos up on my computer, I could see black and white gull size birds resting on the beach with extremely long black and orange bills.  Elaine said they were Black Skimmers, it was a common species for our coast but a bird I had never seen. I was thrilled, I wanted to see and know more about birds.

 

November 2011 Wing Over Water

I signed up for the Portsmouth Island birding trip with Wings Over Water at the Outer Banks in North Carolina. Glad to be with experienced birders as they identified the warblers, sparrows and sandpipers.  Everyone in our group was excited to see the Golden-crowned Kinglet and someone looking through his scope could see a Royal Tern along the shore, I had no idea if these were common or rare birds. I asked our leader: How do you know those birds standing in the grass are Killdeer and not Semipalmated Plovers? 

A Year of Birding 

January 2012 Snow Geese at Pungo Unit at Pocosin National Wildlife Refuge

Mark and I planned another MLK birding weekend with our friends to bird at the National Wildlife Refuges in Eastern North Carolina including Mattamuskeet and Pea Island National Wildlife Refuges. Mark and I decided to stop in Plymouth, NC and head south down highway 45 to the Pungo Unit of the Pocosin Lakes NWR. Rick and Elaine had mentioned they usually saw large flocks of Snow Geese at the Pungo Unit during the winter months. When Mark and I arrived at the Pungo Unit at 8 am there was a large flock of Snow Geese flying over one of the fields along Canal D road. There was no time to set up my tripod so I filmed from our car window, the Geese were in the air for about 2 minutes and then completely gone from our sight.  It was a breath taking experience, I felt privileged to see this amazing flock of Geese, I wanted to see more and we did, several more times during the afternoon and just before sunset the Geese flew over head but this time much higher in the sky, I realized how lucky we had been to have such a great view earlier that morning.  During the chilly afternoon at Pungo I took a photo of a puffed up bird sitting, in a small tree top. I worked on the identification of this bird for a few weeks, maybe a flycatcher or phoebe, then finally the ID was obvious a Northern Mockingbird, I had so much to learn. 

 

January-March 2012 Bird walks with Cynthia at Wildbird Center

During the spring of 2012 I participated in the bird walks lead by Cynthia from the Chapel Hill Wild Bird Center on Saturday mornings including a American Woodcock walk at night at Mason Farm Biological Preserve. 

 

April 7, 2012 First time birding with Teresa at Jacobson Park in Lexington, Kentucky

While I visiting the Lexington Kentucky area during April 2012, my sister, Teresa, our friend, Judy Lesnaw and I spent a day taking photos of Peonies in the Ashland Estate gardens, wildflowers at Raven Run and birds at Veterans Park. We decided to try more bird photography the next day and chose our location as Jacobson Park at the Lexington Reservoir. It was a typical cold crisp morning when we arrived at Jacobson Park but that day changed our lives forever. Teresa had purchased the same camera I owned, she was filming the bird's behavior and bird calls which provided another great way to ID birds. We were thrilled to see the Blue-winged Teals sliding along the mud and the Great Blue Heron catching fish. We watched the Starlings, House Finch, Song Sparrows, Goldfinch, Turkey Vultures, and Robins along the shore of the lake with great interest. Teresa and I were both captivated by the Tree Swallows scooping up insects over the water and building nest in holes of the upper branches of the trees. 

 

April 29, 2012 First time birding with Teresa at a National Wildlife Refuge

A few weeks later Teresa and I were in Ann Arbor Michigan for my son, Greg's graduation. I checked the Michigan map for a National Wildlife Refuge. I suggested we visit Shiawassee National Wildlife Refuge about 1.5 hours drive. Teresa, an avid hiker had never visited a National Wildlife Refuge, I imagined she would enjoy hiking the Refuge trails.  Teresa was delighted by the fantastic hiking trail at this National Wildlife Refuge and the opportunities to video and photograph the Greater Yellowlegs, Hooded Mergansers, Canada Geese, Sparrows, Red-winged Blackbirds and Wood Ducks we saw along the trail. 

May 6, 2012 First Bird Count

While birding at Bynum Bridge, Chapel Hill, NC Mark and I met up with a long time birder Mark Kosiewski doing a May bird count, he invited Mark and I to bird with him. Birding by ear Mark K. helped Mark and I see several species that were life birds for me including American Redstart, Yellow-throated Warbler, Eastern Kingbird, Black-and white Warbler, Blue-gray Gnatcatcher and Louisiana Waterthrush. He was so patient and willing to make sure we got some good looks. He sent me his checklist on ebird, my second shared list, a fantastic way to maintain my bird life list.

 

May 27, 2012 Birding at a National Wildlife Refuge in Arkansas

A few weeks later Teresa and I visited our friend Karen, in Memphis, once again a check of the map looked like Wapanocca National Wildlife Refuge was only an hour drive, we spent most of the day in amazing scenery at the Refuge trying to ID Summer Tanagers, Red-headed Woodpeckers, Great Crested Flycatcher and Indigo Buntings. 

 

June 3, 2012 Birder and Warblers

My neighbor's Father, Paul Thomas, a long time birder with over 5000 birds on his life list, agreed to go birding with me at Mason Farm Preserve in Chapel Hill. Paul helped me get my first look of a Northern Parula and White Eyed Vireo. We spent a good bit of time looking for the Yellow-breasted Chat. 

June 9, 2012 Topsail Island birding

I continued my quest for opportunities to ID birds, birding in the Chapel Hill area every weekend and traveling to the coast to bird at the shore along the outer banks of North Carolina. Mark enjoyed birding but not to the level I was birding. He was incredibly patient as I scheduled trips to the beach to learn to identify birds at the shore. Mark and I spent the day at the south end of Topsail Island watching Least Terns feeding their young, Black Skimmers flying just above the water surface, Wilson Plovers searching for food along the sandy beach and Laughing Gulls with their familiar nasal call. 

 

July 14, 2012 Cape lookout birding

Mark and I visited Cape Lookout National Seashore where I was thrilled to see Black Skimmers and Terns nesting, the beach patrol had the breeding area blocked off with tape. I spent most of my time that day watching my spark bird, Black Skimmers as they rested along the beach and then picked up into the air as a car drove by on this sandy shore.  I was excited to see for the first time a Whimbrel and enjoyed the opportunity to study the terns resting on the beach. 

 

August 2012 San Francisco Bay Birding

While visiting my Daughter's family in San Jose, CA I spent time birding at Shoreline, an amazing place to bird at the bottom of the San Francisco Bay. The shorebird viewing was amazing, hundreds of American Avocets, Marbled Godwit, Willets and Black-necked Stilt. 

September 2012 Birders and Rare Birds

I spent my time birding every chance I could get. It was great to meet experienced birders when I was out birding who were patient and kind, willing to spend lots of time helping me identify bird. I know I asked so many questions "what is that?" or "how do you know how to identify that bird?"I just couldn't get enough birding time, I was really addicted now, as fall approached I started birding by myself. I headed over to Yates Mill Pond and Lake Wheeler in Raleigh the Saturday of Labor Day weekend 2012. I saw very few birds at Yates Mill and headed down Penny Rd to the back area of Lake Wheeler.  I parked in a small paved area along the road so I could dash through the woods to get a good look at sand bars. I didn't have a spotting scope or my tripod for my camera so I couldn't ID the Sandpipers along the shore. When I headed back to my car there was another car blocking my car from leaving. man walking toward me with his spotting scope over his shoulder,  it was Steve Shultz, a long time birder and a member of the Carolina Bird Club. He asked if I had seen the Sandpipers and offered to let me see them from his scope. We discussed birding in the area and decided to meet at Lake Crabtree early the next morning. At Lake Crabtree on Sunday morning we ran into Thierry Besancon birding along the back area of Lake Crabtree where there is a sandbar, he had spotted some American Avocets. I was so excited when I got home and listed the American Avocets on ebird as my first rare bird sighting. Once again I had met really experienced birders who were patient, kind and willing to help an inexperience birder like me identify birds. But even more exciting, their passion for birding was contagious. 

I went back the next day to bird at Lake Crabtree and just happened to met up with long time birders Nicholas Flander, Elisa Enders and Thierry. Just as soon as introductions were done Nicholas or Thierry spotted a Lark Sparrow in the field. We spent some time identifying the Sparrow and then they sent out a rare bird alert. Within 30 minutes several cars arrived with local birders anxious to see the Lark Sparrow. It was an amazing experience to participate in rare bird sighting and one I hoped to experience again. 

October 2012 Topsail Island birding

Teresa and I spent hours filming shorebirds at the North end of Topsail and Clapper Rails, Northern Shrike and White Ibis at the boardwalk area in the Surf City. Steve Shultz joined us to bird at the Fort Fisher area to look for a Clay-colored Sparrow and Bobolinks. 

November 2, 2012 Hiking the Appalachian Trail

Teresa and I planned our first birding trip. I was going to attend a wedding reception in Blacksburg Virginia, Teresa met me there to bird before and after the reception. To my surprise Teresa suggested we hike part of the Appalachian Trail starting at the Angel's Rest Trailhead in Pearisburg, VA The trail looked difficult, a straight up climb, maybe an amazing summit at the end but I imagined a more gentle hike with a view of a waterfall and some birding along the way.  Snow and ice covered the trails, it was a challenging hike but the temperature was pleasant and I figured we would do Teresa’s hike today and my waterfall hike and birding tomorrow. The summit was beautiful and worth the hike. The air was crisp and clean but we didn’t see very many birds, new to birding we were not trained to hear bird chip notes or calls. I was also an inexperienced hiker with the wrong size hiking shoes, too small. My knees screamed as we came back down the slippery trail. We spent the night in a Bed and Breakfast in Christiansburg, VA.  At 1 am we got a phone call about our Father's health, he was septic and had refused medical treatment that would extend his life. We didn’t sleep the rest of the night and drove home the next day. After our Father's funeral we were more determined to spend time together birding.

November 18, 2012 Birding at Muscatatuck National Wildlife Refuge in Indiana 

Teresa and I decided to join the Beckham Bird Club birding trip to Muscatatuck National Wildlife Refuge in Indiana the Sunday before Thanksgiving. We waited in the parking lot in Lexington where we were suppose to meet folks, were we late or in the wrong place, should we go home or drive to Muscatatuck by ourselves? When we got to Muscatatuck National Wildlife Refuge we caught up with the other folks from the club but it was good that we had our own car, everyone headed home soon after lunch and we continued to bird until sunset. At the Muskatatuck National Wildlife Refuge visitor center Teresa bought her Blue Goose book and received her first stamp.

January 2013 Teresa observes Snow Geese at Pungo Unit 

Teresa and I visited the Pungo Unit of Pocosin Lake National Wildlife Refuge, I wanted to share with Teresa the experience of the large flock of Snow Geese at the Pungo Unit. I was concerned as we drove the 45 minutes from our hotel in Plymouth to the Pungo Unit, would we get a good look of the large flock of Geese.  It was a warm for January with temperatures in the high 50s, making for an incredibly foggy morning. We were very lucky, the large flocks of Snow Geese landed and picked up off the front field for over an hour. Later in the day we saw thousands of Tundra Swans and Red-winged Blackbirds. Each day we came back to Pungo but never saw the Geese on the front fields again. We could hear them and see them in the distance on the Pungo Lake. to  We visited Swanquarter National Wildlife Refuges but with the visibility only 10-15 feet in front of us, we mainly saw jellyfish in the water under the boardwalk and had reports from a local fisherman that there were many "skittle" ducks in the water around the pier. We spent 2 afternoons at Lake Mattamuskeet National Wildlife Refuge, birding, hiking on the trails and driving the wildlife drive for some great looks at Tundra Swans, Northern Pintails, Wilson Snipe, American Wigeon, Northern Shoveler and warblers.

 

March 2013 Land Between the Lakes Trip

Teresa planned our birding trip for the Land Between the Lakes. She had visited the area the year before and wanted to share the area with me. As we walked on the trails we became increasingly aware of the many bird calls, the chattery sounds filled the trees (American Goldfinches) and the repetitive call high in the tree(Tufted Titmouse). We visited Clarks River National Wildlife Refuge the only NWR in Kentucky. Then we visited Reelfoot LakeCross Creeks and Lake Isom National Wildlife Refuges in Tennessee. Lake Isom was in such a remote area, we had to drive on gravel and dirt roads that were flanked by amazing purple fields of flowers.  Teresa and I heard a bird call in the purple fields that sounded like a cassette recorder when it is in fast forward(Horned Lark).  We both enjoyed eating in the back of our car while parked next to the remote lake in the middle of no-where, this intimate view of Tennessee will always be what I picture when I think of the state of Tennessee. We ready to plan a trip to bird for a week at National Wildlife Refuges but where, we looked at the NWR map, North Dakota had the most NWRs. 

 

National Wildlife Refuge Trips Begin

June 1-9, 2013 First National Wildlife Refuge Trip

It seemed appropriate that our first major National Wildlife Refuge Trip would be the State with the most National Wildlife Refuges.  The National Wildlife Refuge website provided the information we needed to plan our trip, we printed a map of North Dakota, we highlighted each refuge that was open to the public with wildlife viewing and each refuge that had a Visiter Center. We then chose major cities in close proximity to the refuges and made hotel reservations. North Dakota National Wildlife Refuges Trip was our first major National Wildlife Trip. We visited over 9 National Wildlife Refuges and listed 92 birds on ebird, a success, time to plan the next trip. 

September 2013 To Bird or Do Website Maintenance

Teresa came down to North Carolina for Labor Day weekend so we could work on our website. After one day of sorting photos and loading images on the site we decided it was migration, time to bird. We headed to the National Wildlife Refuges at The Outer Banks was necessary since we opted not to visit them during our January Trip. We headed to Cedar Island National Wildlife Refuge where we saw a Common Loon and Osprey, we spent the night at the hotel next to the Cedar Island Ferry. The next morning we took a ferry to Ocracoke Island and then another ferry to Cape Hatteras. As we drove up highway 12 we were able to stay just ahead of the heavy rain showers from a major weather front. At Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge we saw Black Skimmer, Tricolored Heron, Marbled Godwit, Terns and many other shorebirds.  At Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge we didn't see any birds but we did see a female Black Bear with her 3 cubs and a Leopard Tree Frog. This was an important trip, we realized the importance of being prepared to hike with proper shoes, socks and pants to avoid ticks, chiggers and snakes. 

December 21, 2013-January 3, 2014 Second National Wildlife Refuge Trip 

During our second major National Wildlife Refuge Trip, we visited the National Wildlife Refuges of Florida. During a weekend trip with some friends to Ft Myers, Florida Teresa driven down to the Florida Keys by herself to bird at along the way at ARM National Wildlife Refuge and National Key Deer in the Keys. I was impressed by her commitment to visit National Wildlife Refuges by herself.  Our National Wildlife Refuge trips are intense and probably would not be considered by most a vacation.  We get up well before sunrise between 4-5 am so we can be at the Refuge as the sun comes up. We don't like to leave the Refuge until sunset which is around 10 pm in North Dakota during the summer months.  Breakfast is usually left over dinner in our hotel room because we usually leave the room before the free hotel breakfast.  Lunch is anything we can eat in our car. Every daylight moment is so precious and not to be wasted in a restaurant or driving to a gasoline station.We visited over 14 National Wildlife Refuges in Florida and listed 118 birds on ebird.  My favorite Refuge in Florida was Pelican Island National Wildlife Refuge, established in 1903 by Theodore Roosevelt to protect Pelicans and other birds that nested on the island. We scheduled a kayaking trip for December 24. In moderate winds we toured around the waters surrounding the Pelican island area. It was absolutely amazing to  be in the exact spot where National Wildlife Refuges were born. Then to our delight we walked to Centennial trail that has a board walk with a plank with the name of each of the 560 National Wildlife Refuges. It was such a joy to walk on the planks, what an amazing testimont to conservation efforts accomplished by so many folks who value wildlife. 

March 2014 My first National Wildlife Refuge birding alone

After visiting my Daughter's family in the lower San Francisco bay area, I spent a long weekend visiting the Sacramento River National Wildlife Refuge Complex. I visited 5 National Wildlife Refuges in the area, my first Refuge birding weekend alone.  It was incredibly liberating to stay in a hotel in Willows, CA by myself and to be out on the National Wildlife Refuges birding alone. The Sacramento and Colusa National Wildlife Refuges both had amazing Wildlife Drives.  I opted not to hike at the Sacramento River National Wildlife Refuge units after reading the trail heads signs warning not to hike alone since Mountain Lions had been spotted in the area. I thoroughly enjoyed my time at the Refuges and once again met some amazing birders on the wildlife drives. During this trip I visited 5 National Wildlife Refuges and listed 97 birds on ebird. Like Teresa, I too was willing to travel to an unfamiliar area on my own to visit National Wildlife Refuges. 

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