Final Report: Whitman Mission Fall Bird Census
Goals and Objectives:
1. To compile a list of bird species that ought to be found in the Walla Walla Valley during the autumn months.
2. To compare the above list with a list of the bird species actually observed at the Whitman Mission during the fall.
3. To build a database of the observed birds as a reference for the mission, and possibly as comparative data for future censuses.
Personal Goals for the Internship:
1. To contribute to the Park Service’s information base in Walla Walla.
2. To improve my birding skills, specifically my identification of birds in this region.
3. To gain a deeper understanding of the operation of the Park Service.
4. To have the opportunity weekly to spend time in the out of doors observing and enjoying nature.
Birding at the Mission this fall has been a rewarding experience. I have been able to spend time out of doors, and off campus that I would otherwise not have been able to enjoy. In learning about the birds that live in the Walla Walla Valley I have gained an appreciation for the incredible diversity of species in the area. I have learned to identify many birds in the past months that I was unaware existed at the start of the school year.
I have spent a great deal of time in the course of my life with a pair of binoculars wondering around outside in search of birds. On most of these occasions I have relied on the expertise of my fellow birders to identify all that we see, considering my own knowledge limited and secondary to their own. I firmly believe that my birding skills improved over the course of the semester, but I still would have benefited from some expert help. My internship was very different than internships I have held in the past as I worked entirely independently. Neither my supervisor nor any of the other park rangers were knowledgeable birders. I am glad to think that my census will contribute new information to the park, but I admit that starting from scratch was challenging.
I encountered certain difficulties and barriers to the success of my internship. First and foremost I believe that conducting a census of this sort requires more preparation than many of the other internships. The Mission was without data on autumn bird populations, and the only censuses that have been taken were done in the course of a few summer days by ornithologists from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services. Before I was able to begin my own census I had to contact experienced birders in the area, compile a list of birds I might expect to see, and most importantly increase my own ability to accurately identify those birds I might see at the Mission. Throughout my work in this regard the days were slipping past without my having even attempted to collect bird data. If the Mission hopes to have Whitman interns continue collecting information on the local bird populations, I believe it would be extremely valuable to organize the internship before the season in which the census is to be taken. I think preparation before the semester is necessary to properly and thoroughly conduct a fall census.
Transportation to the Mission caused logistical problems for me as I do not own a car. It is advisable to go birding in the early morning which typically necessitates having my own transportation. I arranged to borrow an acquaintance’ car on a regular basis, but complications in borrowing his car impeded me more than a few times from going to the Mission and spending an hour or two birding.
Each time I went birding I spent between one and two hours at the Mission, with about half an hour for transportation. At the start of the semester I spent over an hour collecting information on birds in Walla Walla, and spent around three hours creating my own bird list. I spent about an hour every few days in September and early October working with my bird guides to increase my familiarity with the local birds.
For future census takers I advise birding in the early morning. Every time I headed out to the Mission I took along the bird list I compiled for myself, a couple of field guides (notably The Sibley Field Guide to Birds of Western North America, by David Allen Sibley), a pen, a pair of binoculars, and lots of warm clothing. At the Mission I followed a regular route around the grounds covering all the established trails and frequently going off of the trails to look around in brush, trees, and grasses. I stopped every hundred yards or so to look and listen for birds, and mark down what I saw. There is a lot of open space at the Mission, and I was frequently unable to identify birds as they flew by too quickly or had their more significant features blackened and blurred by backlight from the sun.
My route took about an hour each time. I saw the most birds in the brush along the trails in the southwest part of the Mission and in the fruit trees that surround the Visitor Center. There were very few birds around the pond and near the Whitman Memorial at the top of the hill. On the other hand, I found it rewarding to stop by the stream that runs under the road at the entrance to the Mission; there were frequently a very different variety of birds in this area than were seen at the Mission itself. There were several water birds in this area that would not be seen on the grounds of the Mission itself.
I found it difficult to keep my supervisor completely in touch with my work as she was not directly involved with the organization and carrying out of the census. I wish I had been able to keep in more consistent contact as I only discovered after Thanksgiving Break that she wanted the culmination of my census to consist of a scientific write-up of my project as well as a brochure for park visitors including the most likely bird species to be seen, where to look for them, and a complete bird list. At the beginning of the semester I did not believe that my final product would include a scientific write-up, but rather a brochure and a compilation of the data I collected.
At the end of this study I have created a solid list of birds that the average visitor to The Whitman Mission might expect to see between October and December, though I did not see all of the birds that are on my list. I know there are many more birds there than I myself was able to spot and identify. I think this list is valuable to the Mission, the Park Service, and the Walla Walla community because it will give visitors the opportunity to appreciate the historic site beyond its historical significance. Being able to identify the birds in the area, or just simply keeping an eye out for birds will enhance visitors appreciation of their natural environment. I also think that the Whitman Mission will benefit from an expansion of their resources for visitors. A Fall Bird Census is an excellent way to begin an expansion from simply an historic site, to a natural park.
- Mike Dedman, Park Ranger 509-522-6357
- Renee Rusler, supervisor, Park Ranger, 522-6357
- Sue Rogers, Blue Mountain Audubon Society Birder, 529-3812
- Mike Denny, Blue Mountain Audubon Society Birder, USFS Employee, 529-0080
- For information about birding in the Walla Walla Valley go to the Blue Mountain Audubon Society’s webpage, www.bluemountainaudubon.org.