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Birdathon season

May 6, 2010

The signs are all there–warblers flitting through the new spring leaves, shorebirds winging their way to the tundra, nuthatches hiding in tiny holes–it must be Birdathon season.  It may have started with the walkathons I remember as a teenager, but whenever it did, organizations have long been raising money by asking volunteers to do crazy things, often for extended periods of time.  The volunteers then ask their friends and relatives to pledge money to watch them do these crazy things, or at least get a vivid report of the goings-on afterwards.


Some birdathons are wet; that’s me starting the Richter Pass climb in 2006.

The grand-daddy of all birdathons is the Baillie Birdathon, organized by Bird Studies Canada, which has been raising money for bird conservation for over 30 years.  I started doing birdathons about 20 years ago and have never missed a year since.  When I first began running birdathons, I did all the organizing myself, but soon found that it was much easier just to make my efforts Baillie Birdathons, since the folks at BSC do all the detail work with receipts, and always have a long list of great prizes.

Most birdathons are a fundraising variant on the Big Day (or Bird Race, as I think they are called in the UK).  The concept of Big Day is simple–try to find as many bird species as possible in one day.   Big Days take a lot of planning to make sure you have designed the most efficient route, something that is a true test of your local bird knowledge.  They also favour those with keen ears and eyes that can pick out a rarity from the flock.  But what I like best about them is that, unlike the Big Year or lifelist, they’re over in 24 hours.


Mark Gardiner and Eva Durance on the west side of Skaha Lake during the 2007 Okanagan Big Day Challenge.

I started doing Big Days in 1979, driving from my parents’ home in the Okanagan Valley to the Pacific coast at Vancouver.  We would pick a good day in May when most of the breeding birds had returned from the tropics and a few Arctic nesters were still passing through.  These were a lot of fun but they lacked real competition—we only had one carload of birders trying to see if we could beat last year’s result.  In 1986 I decided to challenge others to the game and founded the Okanagan Big Day Challenge.  The rules were straightforward—get a team together and see how many birds you can find in the Okanagan Valley on the Sunday of the Victoria Day weekend, then meet on Monday morning to pass out various trophies and exchange wild stories.

The Challenge has been a birdathon for most of its history, much of that as part of the Baillie Birdathon.  And since 1998 it has been an integral part of the Meadowlark Festival in the Okanagan Valley of British Columbia.  The money I raise through the Baillie Birdathon goes to help run the Vaseux Lake Bird Observatory, part of theCanadian Migration Monitoring Network.  It’s very difficult to raise money for a never-ending project such as monitoring bird populations, and birdathons are an ideal method.


Chris Charlesworth, Gary Davidson and Kenn Kaufman in that last-minute desperation period just before dark, 2005.  Shortly after, we saw a family of Long-eared Owls, our 160th species.

Half the fun of a birdathon is in the planning and scouting, so I’ve been out on my bike a lot this spring, trying to get in shape for the event, and, now that migration is well underway, seeing where I can best find some of the more uncommon species.  The Okanagan Big Day Challenge has gone green over the past few years, and the teams now compete either on foot or by bicycle.  This year I plan to leave my house at 2:30 a.m., cycle up into the pine forests to get Flammulated Owls and Common Poorwills, then work my way south through the valley to the great mix of wetlands, desert grasslands and towering cliffs at Vaseux Lake, then back through the sagebrush bowl of White Lake before getting home at 9:30 p.m.  I hope to get over 120 species with that route, but I’m guaranteed to get good and tired after 120 kilometres in the saddle.

So–and you knew this was coming–you can make a pledge for my Birdathon simply by clicking this link and filling in the online form.  If you don’t like online forms, you can mail a cheque made out to Bird Studies Canada to my home address:  705 Sunglo Dr., Penticton, BC, V2A 8X7.  The birds will thank you!

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