One Birder’s Yearlong Quest to Photograph Every Bird Species In Washington State

In a different kind of big year, a Seattle woman set out to capture each of the state's birds and their various habitats.

Jen McKeirnan was on a birding trip near Washington’s Canadian border when her friend Pam spotted a familiar shape in the snow-covered hills alongside the road. Unsure exactly what it was, they immediately pulled over and jumped out of the car with their scopes and binoculars. When the image came into focus, what they saw was definitely worth the emergency stop—a Great Gray Owl peering back at them.

 “I am still in awe that she found that bird,” McKeirnan says of her friend. The bird had been resting on a tree stump more than 100 yards from the road. McKeirnan’s photos of the owl, taken with her smartphone through a spotting scope, were a little blurry, but they were what she needed. The elusive owl and other birds she’d seen during that January trip marked the beginning of an ambitious yearlong birding project: to find and photograph 346 of Washington State’s bird species in their various habitats.

As a Seattle Audubon board member, McKeirnan had already been a birder for a decade when she signed up for the chapter's Master Birder class last year. But as she learned more about all of the bird species that reside in Washington’s diverse habitats, she began to consider her own alternative to the international and national big year competitions that have birders scrambling to see as many species as they can in a calendar year. McKeirnan was thinking of something more like a targeted list, focused specifically on Washington bird species.

“I felt like there were so many birds in Washington state that I hadn’t seen yet,” she says. “I wondered whether I could capture all of them within a year’s period.”

McKeirnan, who had recently had the opportunity to take a year off from work, set out in early January determined to find and photograph all the birds she’d learned about in her Audubon birding class. The list of 346 species, curated by a local expert birder and naturalist who taught the class, was made up of birds known to reside in or pass through Washington in a given year. For each bird, she also wanted to capture a panoramic shot of its habitat. In April, McKeirnan launched Washington Bird Year, a website that allowed others to track her progress through a species list, an interactive state map with sighting locations, and a photographic catalog of the birds and their habitats.

Since beginning her project, McKeirnan has spent hundreds of hours and more than 161 days travelling across the state on her quest. While she’s had some luck in finding rarities such as the Great Gray Owl, other times, long trips in search of a particular bird have proven futile. Last summer, McKeirnan travelled to the opposite side of the state in search of a Northern Waterthrush to no avail. A month later the bird turned up in a local park in Seattle—the first time a Northern Waterthrush had ever been spotted there. “I had travelled over 350 miles from Seattle to try to find this bird, and all I had to do was wait for it to randomly migrate in,” she says.  

Just as often, birding hotspots turned out to be in the last place she expected, like the sewage pond where she found a Sora. That was very surprising to me in terms of habitat location,” McKeirnan says. “I didn’t know that you can find an abundance of birds at sewage ponds, but that’s how birds are integrating into our lives. They go where they can find food or feel safe.”

Looking back, McKeirnan regrets not planning her year better. As a general game plan, she divided her project into summer birds, winter birds and year-round birds. Now she thinks she could have been more strategic. “I thought I’d be able to get year-round and winter birds after September, but I probably should have been more aware that access is key when you’re trying to find some birds,” she says.

White-crowned Sparrow. Video: Jennifer McKeirnan

She particularly regrets not going after the White-tailed Ptarmigan earlier. While the grouse is relatively easy to find during the summer, spotting its all-white winter plumage in the remote reaches of snowy mountains presents a more significant challenge. That’s one target bird that she probably won’t get this year.

“I missed an opportunity,” McKeirnan says. “If I could do this project over again, I would definitely roadmap it more." 

As of mid-December, McKeirnan has found 285 of her 346 target species. She's also added three birds that weren’t on her original list: a Snowy Egret, a Blue-gray Gnatcatcher, and a Scissor-tailed Flycatcher. All three birds are not traditionally found in Washington and had wandered north of their usual range.

Although McKeirnan expects to fall a little short of her goal, she says the experience was still rewarding and taught her a lot about birding, photography, and the places where these birds live. In that way, she’s accomplished exactly what she set out to do. And when she wraps up her project at the end of the month, McKeirnan hopes her website will spur others to take on similar projects and learn more about their own state birds and the habitats they call home.  

“Building this website for me is really about making people more aware of and appreciating the habitat,” she says. “Whether that is in grasslands, forest, or Seattle Pike Place Market.”