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Originally published January 19, 2011 at 7:00 PM | Page modified January 20, 2011 at 12:13 PM

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Audubon birders rove Puget Sound to complete the Great Washington State Birding Trail

The seventh and final map, the Puget Sound Loop, will publish this fall, completing the 350+-site Great Washington State Birding Trail. Two women with Audubon Washington have put in many miles on state roads to make it happen.

NWWeekend editor

The birding maps

Thirty-five states have some sort of birding trail — a mapped route to a region's best birding sites. But only a handful go statewide like the Great Washington State Birding Trail.

The trail's Cascade Loop, circling across the mountains over Stevens Pass and back via the North Cascades Highway, was the first map completed, in 2002. The most recent, the Palouse to Pines Loop, covering far-Eastern Washington, came out in 2010. The final map, the Puget Sound Loop, is planned to publish this fall.

In addition to being distributed as printed maps and online, Birding Trail data have been the source of a recurring Seattle Times feature, Birders' Top Spots (see this story online for a web link).

The project's funding since 2001 has included more than 30 sources, ranging from $500 stipends from local chambers of commerce to $700,000 in federal grants (including highway-beautification funds dating back to Lady Bird Johnson).

Available routes include:

Cascade Loop;

Coulee Corridor, covering Central Washington from Grand Coulee to Othello;

Southwest Loop, covering Olympia to the Columbia Gorge;

Olympic Loop, circling the Olympic Peninsula;

Sun & Sage Loop, spanning an area from Snoqualmie Pass to Walla Walla;

Palouse to Pines Loop, covering Asotin to Republic.

How to find them

See the maps online (free of charge) at wa.audubon.org/birds_GreatWABirdingTrail.html. Link from the same web page to order printed maps, $4.95 each.

The maps are also for sale through Seward Park Environmental and Audubon Center, 5902 Lake Washington Blvd. S., Seattle (order by phone: 206-652-2444, Ext.103), and Seattle Audubon Nature Shop, 8050 35th Ave. N.E., Seattle.

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POINT NO POINT, Kitsap County — This was not a birding trip, mind you.

Yet, as a break in low-scudding, dishrag clouds opened to put a sun-ray spotlight on the south tip of nearby Whidbey Island, four of my companions — all Audubon Society birders — raised binoculars and looked out from the beach where we stood.

They had spotted a waterfowl swimming amid the low chop raised by a cold breeze on Admiralty Inlet.

"Is that a murrelet or a pigeon guillemot?" asked Christi Norman, of Duvall, standing in the lee of the white lighthouse at the northern tip of the Kitsap Peninsula.

"It's a guillemot, that's their winter plumage!" answered Judy Willott, of Bremerton, the Kitsap Audubon Society president, who gets the same respect about this peninsula's birds that Stephen Hawking gets about black holes.

I'd been invited to accompany the group during a day of field research for the final — and arguably the most important — map of Audubon Washington's Great Washington State Birding Trail: the Puget Sound Loop, to be published this fall.

It was to be a day of work, not bird-watching, I'd been told. But we're talking about Audubon birders, bless 'em: You'll only get their binoculars and spotting scopes away when you pry them from their cold, dead fingers.

Wide-ranging project

The Great Washington State Birding Trail is laid out in a series of detailed maps that each describe 50+ of the best sites across the state for observing birds in nature. The Puget Sound Loop, covering the state's most populous region, will be the seventh published since 2002.

It will be, you might say, the swan song of a project that is one of the most wide-ranging of its kind in the United States.

The maps, both printed and online, not only describe the locations and give detailed driving instructions, but note the best seasons for seeing birds there, what species to expect, when and where to look for them ("around the old barn across the river for owls") — and they even tell if you'll find restrooms or camping nearby.

So far, Audubon has distributed more than 165,000 printed copies, each version with colorful artwork by noted bird artist Ed Newbold.

For bird-lovers of any, ahem, feather, the various "loops" (Cascade Loop, Olympic Loop, Sun & Sage Loop, e.g.) are like a preplanned weekend vacation. For beginning birders, they map the way to a new hobby, one of the fastest-growing outdoor recreation pursuits in the United States in recent decades.

Doing the homework

This day, Norman, the birding-trail program's director, and sidekick Hilary Hilscher, of Bainbridge Island, the project's communications specialist, accompanied local Audubon leaders to verify details of some of the final map's major stops in Kitsap County.

Firsthand visits are the only way to ensure the maps' accuracy, Norman and Hilscher believe.

The duo carpooled in Willott's Subaru along cold, fog-shrouded Hansville Road, watching the odometer as they arrived at the lighthouse turnoff.

"It's nothing like eight miles, more like 7.1," Willott announced, as Hilscher penciled in a correction on a rough draft of the driving directions.

At Point No Point County Park, Norman grabbed her camera and shot photos of parking lots, informational signs and even the portable toilet. Such details all will go into the map listing.

It's pretty routine now to Norman, 60, who has driven more than 20,000 miles and gone through two cars to visit 602 sites across Washington since the project's inception.

Not long into that process, Hilscher, 59, joined her, making for a self-described Thelma-and-Louise team, each with their own favorite bird sightings along the way (Norman's involving lazuli buntings, Lewis's woodpeckers and golden eagles along Yakima County's Tieton River; Hilscher exulting over a Whidbey Island memory of "five short-eared owls at one time!").

It hasn't all been a Sunday drive, so to speak. Hilscher recounts a journey in Northeastern Washington's Salmo-Priest Wilderness when the intrepid pair had driven many miles on remote mountain roads before a growing snowstorm turned them back just a half-mile from their fire-lookout destination (said to be a good place for spotting spruce grouse and Northern goshawks when the weather cooperates).

Recalls Hilscher, "We turned back after Christi turned to me and said, 'You know what, we don't want them to find our bones here next spring!' "

Positive spinoffs

By producing the maps, Audubon hopes to send bird-loving tourists — and the dollars they spend in hotels, coffee shops and stores — to places with healthy bird habitat, helping surrounding communities economically while at the same time encouraging them to recognize the value of preserving wetlands, forest, thickets and other places birds like, Norman explained.

To be listed on the Birding Trail, a location must provide easy bird sightings in a healthy natural setting, whether it be the thorny scrub of wild roses next to Point No Point's inland marsh or the dark north woods of Pend Oreille County.

"We also ask of a site, 'Is it quintessential Washington?' " Norman said.

Point No Point, with its dramatic panorama of saltwater, shoreline and passing fishing boats chugging against the tide, qualified easily on that score.

Walking the driftwood-strewn beach, Audubon member Gene Bullock, of Poulsbo, noted that this is an Important Bird Area, an international designation identifying sites considered essential to healthy bird populations.

"It's an important stopover for birds flying the shortest distance between points. We get migrations [on the Pacific flyway] and incredible traffic right through here. The eddy lines through Admiralty Inlet bring up nutrients that attract fish, which attract birds."

"And this is the first place I ever saw an orca!" said his wife, Sandy Bullock.

During a 45-minute visit, our sighting list included sanderlings, pigeon guillemots, common murres, marbled murrelets, evening grosbeaks, bald eagles, red-breasted mergansers, mallards, green-winged teal, golden-crowned sparrows, American wigeons, a relatively rare Eurasian wigeon and more. The cheerful trill of red-winged blackbirds competed with the "gronk, gronk" of great blue herons.

Local knowledge

Camaraderie isn't the only reason Norman and Hilscher bring local birders along on site visits.

As they strolled down a trail skirting the marsh, the Kitsap birders chatted amiably: "Oh, look, a mob of herons!" "Wigeons are a well-dressed bird!" "The marbled murrelet is one of my favorites — in the summer they just sort of look like a robin floating on the water, but in winter they get all white and look like they're covered with fur!"

Mixed in with the chatter come tips that might go into the Birding Trail site description.

"Things just tend to trickle out," Norman said, obviously delighting in the process. "Like the locals might say, 'Look for the brown creeper in this big fir tree by the gate!' "

It's all work, of course, for the compilers of the Great Washington State Birding Trail. If a little play sneaks in along the way, you won't hear a peep out of me.

Brian J. Cantwell: 206-748-5724 or bcantwell@seattletimes.com

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