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MailTribune.com
  • The Biggest Year

    Birder Russ Namitz recounts his Big Year, when he broke the Oregon record for most bird sightings in one year
  • While on a birding expedition in southern Coos County on a mid-September day in 2011, Russ Namitz's cellphone buzzed with a scintillating hint of news.
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    • If you go
      Birder Russ Namitz will give a talk Tuesday, Nov. 26, in Medford about his 2011 experiences racking up more bird species seen in Oregon than any other birder.
      Namitz will speak at the monthly me...
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      If you go
      Birder Russ Namitz will give a talk Tuesday, Nov. 26, in Medford about his 2011 experiences racking up more bird species seen in Oregon than any other birder.

      Namitz will speak at the monthly meeting of the Rogue Valley Audubon Society. The meeting will be held at 7 p.m. at the Medford Congregational Church, 1801 E. Jackson St. Admission is free. The public is invited.

      Namitz plans to present month-to-month accounts of his counts, his birding strategies, chases and more.
  • While on a birding expedition in southern Coos County on a mid-September day in 2011, Russ Namitz's cellphone buzzed with a scintillating hint of news.
    It was friend and fellow birder Tim Rodenkirk, who had just discovered a chestnut-sided warbler at Floras Lake, barely 15 minutes away. Namitz jumped in his pickup and sped over to Rodenkirk's location. Fifteen minutes later, Namitz spied the way-out-of-place warbler soaring over a field.
    With that sighting, Namitz tied the record for most different species of birds spotted by one person in Oregon in a single year, matching Rodenkirk's record of 363.
    Suddenly the 40,000 miles Namitz had covered crisscrossing Oregon in his pickup to view native and migrating birds, hitchhiking on a tuna boat and even hopping a luxury liner steaming between San Francisco and Vancouver — just to add more pelagic birds to his avian espies — paid off.
    "It's poetic that Tim Rodenkirk found that bird for me," says Namitz, 36, of Medford. "We found it together and celebrated together. It was cool."
    Namitz logged 18 more Oregon bird species that year as recognized by the Oregon Birding Association, pushing his Big Year record to 381 species.
    "In a way it was a relief, but it was mid-September, and I had enough time that I could put the record out of reach," says Namitz, 39, a wildlife consultant now living in Medford.
    "I was elated," he says. "But remember, this is bird-watching we're talking about."
    Namitz will talk about his fateful year of bird-watching during a presentation at 7 p.m. Tuesday, Nov. 26, during the Rogue Valley Audubon Society's monthly meeting at Medford Congregational Church, 1801 E. Jackson St.
    Namitz grew up interested in neighborhood birds but he knew nothing of the competitive birder world, "life lists" of birds seen and other aspects of this passionate pastime. Then, straight out of college in 1996, he landed a job conducting northern goshawk surveys for the U.S. Forest Service in upstate Washington.
    His survey partner was a birder.
    "He kept lists, so I started," Namitz says. "I thought it could be a friendly rivalry. It started to snowball."
    When it bit him, the birding bug struck an artery.
    By the next year, Namitz was landing seasonal field-biologist jobs in order to feed his new obsession. He found work in Alaska, Texas, California and New Mexico strictly for the birds.
    He then began traveling to Mexico, Costa Rica and even Korea on birding expeditions. In 2003, he landed a job as a cruise ship naturalist traveling between Alaska and Siberia strictly because the boat floated through known territory of the rare whiskered auklet.
    After that, he landed a job teaching high school biology in Coos Bay. His birding became more pedestrian, focusing on what he could spy in Oregon.
    In 2007, he took a stab at Rodenkirk's 2002 record, but fell eight species short.
    In 2011, with an even stronger focus and commitment, he set out for the record again.
    Namitz planned trips to find resident birds when and where he knew he could see them, then put himself in the flyways of migrating birds hoping to intercept them en route.
    All the while, Namitz kept his eye on the Internet for reports of "vagrants" — birds that normally don't show up in Oregon.
    He logged nearly 41,000 miles in the process, and that was just on land.
    Namitz served as a guide on offshore birding ventures out of Newport to see pelagic species such as albatrosses, auklets and Yeagers. He once paid $50 to piggyback on a tuna-fishing boat to build up the pelagic list and joined a group of birders who hopped a cruise ship steaming home from San Francisco to Vancouver because the birds they spied when due west of Oregon are legal as in-state sightings.
    Some hot leads and long trips led to nothing.
    An Internet posting of a vermilion flycatcher seen that day outside of Portland got Namitz out of bed at 3 a.m. the next morning to bomb it up Interstate 5 and get a glimpse of the extremely rare vagrant. But it was gone by the time he arrived.
    "It was a one-day wonder," he says. "It was there one afternoon and flew the coop."
    Others were almost embarrassingly simple.
    A tip of an emperor goose at the Tualatin National Wildlife Refuge sent him there for a glimpse. He parked, walked out onto the viewing platform and found three birder friends already with scopes trained on the goose.
    "I walked up, looked through the scope and said, 'OK. Thank you. Let's go to lunch,' " he says. "And we did."
    But finding that chestnut-sided warbler — a vagrant from New York or southeast Canada that got seriously lost — to tie Rodenkirk's record on that mid-September day was no easy task.
    When he met Rodenkirk at Floras Lake, the bird had disappeared among a flight of other birds flitting in some trees feeding on insects. So the two began to "pish," or imitate a universal bird alarm call to warn other birds a predator is around.
    Though not all birders like pishing, because some believe it may over-stress the birds, it worked. The flock flew closer to inspect what was there, and the warbler separated himself from the others.
    "I looked up and got him," Namitz says.
    Namitz credits help from Oregon's expanded birding community for putting him on birds so he could break the state record.
    "People like to see records broken, or at least they like to root for you when you're trying," he says.
    Since moving to Medford about a year ago, he's engrossed himself in the local scene. He visits the sewage-treatment ponds off Kirtland Road in White City — a local go-to spot for Auduboners — two or three times a week and has amassed a Jackson County life list of 240 species.
    "Just going out and bird-watching, as grandma-ish as it sounds, is actually pretty fun," he says.
    Reach reporter Mark Freeman at 541-776-4470 or mfreeman@mailtribune.com. Follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/MarkCFreeman
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