PENINSULA PROFILE: He leads the flock to see our feathered friends
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Naturalist Bob Boekelheide has led countless bird walks in and around Sequim, and he’ll head out again this weekend during the Olympic BirdFest. Here, he talks to Peter Walker, left. --Photo by Joe Smillie/Peninsula Daily News

By Joe Smillie
Peninsula Daily News

BirdFest coming up
By Diane Urbani de la Paz

Peninsula Daily News

SEQUIM — The 11th annual Olympic BirdFest this coming weekend is open to everyone, while bird-walk leader Bob Boekelheide is looking for the early risers among us.

“Our field trips are designed to accommodate birders at all levels,” he said.

But one of his walks, the Dawn Chorus stroll at 6 a.m. Saturday, is for the well-motivated. The rewards are plentiful: sightings of bald eagles, the American dipper, tiny warblers and brown creepers.

This coming Friday through Sunday, April 4-6, the BirdFest encompasses 24 trips, workshops and events across Clallam and Jefferson counties. Some are already sold out, while others, such as the 90-minute Dawn Chorus, still have space.

The Dungeness River Audubon Center in Railroad Bridge Park, 2151 W. Hendrickson Road, is the festival headquarters — Bird Central — with information about each day's outings.

Festival-goers may check in and sign up at the River Center, which is open 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesday through Friday and 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. next Saturday and Sunday.

Abundant details also await at www.olympicbirdfest.org or by phoning 360-681-4076.

“We've had fantastic interest this year,” said BirdFest coordinator and River Center administrator Vanessa Fuller. Several trips are at capacity, she added, but the ones that are still open can be found on the Events page on OlympicBirdFest.org.

While the field trips cost anywhere from $15 for the Dawn Chorus to $60 for next Sunday's Protection Island cruise, this festival begins with a free event: the BirdFest BirdQuest, held from 5 p.m. till 8 p.m. during Sequim's First Friday Art Walk. It's a kind of hunt: Players pick up match-game cards at various galleries and cafes on and near Washington Street, and catch sight of bird sculptures made by students in Jake Reichner's ceramics class at Sequim High School.

More wildlife-related art, including drawings and photography, will grace Art Walk venues including Wind Rose Cellars, the wine bar at 143 W. Washington St., and the Blue Whole Gallery, 129 W. Washington St.

Once players put their completed game cards in the entry box at That Takes the Cake, the bakery at 171 W. Washington St., they will have a chance to win a “bird's-eye view” scenic flight with local pilot Emily Westcott, high above the North Olympic Peninsula.

Also Friday evening during the Art Walk, BirdQuest participants will be invited to vote for their favorite bird sculptures, with prizes going to the three student artists whose work comes out on top.

Here's a sampling of BirdFest field trips and classes. Would-be participants are urged to contact the Dungeness River Audubon Center and check the “Events” link on OlympicBirdFest.org to check on availability.

■ Totem Tour of Jamestown S'Klallam totem poles and carving shed in Blyn and Sequim, Friday 9 a.m.-11 a.m. or Saturday 9 a.m.-11 a.m., $20.

■ Dungeness Bay and Three Crabs area with waterfowl, shorebirds and more, Friday 1 p.m.-4 p.m. or Saturday 1 p.m.-4 p.m., $25.

■ Birding Dungeness Spit and Recreation Area, with loons, sea ducks, auklets, murrelets and more, Friday, 1 p.m.-4 p.m., $25.

■ Dawn Chorus at Railroad Bridge Park, Saturday 6 a.m.-7:30 a.m., with numerous species along the Dungeness River and in surrounding forest, $15.

■ Banquet with guest speaker Noah Strycker on “Bird World: Insights for Humans from the Amazing World of Birds,” Saturday 6:30 p.m.-8:30 p.m., Jamestown S'Klallam Tribal Center in Blyn, $40.

■ Protection Island cruise on the MV Olympus, with marine birds and mammals around the national wildlife refuge, Sunday 9:30 a.m.-12:30 p.m., $60.

■ San Juan Islands cruise with naturalist Bob Boekelheide aboard the MV Glacier Spirit, with two nights at the Roche Harbor Resort on San Juan Island, a visit to Sucia Island and a cruise back through Deception Pass, Sunday, April 6, to Tuesday, April 8, $600 per person double occupancy or $675 single. For more information, see www.PugetSoundExpress.com.

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Features Editor Diane Urbani de la Paz can be reached at 360-452-2345, ext. 5062, or at diane.urbani@peninsuladailynews.com.
It's shortly after 8 a.m., and 15 people are walking along the Dungeness River. Suddenly, a chitter fills the air, and faces turn skyward.

“Listen. Do you hear the crossbill?” asks Bob Boekelheide, the leader of the gang of walkers.

After scanning the skyline, the group next sees a quail scurry into bushes to the left.

Boekelheide cups a hand to his mouth and, using his lower lip and teeth, imitates a call, drawing the bird out of the brush.

It's the Wednesday morning walk at Railroad Bridge Park, and, like every Wednesday morning for the past 13 years, up to two dozen bird buffs are following Boekelheide through some of the most lushly populated avian habitat in the world.

“This is an amazing place to be a birder,” Boekelheide says, a pair of binoculars hanging around his neck and a telescope flung over his shoulder.

Few have seen as much of this place as he has.

Boekelheide, 61, began leading the Wednesday morning bird walks in 2001. It was one of the first initiatives he took on as director of the Dungeness River Audubon Center, a natural history museum nestled in the park at 2151 W. Hendrickson Road.

“I've only had one of these bird walks where I was out with myself,” he said. That was during his first year.

Since then, he's collected a solid roster of bird walkers, both veteran and rookie.

“I've been out here almost since the beginning,” said veteran Wednesday walker Gary Bullock of Sequim.

“I've lived here 15 years, and I haven't been able to come out for this until now,” said Neal Burkhardt, who had retired the previous Monday with his partner, Jane Stewart, after 15 years of running McComb Gardens just outside Sequim.

Boekelheide said the people are almost as interesting to watch as the birds.

“I've kept better track of the birds, I think. But it is great,” he said, “to have new faces show up and get excited about this wonderful place.”

Boekelheide stepped down as the River Center's director in 2011, partly to travel and partly to take care of his ailing father in suburban Los Angeles.

“I really have to say thanks to the people that helped pick up some of my bird duties while I took care of my dad,” he said.

“It means a lot to have a connected community like this.”

Last September, Boekelheide returned with his father to the home by Dungeness Bay where he and his wife, Barbara, raised their two sons, Eric and Isaac.

Before taking on the river center's director post, Boekelheide taught science to high school students in Port Angeles and Sequim for 7 years. His knack for teaching is in evidence on the bird walks, whether he's showing a newcomer how an Anna's hummingbird's hood changes its neon colors with a turn of the neck or sharing technology tips with some of the regulars.

“I just love showing people cool things and having them get excited about nature and everything that's around here,” he said.

Technology makes that connection a bit easier.

Wednesday bird walker Dave Jackson, who teaches a class on recognizing bird songs, shared some apps, like iBird PRO, that can pick up a bird song and let the savvy, bird-watching smart phone owner know what just flew overhead.

Or you could take along an encyclopedia like Boekelheide, who takes joy in not only the rare species, but also in noting the changes in population and behavior of swallows and robins.

“They just tell us so much about what's going on in the world around us,” he said. “I actually find more in the more common species, because they tell us more about our surroundings.”

Humans can gain more understanding of nature “just by listening and keeping an eye out.”

While the Wednesday bird walks attract a dozen or two to the park, the biggest crew comes during the Olympic BirdFest, as he leads the Dawn Chorus at Railroad Bridge Park.

“It's a bigger crowd, maybe a little grumpier, too,” said Boekelheide, who volunteers to lead the outing.

The walk, from 6 a.m. to 7:30 a.m. this Saturday, will roam through riparian forests next to the Dungeness River as the calls of bald eagles, mergansers, warblers and any number of other bird species fill the tree canopy.

This year's Dawn Chorus stroll, at $15, is one of numerous outings during the BirdFest this Friday through next Sunday, April 4-6.

These aren't merely a pastime, the Wednesday walks in the woods.

As a new species is spotted, Boekelheide pulls out a note pad, covered in thick yellow plastic, to scrawl down the observations.

He has recorded the species and numbers from each of the bird walks he's led these 13 years.

“I have to admit, the last few years need a little more interpretation,” he said. Boekelheide has yet to delve into the more recent data.

Boekelheide is vice president of the Olympic Peninsula Audubon Society, as well as being in charge of the society's bird sighting and bird count committees.

Prior to his teaching stint, Boekelheide, with a bachelor's degree in zoology and a master's in ecology, was a wildlife biologist. In 1990, he co-authored the book Seabirds of the Farallon Islands with his colleague, David Ainley.

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Sequim-Dungeness Valley Editor Joe Smillie can be reached at 360-681-2390, ext. 5052, or at jsmillie@peninsuladailynews.com.

Last modified: March 29. 2014 7:28PM
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