Lebanon man tracks feathered friends

By Jennifer Moody
For Lebanon Local

Back in 1972, when Jeff Harding graduated from high school, his father offered to buy him a shiny new calculator before he enrolled at Oregon State University.
“They were new and exciting in those days,” remembered Harding, who lives near Crabtree. “I was going to study science.”
However, the younger Harding had something else in mind. “I said, can I have a pair of binoculars instead?”
His father agreed, and Harding used the gift to further what soon became a favorite hobby: birdwatching.
Harding went on to receive a bachelor’s degree in zoology at OSU before earning a Master of Business Administration from Portland State University. A half-century later, he now tends to use a camera with a good zoom rather than binoculars, but he still gets excited about a good beak peek.

Gray-headed kingfisher

This is a great time to start birdwatching, even in the dead of winter, Harding said. In fact, volunteers have just wrapped up their annual census of birds in the Western Hemisphere through the Christmas Bird Count, administered by the National Audubon Society. (Want to get involved next year? Watch for a list of events around the state at https://oregonbirding.org/cbc/.)
Plenty of apps are available to help the beginner birder. A favorite of Harding’s is one for which he is a volunteer reviewer, eBird.org. Created by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology at Cornell University, the site just wrapped up its 20th year of inviting users worldwide to contribute information about their sighting to an online catalog available to all.
“I got involved – maybe it was 10 years old, or five years old, I don’t remember the precise date – but I was going on a trip and exploring what I might find there,” Harding recalled. “It’s really useful for that. You can explore regions and get people’s checklists of what they saw in any particular location. You can get a bar chart that shows week by week when they show up and when they disappear, for migratory birds.”
Harding found himself using the site frequently, but discovered there wasn’t yet enough data, especially in places without a lot of birders.
“So I thought, it’s easy enough for me to contribute,” he said. “Why don’t I just start putting in my records?”

AN ABYSSINIAN ROLLER, as seen in Kidepo Valley National Park, Uganda, on Nov. 24, 2022.

Here’s how it works: People sign up for the site, which is free, and then use it to input what they see and hear when they go birding.
“For instance, when I go to Cheadle Lake, I start up the app,” Harding said. “The eBird app tracks my movements in the park, and then I record the birds I see.”
Afterward, he said, anyone who goes to the site and types in “Cheadle Lake” can click on it and get the details of everything he has seen and everything from every other user who has recorded sights there. Pro tip: Bald eagles are a good bet for the site, as are herons and great egrets, and plenty of varieties of ducks.
As a volunteer reviewer, Harding goes through bird reports to check for accuracy. Someone might have mistaken one species for another, for instance, or some wag may have decided to record a sighting of, say, a prehistoric pterodactyl.
“I review those and accept or re-mark them ‘not public,’” Harding said. “We don’t like to say ‘reject,’ because you can put whatever you want on there, but that doesn’t mean it has to be part of a public database.”
Harding participated in the mid-December Christmas Bird Count in Tangent this year and encountered a bird called a wrentit. It’s the only representative of its particular bird family in the Americas, he said. The rest are in Europe and Asia.
“It’s a neat little thing that’s expanding in Oregon,” he said. “I’ve been thrilled to find them in our woodlot here on Griggs Drive in recent years.”

Ring-necked duck

That’s another nice thing about eBird, he noted: Users can explore species. “Type in ‘wrentit’ and you can look at pictures of it, and you can pull up sounds. They make a really cool quiet little ratchety noise sometimes, almost like a purring. It’s really neat to hear.”
A retired certified public accountant, Harding said he didn’t get too heavily into the Tangent count this year because he and his wife, Patricia, had just returned from a trip to Uganda. It wasn’t specifically a birding trip, but naturally he was on the lookout.
He ended up logging 377 species, including a shoebill, one of his goals, and a black bee-eater, a “stunning bird, basically black but has iridescent blue streaks on its breast and a bright red throat. I actually got a good photograph of that.”
In fact, he said, “I have 4,000 photographs I’m going through.”
Birdwatching can be done alone, but it also can be good for a novice birder to get started by walking around with someone experienced, Harding said. That’s how he got started: his father-in-law was delighted to have someone in the family who was interested in birdwatching.
“I married Patricia Thackaberry, whose father owns Scroggins Feed Store,” Harding said. “Bill Thackaberry was a birder. He took me in hand and I became a birder then – a real birder. That was in 1977.”
A “real” birder?
“I don’t know – ‘serious’?” Harding said, laughing. “Someone described me as a serious birder. I think it’s more fun than that. I just like to go out there and see what’s happening.”
Harding goes out to see what’s happening in the bird world for the fun of it, but he does believe there’s more to be gained. The more people out there observing, the more information is collected, and the more the rest of the world might benefit.

At eBird.org, Harding ranks in the top 10 users for Linn County sightings, and several recent photos of his are seen at the right.

He remembers, for instance, participating in an annual U.S. Fish and Wildlife breeding bird survey with his father in law. It involves choosing a 25-mile route – theirs was on logging roads around Iron Mountain east of Sweet Home – and stopping every half-mile to spend three minutes observing and recording. When the two of them started, they’d listen to the distinctive calls and usually pick out two to three olive-sided flycatchers at every stop.
In 20 years, however, the calls began to dwindle. By the late 1990s, Harding said, “I felt lucky to get two to three on the whole route. My little route documented a pretty sharp decline in that species.”
Deforestation? Predators? Pollution? Harding doesn’t know. “But knowing they’re declining, maybe we can do something about it.”
That’s where birding – or, really, any kind of wildlife observation, but birding is Harding’s favorite – can make a difference.
“I think we learn something by getting this information,” he said. “We can maybe solve problems if we learn something that’s going on.”