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Susan Ballinger | Jenny Gravell nears her goal of sighting 600 birds

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Jenny Gravell’s resolution for 2014 is to get closer to her goal of seeing 600 different species of North American birds before she turns 60. (Provided photo)

January seems to be a good time to take on a new practice that will increase health or happiness.

I’d like to suggest that 2014 is a great year to do just that by becoming a “birder” in the Wenatchee Valley.

Before offering practical tips about how to get started, I’d like to introduce you to a passionate local birder, Jenny Gravell. Jenny’s ambitious resolution for 2014 is to get closer to her goal of seeing 600 different species of North American birds before she turns 60, with 40 more species to find.

How did a full-time working single mom in East Wenatchee have time and energy to both raise a family and become a self-taught naturalist and expert birdwatcher?

It all started with a sixth-grade teacher’s spring classroom unit, introducing local birds. Jenny’s family lived on a rural Wisconsin farm within walking distance to an oak-maple woodland, the Buffalo River, and a small creek.

That April, her parents gave her a pair of Sears 7x35 binoculars for her birthday, and her avocation as a naturalist was launched.

Armed with a field guidebook, Jenny spent her after-school hours walking and biking in search of birds. In October, her family moved to the hills above Tonasket, where she continued her solo exploring to see birds.

It all stopped when her brother dropped and broke her binoculars, and teenage Jenny shifted her attention to boys. She didn’t pick up birding again until she was in her late 20s as a single parent working full-time as a Department of Agriculture inspector.

A co-worker, Jeanette Shores, casually mentioned her own interest in birds, and a long friendship through birdwatching was launched.

While Jenny’s two boys spent alternate weekends with their father, she and Jeanette would get into her car at dawn and drive for a 12-hour Saturday adventure, exploring rural Douglas County roads in search of birds. They followed the same route, year-round, and with the help of a book or two, starting honing their identification skills.

For her 30th birthday, they made a trip to Cannon Beach in Oregon to see tufted puffins. In 2000, the two women pulled off a marathon nine-day round trip drive to southern Arizona, where they barely slept, but added 57 new species to their life lists.

Jenny’s eye’s glint as she talks about getting up at 2:30 a.m. routinely, in order to drive to a specific viewpoint in time for the sunrise and view of a new bird.

Jenny was first introduced to bird festivals by attending Othello’s Sandhill Crane event, and the internet connected her to bird festivals across the county.

She booked trips to festivals at places like Cape May N.J., to learn alongside expert ornithologists.

At her East Wenatchee home, Jenny dug up her front lawn and transformed it into a wildlife habitat that attracts 85 different bird species.

She built a heated waterfall and pond, planted xeroscape perennials selected to attract pollinators and maintains year-round feeders for resident Anna’s Hummingbirds.

Recently retired, Jenny now serves on the North Central Washington Audubon Society (NCWAS) Board. For the NCWAS Facebook page, she’s created a fun weekly “What’s that Bird” photo quiz game and she organizes “Birding Buddy” walks, designed to help beginners get acquainted with common species.

Sign-up details for the free NCWAS outings are at

Susan Ballinger runs the Wenatchee Naturalist program in conjunction with the Wenatchee River Institute. She can be reached at 509-669-7820 or


Here’s how to get started in birding

I asked Jenny Gravell what advice she has to offer someone who is a beginner birder.

“Invest in a pair of good binoculars — they make all the difference in the world,” she quipped, and followed with “familiarize yourself with the way the bird groups are organized in the field guides.

“And, get out with other people!” Jenny adds. “Find a patch — a local place to visit often — and you’ll start to become familiar with the resident birds, and you’ll be able to notice when other birds are moving through.”

We both recommend the Cornell Lab of Ornithology website at for an array of excellent online learning guides for North American birds.

Their new free Merlin Bird ID app is designed to help the beginning birder identify local birds.

Read the article “The Best Binoculars of 2013” for an excellent review for all price ranges of binoculars. View the “Building Skills” page for excellent short videos introducing basic skills.

Many of us local birders are contributors to their citizen science eBird project and use it to discover where birds have been observed locally, pinpointed on Google maps.

The North Central Washington Audubon Society has partnered with Wenatchee Valley College Continuing Education to offer a two-week February short-course, Identifying Winter Water Birds. Jenny and I are the co-instructors, assisted by NCWAS volunteers, and our goal is help increase participant observation skills in a collaborative setting.

We’ll use field guides, actual bird study skins, and presentations, with both classroom and field sessions. High quality loaner binoculars will be available, thanks to NCWAS.

Register and learn more at or at 682-6900.

— Susan Ballinger