I used to keep my life list in an excel spreadsheet. I don’t do that anymore, as eBird has pretty much filled that niche incredibly effectively and as dealing with excel is something of a special kind of torture, I’m happy to outsource it to an online program that does all that collating for me. But there are some aspects of my birding career that eBird, for all of it’s amazing features, can’t manage for me. I’m talking about all these ways of expressing my birding career that are unique to me.
I call this kind of data eBird plus, because while I lean on eBird to do the heavy lifting of keeping track of everything I see, there’s is no way to manage that data in the way I’m looking to use it. And for good reason, it’s completely arbitrary and personal.
Like so many birders, I try to keep track of my life bird tally for every year that I’ve maintained a list. For me, that’s since 1993. I’
ve been pretty fortunate that I’ve managed to get multiple life birds every year that I’ve been actively birding, except for a period in high school and college where I burned out and took some time off. I also like to keep track of the states in which I’ve seen life birds, as it’s sort of a mini-history of my birding career.
As you might expect, Missouri leads the way there because I spent my formative birding years in the state. Number two is Arizona, where I visited for Camp Chiricahua in 1994. It was my first experience birding in the west so in addition to all the amazing Arizona specific species, I got loads of general western birds too. This is where I had my life Steller’s Jay and Western Tanager and Prairie Falcon (and oddly enough, it was the first place I ran into common eastern birds like Summer Tanager and Hermit Thrush, too). And number three? We’ll it’s my new home state of North Carolina, where I’ve made a significant dent in those coastal and pelagic species.
Thanks to eBird, however, I was able to go even farther and pull out in which counties I’ve seen the most birds. Once again, my old home county of Christian, Missouri, takes the honors, but look how close southeast Arizona is! And third with another local Missouri county (the one with the lakes), and then a fairly steep drop off into more or less evenly distributed counties.
It’s not terribly surprising that destination counties like Cochise, Arizona, and Hidalgo, Texas, and Dare, North Carolina, would be up there, but it’s awfully hard to knock off the first place you ever lived.
Incidentally, I also found that about 75% of my life birds came from one of four counties, which is pretty wild. It suggests that a birder who wanted to get to 500 ABA area lifers as cheaply as possible could do so by staying close to home and traveling to destination spots in south Texas and south Arizona. There are worse ways I suppose, but where’s the fun in that.
It’s also worth noting that I may see an interloper heading towards the top with a bullet. I’m heading to Southern California, specifically San Diego, for some birding (and helping with an ABA rally) next month. I’ve never birded SoCal, and I’ve got an absurd number of life birds that I might be able to pick up. My cursory look at the eBird abundance charts shows just over 40 with better than average chances and an additional 20-odd as possibles. I didn’t even add Blue-footed Booby to the list, and given that there are currently dozens of them off the coast maybe I should have, but that tells you about how well this could go.
More on that to come. I’m really excited to see precisely where that state and county end up on the list.
For a photographer, the little flashing empty battery symbol on your camera is akin to, and perhaps worse than, seeing the cherry reds of a cop car pull in behind you as you drive down the road. It’s a gut punch, made worse by the nagging knowledge that this all could have been avoided with a little bit of foresight. I got the sign as we cruised into the Gulf Stream on the first of two days offshore. The shearwaters were everywhere, kettling above schools of small tuna and spinning off of the front of small squalls scattered across the water. It was as birdy as I’d ever seen, and felt much closer to what I imagine a pelagic on the west coast is like rather than the comparatively dull affairs in the Atlantic.
I wanted some photos of these swirling birds. The light was weird and wonderful, peaking out from behind clouds periodically onto dark water. A Long-tailed Jaeger had just flown by, a lifer for me, and it was looking like it was going to be one of those days you spend the next dozen trips in wanting comparison to. I headed into the cabin, grabbed my camera, and flicked on the power switch.
Nothing but an empty battery.
I swore. Kicked myself for taking the spare out of my bag that morning (in my defense, it was really early and it sounded like a good idea), but quickly accepted this frustrating situation. After all, not much I can do about it. And now that I was one of the guys with the headsets, I had other things to concentrate on this time. After all, it’s not like I’m going to get a fantastic opportunity to photograph a Trindade Petrel, right?
The next shearwater flock contained a Trindade Petrel. Seconds after Brian Patteson spotted the bird a nasally whinny rang out from the speakers. Brian was attempting to call it in, and it worked. The bird immediately changed course and banked around the boat twice not more than 10 feet of the rail. It was completely mind-blowing. The image was seared into my brain for all time, but sadly not into my camera. (If you want to see photos of that bird, check out Steve Tucker’s from the same day).
As if that wasn’t enough, a White-tailed Tropicbird made a pass over the boat (but I already have passable photos of that one from a couple years ago). And as if that wasn’t enough, the Band-rumped Storm-Petrels put on a show, with multiple birds passing close to the boat in good light, a combination I’ve never had before. And the Red-necked Phalaropes, they too were frequent and close. Each one a red hot poker in my soul.
During one of the lulls I was chatting with Kate Sutherland, Brian’s first mate, lead chummer, and all around awesome person, and mentioned that I was certain our excellent luck had to do with my failure as a photographer when she mentioned she had a spare Canon battery kicking around. She found it for me and we immediately came across our second Trindade Petrel. It didn’t show like the first, but I managed one shot.
Not long after the rain started. It was time to go home.
Oh man, have I neglected this blog this summer. But I have good reasons for it, and I wanted to throw up a quick post to beg forgiveness and promise that this is only a temporary, albeit much-needed in some ways, hiatus.
First, I’ve moved! This blog is no longer based in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, as my family has up and moved about 40 miles west to Greensboro as of the beginning of this month. That, as you might imagine, has taken a great deal of time and focus.I haven’t even really been able to explore, but that will come.
Also, I’m in school! I’m working on my graduate degree in Science Education in the hopes that one of these museums will finally give me an interview once I have a few letters after my name. So there’s also that.
Third, I’m working pretty much full-time at a nature camp in Durham (yes, I am currently commuting back and forth from Greensboro and yes, it’s looooong) which means I return home every night sweaty and exhausted and brain-dead and needing to focus on…
The ABA stuff, which is all the blogging I have time for these days. So that’s that.
But I did go to Missouri at the beginning of the month and enjoyed a few days among family in the beautiful Ozarks. Here are some photos of birds and stuff.
It may be in its mid-summer molty mess of a plumage but it is still a Scissor-tailed Flycatcher, the one bird of my childhood that miss more than any other. If you ever get tired of looking at Scissor-tailed Flycatchers than you, sir, have lost your soul and should repair yourself to the southern plains post haste. They are phenomenal.
This is a poor photo of a great bird, and a very long-overdue lifer for me. My dad had been promising Cerulean Warbler to me for years if I’d only make it to Missouri in the summer, and I’m loathe to admit that a bit of playback was used to lure this bird in, though not enough to get a good photo as it stayed pretty high in this stream-side Sycamore. Apparently, this is one spot in their range where they’re doing pretty well and they’d already fledged a few chicks by the time I got around to it. It, like the above flycatcher, was a mess. But a good bird is a good bird.
Easily one of the highlights of the trip was this encounter with a North American Mink, which was up the Finley River where my family had paddled to have a hot dog and s’more roast and do some fishing and general naturing. It made hauling my camera in a giant ziploc bag entirely worth it, as every previous encounter I’d had with this little mustelid was a blur of greasy fur bolting away from me. This one seemed legitimately curious and watched me for several minutes before returning to foraging for crayfish in the shallows. It was pretty dang cool.
More to come as things open up for me. I shall return, but things will be a little thin for at least one month more.
I have not forgotten this blog, nor the mountain of potential posts I’ve been writing in my head. Thanks for your patience.