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My Life’s Birds: #1-22

November 7, 2007

JUNE 1, 1993 – Christian Co, MO – I distinctly remember the day I turned from a kid interested in birds to a listing birder. I was 13, and up to then I’d been the kid catching the snakes and the turtles, always the one with the insect collection (not to brag but it was really cool, I had a walking stick that was 8 inches long!), and ready to impress grown-ups with some inane bit of trivial knowledge (actually that hasn’t changed much). As I got older I was starting to appreciate birds on their own and enjoying the simple pleasure that comes with putting bird to field guide. I knew the names of lots of flashy international birds in addition to the commoner feeder birds and was picking things up fast. Then in March of 1993 I took a spring break trip with my family to visit my grandparents in the Lower Rio Grande Valley of Texas. My dad had seen some of the special birds down there when he helped my grandparents move so we went to Bentsen-Rio Grande Valley State Park to see what the fuss was about. Suddenly all those flashy birds were in front of me. Needless to say, I was totally hooked.

It wasn’t long after I decided that it would be a good idea to start writing down the birds I was seeing and putting names to for the first time. This was before computers were in wide use, but it still never occurred to me to use a spreadsheet as a database. I actually spent lots of time making handwritten lists of practically everything, birds of different habitats, license plates from different states, sports franchises (I was indeed a strange boy), so making my life list a handwritten affair was a no-brainer. I just needed the proper supplies and the date to start. The beginning of the next month seemed just the ticket for my rigidly anal mind. So it was on June 1, 1993, that my dad and I drove into Ozark to go to Wal-Mart and picked up a three-ring binder and a couple packs of college-ruled notepaper. The stuff I figured a life list was made of.

European StarlingUp until that point I have few memories of specific birds I’d seen, but after, everything seemed to crystallize and even now I remember that very day and most since. I don’t remember the very first bird, but I suspect it was a European Starling in the Wal-Mart parking lot. An inauspicious start perhaps, but a necessary one for nearly every lister in the world. But it was quickly left behind as we drove on through the countryside. All subsequent birds on the ride home were lifers. The Mourning Dove on the power line, the Eastern Meadowlark beside it, the Turkey Vulture on the horizon were all ticked along with the bird of my childhood that I miss seeing the most now that I’ve relocated eastward, the Scissor-tailed Flycatcher. It went on. Common Grackle..tick. Killdeer…tick. American Crow, Blue Jay, Barn Swallow and Red-tailed Hawk, all common and conspicuous in the summer in the Ozarks. I had 11 lifers before I even got home. Never mind that these were all birds I saw practically every day, they didn’t count until June 1.

At home the feeders hosted more lifers. The little Carolina Chickadees and Tufted Titmice, the American Robin prowling across the driveway, I was adding them in bunches now. White-breasted Nuthatch on the mulberry tree…check. Northern Cardinal and American Goldfinch on the fencerow…check, check. And there on the porch… Ruby-throated Hummingbird! I figured I had mined the feeders for about all I could when a group of birds flew across the field next to the house, the best lifer of that first day and still a good bird for summer in south Missouri, Cedar Waxwings.

Eager to add a few more to my rapidly growing list, I took a walk down to the Finley River, which ran near our house. Bank Swallows twisted and turned over the water, and a Brown Thrasher rustled through the bushes nearby. As if to put an exclamation mark on the first day of what would become a lifelong obsession, a Prothonotary Warbler sang from an overhanging tree. 22 birds on that first day. This listing thing is pretty easy!

The memories are clear to me when I look back on my lifelist in chronological order as opposed to the old taxonomic list we’re so used to. I hope you’ll indulge me in a bit of naval-gazing as I look back at it from this perspective, I’d like to make this sort of a regular series for each day on my list that I was fortunate enough to get a new bird. After all, what’s a list for if not for looking back at the birds you’ve seen and the circumstances surrounding them? And June 1, 1993, was where it all started for me.

photos from wikipedia

  1. Greg permalink
    November 7, 2007 10:55 pm

    Wow! Bank Swallow on the Finley in June! I didn’t have a clue back then. I always think I have to go to the Willard quarry to find them. I think you should scan in a few of those original drawings. They were terrific. Looking forward to this series.

  2. November 10, 2007 2:37 pm

    In retrospect, they likely were mostly Rough-wings but my young mind didn’t make the connection. I’ll bet there were some Banks in there but that entry is probably wrong.

    I’ve seen tons of Banks now, there’s no need to parse I guess at this point. : )

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