Put Some Life Into That List

A Life List in birding is simply a list of every bird species you’ve ever seen. Some birders take the list very seriously and some are just casual observers. No matter what kind of Life Lister you are though, you will inevitably hit a plateau and your bird species numbers will stagnate.

The reason for this is simple: there are a limited number of birds in this world and an even more limited number of birds in your local area at any given time. Some of these birds will be common, of course, but the ones that you need for your list will be rarer and harder to find.

In order to see more birds, birders must do two things: 1) Bird in all seasons 2) Travel to a wide-range of ecosystems.

For me, I did both of these things while living in North Carolina. I’d head to the coast and I’d head to the mountains. I’d bird in the cold and also in the sweltering summer heat. My numbers stagnated around the 170 range. The more birds I found, fewer birds were left that were considered common. I had to dedicate more time and effort to finding the uncommon and rare (or migratory) birds listed in my field guide.

However, there is one major thing you can do to boost your numbers and that is . . . travel to a far away land.

Boosting Your Life List Numbers One Trip at a Time

By traveling, birders can expose themselves to completely new species. My trips out West allowed me to see the variety of bird species that I was unfamiliar with, given that I live East of the Mississippi. But even the birds out West were not all too uncommon. It wasn’t until I traveled to another continent that the birds of my imagination came to life in a variety of colors, shapes, and sounds.

My trip to Nepal exposed me to whole new species with strange new names: Drongo, Niltava, Minivet, Jacana, Bulbul, Barbet, and plenty more otherworldly bird names. It was an exciting time, when everyday I could see birds that looked strange compared to the birds I was used to back home. During this trip I was able to push my Life List numbers well past 170, reaching closer and closer to the 280 mark. For many these numbers might seem amateur, but I was stoked to surpass 200 and even more excited to list over 100 birds in Nepal alone.

Even if you can’t make a trip out of the country there are plenty of options nearby. Simply venturing into different ecosystems will provide you plenty of opportunities to get a new bird for your list. Look for wetlands, prairies, farmland, mountain flyways, creeks, old growth forests, shallow freshwater lakes, saltwater, public parks, and even cityscapes (Peregrine Falcons love hunting pigeons among high rises). You’re sure to find something interesting, if only you venture out to find it.

Birding in Nepal

Nepal is home to nearly 10% of the Earth’s bird population, which is impressive for a country of its size. Its distinct ecological features allow it to be home to birds with a range of preferences–whether it’s soaring in the Himalayas or perched in a fruit tree in the southern jungles of Chitwan.

My wife and I spent nearly 4 months in Nepal from September to December. And during that time I had one humble birding goal and that was to identify 100 different bird species. (It should be noted that a Nepali Ornithologist I spoke with briefly laughed at this goal and said, “That can be done in a day in Chitwan.”)

My main locations for birding were the Kathmandu Valley, Annapurna Conservation Area, and Chitwan National Park.

Kathmandu Valley

Kathmandu had its birds, but sighting anything other than common birds was very difficult in the dust filled streets of Nepal’s capital city. That didn’t mean there weren’t birds to be found. In fact, one of my most memorable finds was a white-throated kingfisher that perched in a field directly across from the apartment where I stayed. I remember spotting it, then rushing back into the apartment to get my camera. I must have taken a hundred photos of that one bird (and practically none of them panned out). It was my first kingfisher in Asia.

Kathmandu Valley, though crowded and full of city life, has pockets of good nature that allow small droves of birds to thrive. Thanks to my father-in-law who knew where all these pockets were, I was able to catch glimpses of the birds that lived there:

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Annapurna Conservation Area

During my trip in Nepal, I entered the Annapurna Conservation Area twice. The first time I was in Manang on the Northern side of the Himalayan range. There, I was well above 10,000 feet in elevation, getting as high up as 15,000 feet at one point. In Manang, I saw the high-flyers: Red-Billed Chough, Himilayan Vulture, and a few other indistinguishable falcons and eagles. The land there was dry, due to the rain shadow caused by the mountains to the south. It was a unique environment mirroring the high, dry plateaus and peaks of Tibet.

During the second trip, I was in Pokhara and the Kaski District on the Southern side of the Himalayas. There I trekked with my wife and her family to Ghorepani and Gandruk. Most of my time here was dedicated to trekking and seeing the mountains. But I was able to capture a few bird photos, thanks to the patience of my in-laws who allowed me plenty of moments to nerd out over the birds I saw. During the trek I saw many of the same birds that I saw in Manang, but in Pokhara (a city lying at an elevation of 4,600 feet and also next to a lake) the birds got brighter and more vibrant:

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Chitwan National Park

Chitwan lies on the Southern border of Nepal. It’s much hotter there and flat too. This area is known for its elephant, rhino, and tiger populations. It was a crazy thing to be high in the Himalayas one day and to be in the jungle the next (there were times when you could actually see the snow-capped peaks from Chitwan).

Here the number of bird species was overwhelming. It was difficult to keep track of all the new species–make note, take a photo, observe and enjoy. It was an action packed 3 days (for a birder) and the trip easily helped me get past my 100 species mark:

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Give Up the Search!

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Juvenile wood stork

A wood stork appeared on the far reaches of Guilford County this past June, north just above the big lakes. Wood storks are not considered rarities in these parts, but they are uncommon.

I had heard about the sighting through a listserv. If you are new to birding finding a club or a listserv is a great way to discover birds in your area. The email regarding the wood stork came on a Saturday morning and I headed out just before noon to find the bird.

With only a brief description of where to find the bird along a 3-mile stretch of trails, I headed out eyes searching the adjacent wetland for giant, ugly birds with snow white feathers.

I knew this trail well and could pinpoint the location that was described in the email. I was headed about ¾ of a mile down the trail to the very end of a wide marsh area, prime territory for beavers and ducks.

The trail meanders about 20 yards from the water and is elevated revealing a unique ecosystem of reeds, water, and muck. Trees spot the landscape and make great perches for Great Blue Heron. Along the way I made a point to stop and scan the waterway whenever an opening in the trees presented itself.

Each vista point revealed no wood storks. In fact, it was mid-day in June and there wasn’t any wildlife activity aside from a few rogue cardinals. I continued and eventually made it to the spot that was described. I carefully and methodically scanned the area. But there was nothing to be found, just a thick grove of trees and brush sitting knee deep in water and entwined like a fortress.

So I waited.

This is a common scenario for many birders. While you wait you continue to look and listen. You notice the sticky stillness of the summer air. You notice the poison ivy growing just off the trail. You consider the futility of searching for winged creatures in your spare time.

Minutes pass and you ask yourself, “ How long do I plan to sit here waiting for a bird that may have moved on hours ago?”

At the insistence of this question you give yourself 5 more minutes. If the wood stork doesn’t show in 5 minutes, you’ll leave. And so the 5 minutes come and go and you resign yourself to head back down the trail. You could stop once more at the overlooks and scan the wetland for life, but would it really make a difference?

Instead, give up. Stop looking. Walk with your head down in defeat!

This is what I did. I moved down trail quietly and preoccupied with thought. I was no longer concerned with birds or finding what I was looking for. I was hot and sweaty and ready to get home and eat lunch.

It’s sometimes these moments that lead to discovery.

Nearly 300 yards into my retreat I happened to look up and see a large white bird gliding noiselessly over the reeds. It flew straight to where I had previously stood, making the entire distance without flapping its wings once.

I walked the distance back as quickly and quietly as I could. And through the branches, standing upright in the water was the wood stork–the bird for which I was looking. It very well could’ve been the only wood stork within 100 miles and it happened to reappear in the exact location that was described.

Many times I’ve sought out specific birds, obsessed over checking a species off a list or getting a good photo. I’ve searched and not found what I was looking for.

There are moments though when the search ceases that you find exactly what you’re looking for.

What the Birds Are Saying

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Adult Carolina Wren calling for its young fledge to fly to the shelter of a shrub.

I remember my first spring when I truly listened to the birds. I was amazed at the sounds I heard. It was a true medley of birdsong that was deep and complex. To hear it you must first listen. And to really hear it–to hear the individual birds and their unique notes–you must listen carefully.

It was after that first spring when my ears where first exposed to the sounds of the woods that I realized how quiet the other seasons are. The dead of summer might as well be a ghost town after the frenzy of activity in spring. For those that listen, the silence can be disquieting.

As the years went on and the lively season of spring came and went I learned to identify more and more birds by song alone. And in doing so, I began to hear what they were saying:

“Here I Am”

For many birds, their song is one that defines territory. It says to the world, “Here I am!” In the case of the Red-Eyed Vireo, it nearly literally says this. A helpful mnemonic for identifying this bird is Here I am, Look at me, Look at me, Here I am. The Red-Eyed Vireo is a good bird to identify by song because it sings constantly. If you are in the woods in late spring or summer odds are you’ll hear this bird endlessly singing. From dawn through the hottest part of the day, the Red-Eyed Vireo lets you know that it is there by repeating its song literally hundreds and thousands of times.

“Over Here to Safety”

I watched a family of Carolina Wrens fledge last June. It was an intriguing thing to witness. Three wren fledges took their time leaping from their nest (which was about 30 feet in the air). They each struggled to find their wings for flight. They were clumsy like babies learning to crawl. They all sought refuge under a trash can. The wren parents were off in a tangle of vines and bushes calling relentlessly. “We’re over here,” I imagined them saying coaxing their young into the safety of a dense shrub.

“This is My Love Song to You”

In spring, it is the warblers mainly that are known for their love songs–songs meant to attract a mate, as well as, establish a territory. The complexity of these songs vary from each specie. Some are simple and fleeting, others are melodic and flowing. These songs are the basis for every mating pair of warblers in spring. First the song, then the nest, then the nestlings. I’ve heard it said that every song is a love song, perhaps the same is true for birds.

“Cheer Up”

Some days I walk home from work feeling defeated. The stress has gotten to me and I’ve become trapped in the cycle of days defined only by work and sleep. On these walks I pass under enormous oaks and elm that provide a canopy for the neighborhood. Sometimes there are American Robin in these trees and they are singing, “Cheer Up, Cheerily, Cheerily, Cheer Up.” This is in fact, the mnemonic used to identify these birds. And in fact, it’s the exact thing I need to hear in those moments.

There are many other songs and sayings that are projected from those tiny feathered bodies hidden amongst the greenery of our lives. But to understand what the birds are saying, you first have to listen.

The Old Man and the Trees

Hooded Warbler
Hooded Warbler

I met a man who looked like Ernest Hemingway.

He was out-and-about picking up trash as part of the local bird club and I joined him.

Together we walked the park, garbage bags and litter-pickers in hand.

He spoke often and in good spirits. He told me about aging and nature, the number of edible plants within the woods, and to be weary of what the damn government might want to take from me.

He went on and I listened.

At one point he paused and looked deep into the trees. There was a bird singing just beyond sight.  

He turned with a big grin on his white-bearded face.

“That there is a hooded warbler,” he said.

I was dumbfounded. “How can you tell?” I asked.

“Aww, you know,” he replied, “I’ve just been listening for 50 years.”

What a Bird Taught Bruce Lee

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It’s always a pleasant surprise to spot a bird in an unusual place. One of the places I love finding birds is in books. I recently read Bruce Lee: Artist of Life, it’s a collection of essays and writings by the man himself: Bruce Lee.

In one essay, Lee is meditating alone on a boat. It is here that he begins to unravel the famous metaphor that later turned into the maxim “Be Water My Friend.” Lee was an incredible thinker, a man born in San Francisco, one who grew up in Hong Kong, and later majored in philosophy at the University of Washington. Like his fighting style, his thoughts were a blend of many styles, both Eastern and Western.

It is while on the boat, meditating on the qualities of water that Lee spots a bird:

“Suddenly a bird flew by and cast its reflection on the water. Right then as I was absorbing myself with the lesson of the water, another mystic sense of hidden meaning revealed itself to me; should not the thoughts and emotions I had when in front of an opponent pass like the reflection of the bird flying over the water? This was exactly what Professor Yip meant by being detached–not being without emotion or feeling, but being one in whom feeling was not sticky or blocked. Therefore in order to control myself I must first accept myself by going with and not against my nature.

I lay on the boat and felt that I had united with Tao; I had become one with nature. I just lay there and let the boat drift freely according to its own will. For at that moment I had achieved a state of inner feeling in which opposition had become mutually cooperative instead of mutually exclusive, in which there was no longer any conflict in my mind. The whole world to me was unitary.”

-Bruce Lee essay entitled “A Moment of Understanding,” published in the book Bruce Lee: Artist of Life

I’ve grown to associate birding with mindfulness–the birds passing before my eyes and my thoughts passing across my mind. In fact, part of the appeal of birds is that they are momentary creatures, their presence so immediate yet so short-lived. It is a reminder to be present and to accept the discoveries of any given day.

This is one of the unspoken lessons I’ve learned while birding–the importance of presence and acceptance.

 

 

Birding and the Places You Will Go

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Pettigrew Lake, North Carolina

Can you think of a class of animals more ubiquitous than birds? Birds inhabit almost every inch of this planet–from the Antarctic to the Sahara to the wide expanses of the Himalayas and the Pacific. Each specie finds its place somewhere. And for those of us who look for birds, we must go to these places.

It is easy for bird watchers to get wrapped up with The List. Like roadtrippers fixed only on their destination, birders can miss out on the natural beauty of the environments birds occupy. It’s important to lower the binoculars every now and then and allow the world around us to excite us.

We find more than just birds in these places. We find the simple truths of nature–those that enlighten us to the world and to ourselves. The more I bird, the less important the birds become. Instead it’s about the times and the moments and the places:

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NC Highway 12, Cape Hatteras National Seashore, North Carolina
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Vonore Beach, Tennessee
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Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge, North Carolina
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Guilford County, North Carolina
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Grandfather Mountain State Park, North Carolina
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Bodie Island Lighthouse, North Carolina
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Wetland created by a beaver dam, Guilford County, North Carolina

Looking forward to the many birds and the many places I will find in the future.