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.

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.

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.

Winter Birding

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A Winter Wren in snow.

Come wintertime we tend to retreat into our homes. We wait out the cold there, dressed in our PJs and accompanied by a warm drink or perhaps something stronger. When we do go out, we walk from our front door to our car door and blast the heat all the way to our destination cursing the cold that cracks our hands and lips.

Yet for the brave few who venture out into the winter world, they find something new in the familiar scenes that surround them. The seasons bring something new each year and winter is no different. Some may see this dark season as a symbol of inevitable ends; but for those who venture forth, surely they see the life that prevails in spite of it all.

My wife is just one of those people. She is an adventurer of sorts. She finds no solace in the comfort of routine and familiarity. She needs to be somewhere new, experience something different and this impulse is a blessing because it continues to take us to new and interesting places.

Each year December 30th through January 1st we take a trip to the NC Outer Banks. For many a coastal trip in the dead of winter seems heinous. But for the naturalists out there, it is an ideal time. Migratory birds are in full force and the forest and fields are void of the bounty of spring (beautiful as it may be, the lush leafiness of spring hides much of the nature we are hoping to find).

This past year was particularly cold. We bundled up layer upon layer and walked out binoculars, scope, and camera in hand. The barrier islands are fierce in winter. The wind is unmerciful at best and the icy spray of the ocean is never more than a quarter-mile away.

I remember my wife bundled and smiling. Her voice rising over the wind.

“This is perfect!” she said, her eyes bright and cold.

I couldn’t help but think about my definition of perfect. Were I to define the perfect day on the outer banks of North Carolina, I might leave out the bit of freezing and shivering and discomfort. I might instead wish it to be a moderate 60-65 degrees Fahrenheit, comfortable and calm. I might wish the wind to be someplace else, because its presence is inconvenient as I try to focus my scope which constantly shakes with every gust.

Perhaps if these changes occurred and I could indeed control the climate of my life I’d be happier.

But who says that happiness requires control. Who says that I can’t be happy in the dead of winter or in a storm or when my fingers are wrapped beneath two layers of gloves.

My wife does not allow the rain or the wind or the cold dictate her happiness. She goes out into the world and feels it on her skin and that, that is what is perfect to her. The fact that she can go out and experience every nuance the Earth has to offer. Each season, each habitat, each day.

Winter birding may not be for the faint of heart. But it is certainly for those who are open to the joys that can appear on cold, windy days.