Tuesday, July 14, 2009


As a birder, I have not really ever been a hard-core lister. I keep my lists, of course; now that I have my entire birding life on eBird I am presented with myriad list totals every time I go to my starting page. I even pay attention to some of these numbers. State lists have always seemed the most significant to me; as a local birder more than a long-range chaser I've always found the State list is a good key to how well you know your home turf and its regional context. Of course beyond a certain point it also tends to reflect heavily on how long you have lived in the state! The only list I ever put real serious effort into was my Georgia list, my home turf for most of the years from when I started birding in 1974 until 1991. That is the only tally for which I ever got in the habit of making midnight dashes across hundreds of miles of dark highways to try to relocate major-league rarities that had been reported just hours before. Just this year I have decided to start working on my Tennessee list, finally; but I am still at the point of making the tour of all the regular uncommon species. There are so many of these left for me to add to my birdie bingo card that I'm not putting the effort, time, or gasoline into chasing individual stragglers around our narrow but veeerrrryyyyy loooooong territory here. Since eBird, I also take note of my county lists for some selected spots; right now my list for my home county of Lewis (TN) is at 184; 200 is probably a very challenging lifetime goal for this tiny county with almost no wetlands. My Dyer County (TN) list has also been climbing as a side effect of some other recent activities (more on that in the not-to-distant future). My Dyer total has actually surpassed my home county at 189, thanks to being located along the Mississippi with a wide range of habitats. And for those of you who follow my blog primarily for that one specific reason, no, none of my ABA-area list totals include more than one species of large, crested woodpecker.

What most US birders consider the big number, the ABA area list total (Canada, 49 US States, Hawaii excluded, DC included, for those of you who don't play The Game) has not been a major target for me over my birding life. I used to follow it closely, then sort of closely, then vaguely, then not really at all. Eventually I just knew it was somewhere in the upper 500s but that was about it. But then along came eBird, and now I am presented with my ABA list total nearly every day. I was rather surprised to see that it was right around 590; there remained some uncertainty until I finished digging through my trucking notes and confirmed that I had indeed seen Gila Woodpecker, Gilded Flicker, and Scott's Oriole north of the border and not just in Mexico. So there I was with the number 591 teasing me. This was enough to get me to actually start digging around to see where I might be able to pick up a few new birds as close to home as possible; not surprisingly there weren't 9 easy tickies to be had within 800 miles. I far, far prefer to add a bird as a tickie by finding it where it lives; I want to see him or her (or ideally both) in its own world, not 3000 miles off course in a strip mall greenbelt. I already knew where my biggest motherloads of ABA lifers were lurking: Alaska, of course, and southeastern Arizona. Though I had spent nearly three weeks in Alaska in 1994, I was entirely in the Interior and the Southeast, leaving vast numbers of unchecked boxes in the west and north parts of that incredible and incredibly huge place. Alaska is also at present far beyond our price range. Southeast Arizona was another matter. My previous birding there consisted of one morning at Madera Canyon in 1991 when I slipped off from an eclipse-chasing trip with non-birding spouse and friends, and interstate highway roadsides during my trucking days. It is also a beautiful place, with plenty of things of interest to my non-birding but still very nature-oriented wife. So finally a few weeks ago we jetted off to Tucson for our 20th wedding anniversary, and it proved very easy to mix birding and non-birding pleasure for a week just as the monsoons were starting.

There was little doubt that this trip would finally push me over the magic 600 threshold; it was just a question of which species would be The Chosen One. Fortunately the list of possibilities consisted only of "nice" birds: good solid natives, all with a real regional flavor. It wasn't until I returned home that I got it all sorted out and determined that my 600th ABA area species was that gorgeous male Red-faced Warbler singing in the sun in a pine forest on Mt. Bigelow. He was a perfect bird for the job, too -- emblematic, right where he belonged, handsome, and a species I had been fascinated by when I first flipped through the Robbins guide 35 years ago and have wanted to see ever since. My wife's favorite birds of the trip, by the way, were the Yellow-eyed Juncos. This was another new one for me, and I had never seen a painting or photograph that prepared me for how striking, downright spooky and otherworldly those piercing yellow eyes in that jet black mask are! We started calling them "Devil-eyed Juncos" (affectionately, of course!).

It is exceedingly unlikely that a working-class "patch" birder like me will ever hit 700, hence this likely marks the final major milestone for my ABA list. This got me wondering what my other century marks had been, so I pulled out the data. I count the bird that was the Century Bird at the time I saw it, regardless of what splits and lumps later did to my list. So, here they are, the Magnificent Seven as it were, listed under the names they went by at the time I saw them:

1. Eastern Bluebird, January 1974, Fernbank Forest, Atlanta GA. Believe it or not, I actually remember this bird well!

100. Chestnut-sided Warbler, 29 April 1974, Fernbank

200. Bonaparte's Gull, 25 March 1975, Jekyll Island GA

300. Brown Towhee, 26 January 1979, Palo Alto CA (now number 301, California Towhee, nudged up by the Scrub Jay split)

400. Pink-footed Shearwater, 12 October 1980, Monterey Bay CA (now number 403)

500. Great Gray Owl, 20 June 1984, Hayden Valley, Yellowstone National Park WY (now number 509 -- a whole lot of splitting since 1984!)

600. Red-faced Warbler, 30 June 2009, Mt. Bigelow, Pima County AZ

The Great Gray Owl remains one of my most vivid memories of my entire life -- a great gray ghost cruising silently over the valley at dusk with not a road, trail, or other person in sight. It perched on a stunty lodgepole, looked me right in the eye, and then continued on with its life.

Wow, 25 years between 500 and 600... long strange trip, indeed!

Photo linked to from René Valdez Aves de México -- Bird Pics and More...


At 8:26 PM, Blogger John B. said...

Congratulations on the milestone! You got a great bird for it.

The only milestone bird I remember is the Scott's Oriole that became my 300th last year.


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