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Wednesday, February 17, 2021

Birding • by Julie Frost

“What do writers do for fun when they’re not slaving over a keyboard?”

We go on adventures, of course.

My personal adventures put me outdoors in all kinds of weather, in temperatures from 14 degrees Fahrenheit up to over 100, though rain and snow can be problematic for my purposes. I’ve nearly died a couple of times, even—hiking at high altitude is no joke if you’re not used to it—and on the last trip to Texas I took a nasty fall that injured me worse than the accident that totaled my car late last year. This is what happens when you’re looking up into the trees instead of watching where you’re going.

I’ve always loved nature and nature photography and have done it casually for years, but doing so on a serious record-keeping goal-oriented basis began for me with a quirky little comedy about competitive birding, which is actually a thing. It stars Steve Martin, Jack Black, and Owen Wilson, and is called “The Big Year”—it’s based on a true story, in fact, and there’s a book by the same name (written by Mark Obmascik) you should all read because it’s fascinating. Getting involved in something like this seemed like a perfect way to get me out of the house and touching actual grass.

I started with a modest target in 2018: photograph 200 bird species in my home state of Utah. This seemed like a fairly easy task, since Utah is home to over 400 species when you take vagrants and accidentals into account. So I set out with my husband, who is an amazing spotter, my National Geographic Field Guide, and my trusty Nikon P900. I hit 200 in August with the red crossbill and then coasted for the rest of the year, with a final total of 231. Not all the photos were actually good, mind you, but they were good enough for ID.

This gave me a great overview of local (and not-so-local—Utah is something like 400 miles long top to bottom) hotspots, and introduced me to eBird.org, which is a fantastic tool I consult every day, even on days when I’m not planning on going out. Because “not planning on going out” can change in a heartbeat if there’s a rarity that’s just been spotted in my patch.

And now that I’ve taken the project nationwide, with a goal of 500, I hunt rarities out of my patch too.

I upgraded my camera to a P1000—with an incredible 125x zoom, equivalent to 3000mm—in 2019, and we went so many places. During one whirlwind six-week period, we visited Vancouver, Alaska, Maine, Oklahoma, and Hawaii. Unfortunately for the goal, my husband had job-related training from mid-October to the end of the year, and that pretty much killed the birding until the very end, when we were able to go to southeast Arizona for one last hurrah—and also to hit the ground running in 2020—to give us a total of 390.

2020 started with a bang. That little corner of Arizona has an awesome diversity of bird life due to geography and climate, and we saw 87 species in three days. Then we went to Florida, San Antonio, and North Carolina and ended the month with 190. Such a glorious beginning...

And, well. We all know what happened in 2020.

I was a COVID-19 early adopter, catching it on the trip home from a writing retreat in early March. Once I recovered, lockdowns in Utah meant I couldn’t bird any state parks out of my county for a solid month, though the regular refuges were attainable. Between the time I recovered in late March and the time we were able to actually travel again in mid-May, I only managed to find 69 species, which didn’t bode well for the goal, especially with the entire west coast and New England essentially closed off to me because of restrictions and riots. NO PUFFINS FOR YOU!

Nevertheless, I soldiered on. We flew to Texas a couple more times, and Arizona, North Carolina, and the Florida Keys. We found a few birds in Colorado, Idaho (a trip from Hell where we got two flat tires and no Cassia crossbills), Ohio, and Tennessee, too. Even with all the challenges, I still succeeded in photographing 426 species across 11 states. I decided to call that a win—it was my personal Biggest Year Ever—and set my sights on 2021.

I ended this January with 195 species across three states. We’ll see what the rest of the year brings, but I’m optimistic. Right now I’m eyeing the Florida Keys again, because there’s a continuing code-5 red-legged thrush hanging out in the Key West Tropical and Botanical Gardens I want to find again.

The American Birding Association rates birds on a scale from 1 to 6, 1 being super common, and 6 being extinct. I get excited about anything that’s a 3 or above, and last year we traveled to southeast Arizona for a third time because eared quetzals and a northern jacana—both code 4—had been spotted down there. Finding these rarities can be hit and miss, but if you look for a group with spotting scopes and long-lensed cameras in the general area, that’s a clue. Though not always; I was surprised on the last trip that no one else was out looking for the crimson-collared grosbeak when we were there, but we found it anyway. And sometimes the reports even give you lat-long coordinates of where exactly someone spotted a bird.

We frequently get a bonus mammal or two. Squirrels of all species are common, and deer. I get porcupines and pronghorns in one of my local spots, and we’ve seen skunks, armadillos, coyotes, and collared peccaries in various places. We got fairly up-close and personal with bobcats in both Arizona and Texas, which was very cool. Not close enough to touch, but something like ten yards away. They knew we were there, too. We see weasels more often than you’d think.

How to get involved? That’s the easy part. A pair of binoculars and a field guide are all you really need, though a hat, sunscreen, and mosquito repellant are also good ideas. In this era of the internet, finding out where to go is a mouse click away on eBird; just hit the Explore page, input your county, and you’re off to the races with maps and target species at your fingertips and practically in your back yard.

Look for bird festivals in your state (or out of your state, for that matter), and Facebook pages. There are magazines, and local guides, and birding associations. Most birders are happy to help with ID if something’s got you flummoxed. Sparrows, gulls, and female ducks are my personal bugbears, but don’t be embarrassed if you’re puzzled by something that might be dead common. We were all beginners once.

Why do it? Like I said above, it gets me outdoors. There’s the thrill of the hunt without the mess (though it can get messy in wet weather! I’ve nearly lost a shoe in the mud more than once). There’s the camaraderie when you’re tramping around the woods and see a fellow birder and ask them if they’ve seen anything interesting, and you trade sightings like baseball cards. There’s the joy of spotting a rarity, and the satisfaction when you get the perfect photo of it.

All the behaviors—long-billed dowitchers foraging in a marsh like little feathered sewing machines, northern harriers gliding over the cattails in search of prey, a kingfisher splashing into a pond and coming out with a carp too big to swallow but trying anyway, warblers mobbing a perched owl who just wants to sleep, the ridiculous mating dance of the blue-footed booby or the awe-inspiring mating flight of the bald eagle, a murmuration of starlings wheeling through the sky, coot quarrels over territory that looks big enough for both of them but clearly must not be, sanderlings racing up and down the beach avoiding the incoming waves, meadowlarks singing lustily atop the sagebrush, cliff swallows scooping mud for their nests, the broken-wing act of a killdeer when you get too close to its nest.

And I love watching the numbers on the spreadsheet steadily climb upward, because it’s like Pokémon—you gotta catch ‘em all!

 


 

Julie Frost is an award-winning author of every shade of speculative fiction. She lives in Utah with her family—a herd of guinea pigs, her husband, and a “kitten” who thinks she's a warrior princess—and a collection of anteaters and Oaxacan carvings, some of which intersect. She enjoys birding and nature photography, which also intersect. Her short fiction has appeared in Straight Outta Dodge City, Monster Hunter Files, Writers of the Future, The District of Wonders, StoryHack, Stupefying Stories, and many other venues. Her novel series, PACK DYNAMICS, is published by WordFire Press, and her novel DARK DAY, BRIGHT HOUR is published by Ring of Fire Press. She whines about writing, a lot, at http://agilebrit.livejournal.com/, and you can look her up on Amazon.

1 comment:

Pete Wood said...

Competitive birding is pretty interesting stuff. Have you read To See Every Bird on Earth? Great book about birding and how it caused the author's father to get a divorce.