Bob Janssen acknowledges there is some inherent silliness with birding lists broken down by county.
“Most birders know county lines don’t make a hill-of-beans difference to birds,” he said, “but they make a lot of difference to people.”
That may be true for Janssen more than anybody else in Minnesota. At 86, the living legend — as he’s often called in the active birding community — is one trip away from becoming the first person to see 225 different bird species in each of the state’s 87 counties.
“No one has certainly done that before,” said Bob Dunlap, president of the Minnesota Ornithologists’ Union. Only four other people have even hit 200 species in every county, according to the organization’s records.
Janssen’s lone remaining hurdle to reach 225 across the board is Rock County, where his checklist sits at 222 species. Longtime friend John Hockema and about a dozen supporters are planning a weekend bird-watching trip for April 12-14 to help Janssen hit his mark. The hope is to see a tundra swan or osprey or Smith’s longspur, among others.
The trip is in part a way to repay Janssen for his generosity, said Hockema, 48, of Rochester. Back in the ’80s, when Janssen ran a bird-sighting phone hotline, a teenage Hockema would call him repeatedly with novice questions.
“Instead of turning me away or being condescending … he just listened and he would offer advice and was very helpful,” Hockema said. “I’ve always taken that kindness that he showed me, and I never forgot it.”
A few years ago, when Hockema heard about Janssen’s quest, he saw a chance to give back. He offered to help Janssen tackle his few remaining counties by leading weekend trips to those spots, and enlisted the help of fellow birders to improve their odds.
“He’s done so much for a lot of us as individuals and then overall in the whole birding community,” Hockema said. “It’s just a way to say thank you.”
In 2017 they ticked off Cass County, followed by Wadena and Red Lake counties the following spring. Last October, Kimberly Emerson, 30, of Windom, Minn., joined the excursion to Koochiching County to the state’s far north despite knowing Janssen only by name.
“Meeting a big-time birder let alone a published author, for me that was a little intimidating,” she said. But she found him welcoming, and quickly felt comfortable. “He kind of has that effect on people,” Emerson added.
Why 225 birds for Janssen? It seemed a “reasonable goal” to try for over the past 20 years, he said. And while Janssen thinks it’s reachable for other birders, it can’t be done without “real work,” he said. “You’ve gotta be a compulsive lister to do it.”
Emerson is now helping Hockema organize the upcoming trip to Rock County in the state’s far southwest. It’s an area Janssen said has remained elusive for a couple of reasons. It’s quite a drive from his home in Golden Valley, for one. And while beautiful, it’s small and has no natural lakes, which limits waterfowl options, he said.
Once there, the group will split into small teams and scout preplanned spots, such as Blue Mounds State Park, for target species. Their list includes the aforementioned tundra swan, osprey and Smith’s longspur, as well as the cackling goose, wild turkey, willet and pileated woodpecker.
Once they tally three, Janssen will make history.
“And then we all get to come together and celebrate and share that with Bob, and I can’t think of anything better,” Hockema said. “This is just going to be such an honor.”
While the record is his alone, Janssen said he gets “very emotional” thinking about the support.
“You can’t say thank you enough,” Janssen said. “This is a wow experience, that he and a group of people would want to do this for me.”
Shaymus McLaughlin is a freelance writer from Minneapolis.