Jim Williams has been watching birds and writing about their antics since before "Gilligan's Island" went into reruns. Join him for his unique insights, his everyday adventures and an open conversation about the birds in your back yard and beyond.
I'm not dead or in jail. I didn't move away without saying goodbye. It was a software glitch of some kind down at Blog Headquarters. Somebody finally fixed it. I'm back on the job!
The movie "The Big Year" opens soon. A big year for birders is a January 1 to December 31 effort to see as many species of birds as you can within a defined geographic area. North America is the setting for the movie. In the movie as in life, it's a competition. There are other competitions for birders, one of them being life lists: all the species of birds you've seen within that defined area -- county, state, nation, continent, world. Big-league birders play with a world list. The woman who for several years had the longest list of birds seen got her start in Minnesota. She' the subject of an interesting and well-written book.
A Minnesota beginning to a birding world record
A biography of Phoebe Snetsinger
The name Phoebe Snetsinger probably is unknown to you. If, however, you are a birder with a big B, Phoebe would linger in your memory. She was a 34-year-old New Brighton, Minnesota, housewife in 1965, busy with a husband and four little kids, but lacking direction in her life. She was bored. One day a neighbor handed her a pair of binoculars and pointed to a male Blackburnian Warbler. In her biography Phoebe wrote, “I had never seen anything like it. It nearly knocked me over.”s
Phoebe’s life, indeed, the lives of her children and husband, were never the same.
Phoebe came to mind a couple of weeks ago when, while scanning one of our bookshelves, looking for an emergency read because I had bollixed my library want list, I found Olivia Gentile’s biography of Phoebe, “Life List.” Phoebe wrote an autobiography, but she was a better birder than writer. So, I reread Gentile’s book, enjoying it one more time.
Phoebe became hooked on birds that day in her neighbor’s yard. Hooked changed to enthusiastic, and that to highly focused, and that to obsessed. She began birding locally while in New Brighton, recording those sightings on her life list. There are all sorts of birding lists. You can define your own, birds seen sitting on power lines, for instance (I knew someone who kept such a list). There are day lists, year lists, state lists, life lists, and even world lists. Phoebe eventually focused on the latter.
By the end of 1980 she had seen almost 2,000 species of birds throughout the world, her travel schedule always long. She was prepping for a trip to Panama when she was diagnosed with metastic melanoma. Following surgery, she was given three to 12 months to live. She had to make choices now. She chose no serious medical treatment. She chose to go to Alaska on a birding trip that had been planned for some time. She told her guide to be prepared, she might die on the trip.
She didn’t die. She planned more trips. She decided to wanted to see more species of birds than anyone else in the world. The leader at that time was a British fellow who had seen about half (4,300), and doubted that anyone would ever list more than 6,000. Phoebe had a target. Perhaps it was the deep pleasure she took from birding and the challenge of her world list that kept her alive, for she would survive two more cancer surgeries.
Phoebe would become so intensely focused on birds that she missed her mother’s funeral (death was imminent, and Phoebe did say goodbye before leaving town). She passed the Brit in the world-list. She was the star of that part of the birding world that kept count. She had been everywhere, with packaged tours and with guides hired to help her find a single species of bird thousands of miles from home. She had seen almost 8,400 of the 10,030 bird species recognized by ornithologists at that time.
She kept going. Over the years she endured bad accommodations, bad food, bad weather, some of the roughest terrain the world offered, plus sexual assault. Cancer hadn’t stopped her, and nothing else would either.
Phoebe’s life ended as I hope to end my life, dead before I hit the ground while doing something I truly enjoy. Phoebe was on a trip to Madagascar, with trips to New Guinea, New Zealand, Panama, Brazil, and Peru on the books for 2000. She had 20 species of birds on her Madagascar want-list on this trip. She was on a bus heading for a forest where she hoped to see Appert’s Greenbul, a tiny peach and green bird. It would have been life bird number 8,675. The driver lost control of the bus. It rolled. Phoebe died. She went with her boots on, at the top of her game.
The book is a good read. There is much story to be told: Phoebe growing up, Phoebe’s relationships with family, Phoebe and her outlook on life, plus a great deal of information about birds and bird travel. It’s a long look into another part of our world, one where most of do not go.
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