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.
If you like hummingbirds, Henderson, Minnesota, a picturesque town along the Minnesota River, hosts its third annual Hummingbird Hurrah this weekend, Aug. 20-21. It’s a neat birding festival, nearby, with a full two-day program. Drop in for a one of two events, or make a weekend of it.
There will be children’s activities, hummingbird banding, garden tours, vendors, workshops and a Saturday evening dinner with keynote speaker Al Batt.
Workshops by Jim Gilbert, Carrol Henderson, Don Mitchell, Kelly Applegate and Ron Windingstad include: Natures Happenings in Late Summer and Early Autumn; Gardening for Hummingbirds; Hummingbirds from Minnesota to Machu Picchu; Purple Martin Biology and Conservation; and Chimney Swift Conservation.
For complete information go to Web site http://hhh.hendersonmn.com/
Below, a male Ruby-throated Hummingbird perched, a juvenile feeding at geraniums, and a juvenile in hand.
Ira, a retired investment banker from the Bronx NYC is sitting on a bench outside a bookstore in Bayfield, Wisconsin. True story. Our friends Susan and Brian and my wife Jude and I have been browsing books. Susan buys a book, and then walks outside to wait for the rest of us. She asks Ira if she can share the bench. Certainly. Then she notices that Ira is wearing a cap bearing an embroidered California Condor, the once-going-extinct bird best known now as a California success story. Turns out that Ira’s nephew Mike, who is in the bookstore, was involved with the condor recovery program. He worked at the Los Angeles zoo, one of several institutions/organizations that devoted years of effort and hundreds of thousands of dollars to the restoration of that magnificent bird to the wild. He gave Ira the cap.
I come out and see Susan and Ira on the bench. I begin to visit. Ira’s sister-in-law walks out of the store. She joins the conversation. She’s a petite lady with a sharp sense of humor and eye-rolling that could win contests, her eyes accenting her comments. Jude joins us, then Brian. Now Mike joins the circle. He tells us about the condors, near 300 birds now alive, about 150 in the wild. The recovery program was built on a remainder population of 22 birds. They were captured, and housed at the Los Angeles zoo. You know the story. A breeding program built the population to where it is today. It was hastened when biologists discovered that if you removed the condors’ lone egg from their nest the birds would replace it, not once but twice. You could in this way raise as many as three young per pair per year instead of the single chick wild condors would raise. The best place to see a condor now, Mike says, is at the Grand Canyon. Birds have been release in California, Arizona, and Baja California.
Ira is into photography since his recent retirement. We discovered he and I own the same camera model. Both old film-camera guys, we agree that the new digital cameras are far too complicated. We talk about Wisconsin and weather and more birds. We exchange cards and email addresses. For the past couple of weeks a Hooded Crow, a European bird, has been hanging around the Bronx, object of much attention from birders all over the country. If this is a wild bird, on North American soil of its own volition, it is a truly great bird for life lists. Ira didn’t know that, and didn’t seem to care, his bird knowledge pretty much confined to his nephew’s work and his cap.
What a great visit, standing there on a Bayfield sidewalk. This is another reason why I enjoy birding so much. You meet the most interesting people.
A movie about obsessed birders will be released Oct. 14. The title is "The Big Year." It's based on a book written in 1998 about, well, a Big Year. It doesn't look good from here. I've used Google to see what is being said about the movie. I'm pessimistic, believing that no one would make a comedy, and this is supposed to be a comedy, about birding unless they intended to draw laughter by embarrassing real birders. So far, not one of several web sites understands the plot. The writers don't know what a Big Year is. One guy talking about the movie on a video clip got the author's name wrong. Another site misspelled the name of one of the participants, not big deals, but I'm sure it will all get worse.
So, what is a Big Year? It is an attempt by an individual to see as many species of birds in North America as possible within one year, 12:01 January 1 to midnight on Dec. 31. It is not, as various web sites indicate, about seeing rare birds. Well, actually, the movie folks could have changed everything so the characters are dealing with rare-bird chases, but in a real Big Year everything counts. The robin in the front yard is as good as the Eye-browed Thrush one might find on a Bering Sea island.
I say "obsessed" because a Big Year, seriously done, is a long, costly slog. There have been any number of
Big Years completed. Some of them are discussed in Wikipedia. The following information is taken from that entry. In 1979 a man named James Vardaman set a record with 699 species (there had been several earlier attempts; early totals in the high 500s. Seven-hundred became the grail when Vardaman hit 699. Vardaman traveled 161,000 miles that year, in pursuit of birds. He logged 137,000 by air, 20,000 by car, 3,300 in boats, 160 on a bicyclel, and 385 miles on foot. God only knows what that cost in money and human relationships. A birder named Benton Basham found 710 species in 1983, that total being beat four years later by a New Jersey contractor named Sandy Komito, who counted 721. Komito is played in the movie by Owen Wilson. I really don't like Owen Wilson as an actor, which does color my anticipatory comments. (The two other birders coincidentally competing that year are played by Steve Martin and Jack Black. Does that sound like cheap laughs to you? It does to me.)
I met Komito in 1998. We happened to be birding on St. Lawrence Island, off the coast of Nome, Alaska, at the same time. Well, I might not actually have met him, but I did see him. He is older, solidly built, as I recall, dark of hair and swarthy of complexion. That is not how Owen Wilson looks. Anyway, in '98 Komito's total was an amazing 745 species. He benefited from that year being very good for Asian strays. What are Asian strays? Birds that belong in Asia or Eurasia, which get blown off migration course and end up on North American soil, trying to catch their breath and find something to eat. Most of these birds are seen in some part of Alaska, the Aleutian islands particularly good for this. The best of the best places was the island at the end of the Aleutian string, Attu Island. It was home to a Coast Guard station that provided weather reports for flights in the area. Birders stayed in an old Coast Guard building, a wet, cold, dirty place on an island where the wind always whipped and the sun almost never was seen (clouds, rain, snow, more rain), hardship duty for sure. Birders paid about $5,000 for two weeks on Attu, plus air fare to get there. Komito went there for sure. I was there one year for two days, a record short stay. On that trip I saw two bird species new to me, by the way, for a trip cost of $2,000. Yes, $1,000 per species. Bad luck. Birding often is like throwing dice. All of that is another story.
Why is a total of 745 so good? North America has fewer than 700 regular species. To get to 745 you have to see many, many strays. Alaska is good for this. Arizona is good, as is the Rio Grande Valley in Texas. Both of those places can have strays from Mexico. You might pick up a couple in the Canadian Maritime provinces, birds blown in from Greenland or Iceland or maybe even Europe. And when these rarities show up, you have to go see them if your Big Year total is going to be respectable, much less competitive. That's one way you log 137,000 miles.
There are set places in the North America where all of the Big Year hopefuls will go because of the large numbers of species regularly available: Florida, Texas, Arizona, California, Alaska are the major stops. Minnesota is on that list. Birders come here in the winter for the boreal specialties we boast: Hoary Redpoll, crossbills, Northern Hawk-Owl, Great Gray Owl, and others. They go to an area northwest of Duluth, near Meadowlands, boggy country good for those species. Komito is still birding, by the way. I know that because a friend of mine, Mike Hendrickson of Duluth, a first-class birding guide for northern Minnesota, had Komito as a client this spring. Sandy was most likely up here for warblers, like Connecticut Warbler, more easily found here than elsewhere. As far as I know, he has retired from Big Year efforts, his record intact and likely to remain so.
I don't know if Minnesota is in the movie. I doubt it. And if it was I wouldn't be more optimistic about the quality of the film. I think people are going to giggle at this snap shot of birding. The movie will be silly, and it will get details wrong. What is won't do is capture the effort, skill, and good fortune needed for a Big Year of any size. That doesn't mean I won't be there on opening day.
You can find an excellent article on the intelligence of crows, the New Caledonian Crow in particular, at
It was written by New York Times science writer Natalie Angier.
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