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.
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.
Wild Turkeys in our neighborhood more or less disappeared once nesting was over, chicks on the ground. I found some in an apple orchard in early fall, eating fallen crab apples. They show up there almost every day now, scratching in the snow for apples. They spend night roosting high in deciduous trees near the orchard, clucking among themsleves in the morning and stretching wings before gliding to the ground for the day's business. Here is the turkey troup, hanging around the orchard edge, waiting, for what I don't know. But they did make a photo I like.
I recently watched a “Nature” program about the intelligence of birds in the corvid family -- jays, crows, ravens, and magpies. The program focused on crows. You can see the program in its entirety at the Nature web site: http://to.pbs.org/93LQ5C. It’s well-worth watching. Crows are very, very smart. I’m trying to figure out how I can test them here in our yard; three American Crows are frequent morning visitors. In the meantime, I’m testing the Blue Jays that come to our feeders. Some of the dog kibble I put out for the jays (see below) is contained beneath an upended small clear-plastic jar. You can see the food, and I assume the jays can, too. The jay have to move the jar to get that kibble. I’ve attached the jar to the feeder with a length of string so the jar doesn’t get carried off. For two days the jar sat untouched. This morning it had been tipped over, the kibble taken. I didn’t see it happen, though, so I don’t know how or who. I’ve reset the test. I’m keeping an eye on it. Photo below: a group of crows drinking from a puddle.
The first birds I saw in our yard Sunday morning appeared at 7:39, 11 minutes before sunrise. Two chickadees were hopping about in one of trees outside our bedroom windows. Within five minutes I also had seen two White-breasted Nuthatches, a Blue Jay, a Northern Cardinal, and a Red-bellied Woodpecker. By the time the sun could be seen on the treetops in our backyard, only the jay remained. Grackles appeared about 8:20, but the smaller birds were somewhere else. We have three jays that spend much time each day at our feeders. I’m putting dog kibble on our platform feeder. The jays work hard until they’ve taken it all and cached it somewhere in the neighborhood. They’re laying in supplies for winter.
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