Seventy-six percent of the bird species I’ve seen in North America I found myself. Maybe not the first sighting, but eventually.
What does that mean? Not much really. It’s a quirk, which my Apple dictionary defines as a peculiar behavioral habit. I suppose that refers to keeping such a thing, a self-found list.
A few hundred more species were seen at the end of a guide’s pointed finger. Not quite the same.
I have a booklet from the American Birding Association (ABA) titled “Birds of the Continental United States and Canada.” It’s a fat checklist. The ABA is mostly about lists. It publishes a fine magazine devoted to helping you find and/or identify birds for your lists.
When actively keeping that list up to date I marked the year and sometimes the state or province where I saw the bird. The list is a scrapbook, an album, a home movie, a box of slides, a memory jog to decades of unforgettable (for me) stories.
For instance, Antillean nighthawk, May 2003, Florida. My wife, Jude, and I are at the Key West airport with a birding friend and her non-birding husband. The nighthawks were circling high above the far side of the fenced grounds, identified by their faint but distinct calls. It was a target bird on that trip, a lifer for all of us, seen not an hour after an Englishman, working on his lists, kindly showed us our first mangrove cuckoo.
I can see those nighthawks as I type, bright day in Key West.
Razorbill, New Brunswick, Canada, 1992, flying over the harbor. I was on a business trip, taking my usual business-trip break to look for local birds. It looked like a football with wings.
Fieldfare, winter 1991, Grand Marais, Minn., with several friends, driving from Minneapolis as soon as we heard about this European thrush. Later that same week we made the same trip for a hummingbird rare here. I have no record for that one. I believe it died before we got there. Win some, lose some.
Green kingfisher, Texas, 1993, in a wildlife refuge pretty much destroyed now by border wall construction.
Bluethroat, Alaska, 1995. In a growth of willows along a stream some miles beyond Nome. We were told to be very careful because grizzly bears liked those willows. Make noise, we were told. We did.
Rufous-capped warbler, deep in southeastern Arizona, 1994. We hiked down a rocky stream bed, almost into Mexico. A friend was with us. He saw the bird first, while relieving himself. (Always be alert.) I had bad knees. I remember best the return trip, uphill, absolute murder.
Common crane, Nebraska, 1996, on a visit during the sandhill crane migration season. The outlier, rare in the U.S., was feeding with a flock of sandhills. We found a phone and called the Audubon sanctuary there to share the sighting.
The Audubon man said, “Oh, we’re really busy today. Maybe you could call later.” I told him I was traveling with Bob Janssen, author of three books about birds.
“Oh,” the Audubon man said again. “Where did you see the bird?”
Tufted duck, Attu, island in the Aleutian chain, $2,000 one-week trip shortened to two days by lousy Alaskan weather, two life birds, a grand each, one of them the duck. I saw the same bird species later that year on a golf course pond in Scottsdale, Ariz. Better weather, better price.
Northern gannet, Nantucket, 2002, on business in Boston, a day trip to the island. Jude and I rented bicycles, bought a picnic lunch, sat on the beach in the sun watching a flock of gannets plunge-dive for fish. I want to remember days like that.
Lifelong birder Jim Williams can be reached at email@example.com.