Beware. Silly season is about to begin.
Birders can be divided into categories. Casual birders enjoy the birds around them. Serious birders get a thrill out of finding unusual species, even traveling to look for them. Compulsive birders keep a list of their conquests. Fanatical birders keep multiple lists. For example, I keep a list of all the birds I’ve seen in my life: my life list. I also have lists for my neighborhood, the state, the world, and even trip lists for birds seen on tours and vacations. Doubt me? During a visit to southwestern Louisiana in October, I tallied 144 birds, including three new additions to my life list.
But I’m not crazy. There are much crazier birders out there than I. You know who you are. And it will become apparent to your friends and relatives on Wednesday. Many gung-ho birders keep annual lists, and a new list starts on Jan. 1. I can appreciate the concept. Wouldn’t it be nice if we could just wipe the slate clean and start anew every year? I have seen thousands of blue jays this year. But that first one of 2014 will actually count for something!
Maybe it’s like golf. I always step up to the first tee filled with optimism. Yet I know that I will chase the same white ball to the same little holes, achieving the same disappointing result. I don’t expect to win the Masters, but on each outing I would hope to golf better than the last time. So it is with annual bird lists. Each year grants a fresh opportunity to improve on the previous total, and a bird that was ho-hum by the end of 2013 is fresh again in 2014. Besides, it’s an excuse to get outside.
Nothing beats a Big Year for complete battiness. For insane birders, the goal is to tally the biggest annual list of birds possible. Yes, I’m talking about you, Doug Hitchcox.
In autumn, Doug took over as Maine Audubon’s staff naturalist. Two years ago, Doug personally identified 314 birds in the state of Maine during one calendar year — a new record. To give you some idea, it’s taken me my entire life to see that many different species in this state. To achieve such a record, Doug had to journey to every corner of Maine and scramble through inhospitable habitats under miserable conditions. He had to chase down every rarity that accidentally wandered into the state.
The funny thing is, Doug didn’t even plan to do a Big Year. Sometime in June, he realized that he had a pretty good annual list going – better than average. If he just switched gears and chased every opportunity, he might break his friend’s record, which had been set the previous year by Luke Seitz.
A few weeks ago, I asked him which bird proved to be the biggest challenge. Without hesitation, he said a barnacle goose. These geese breed from Greenland to Scotland, but seldom reach the United States. One pops up in Maine every year or two and, unfortunately for Doug, one popped up in Aroostook County during his Big Year. Several times Doug drove the length of the state to look for it. Each time, he arrived too late. The bird was gone.
Well, actually it had ambled off to another pond. Whenever it was relocated, Doug sped back up I-95 in hopes of checking it off his list. He never did find it. But another appeared in New Hampshire soon after, right along the Maine border, keeping company with a large flock of Canada geese. If it stayed in the Granite State, Doug couldn’t count it. But if it entered the Pine Tree State, even for a moment, cha-ching! Doug staked it out. Eventually, his patience was rewarded when the flock was flushed from its field and flew over the Salmon Falls River, marking the state boundary in Berwick. It crossed the border just long enough to count.
If you are now inspired to start your own Big Year on Wednesday, we’ll all help you. Among Doug’s other achievements, he moderates the Maine Rare Bird Alert. It’s a google listserv where birders can post their unusual sightings. Go to http://groups.google.com/group/maine-birds and follow all instructions to sign up. You can choose to receive every message or just a digest of recent alerts.
Of course, if you just think listing is nuts, wait until my next column. There are RULES!
Bob Duchesne serves as a Maine Audubon trustee and vice president of its Penobscot Valley Chapter. Bob developed the Maine Birding Trail, with information at www.mainebirdingtrail.com. Bob can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.