The great gray owl is a rare visitor from the north. It is considered the tallest owl in the world, with a wingspan of up to five feet. But it’s all fluff and feathers, weighing only half as much as a snowy owl. Credit: Courtesy of Bob Duchesne

One year ago today, I was in Costa Rica, the first stop on my 2020 personal bucket list tour. Then COVID hit, and all other plans were scuttled. I was going to spend the whole month of June in Alaska. All I have to show for it is a list of canceled reservations and lost deposits.

Fortunately, I’m old. I likely qualify for a vaccination in my not-too-distant future. Perchance it is time to dream again? Surely it wouldn’t hurt to consider what would be on a birder’s bucket list. I’ll limit it to the Lower 48 states, since I don’t know if Canada will ever let me back in.

Bucket lists vary. For casual birders, any venturing beyond the backyard bird feeder is exotic. Maine is full of amazing birding destinations. For hardcore enthusiasts, fantasy adventures likely revolve around bird species not-yet-seen. But they don’t have to. The Everglades is always on my must-go-there list, and I’ve been there 30 times.

Geography matters. The Rocky Mountains, Great Plains and Mississippi River are continental barriers that inhibit birds moving east-west. There are birds over there that aren’t over here. I’ve spent a little time in Colorado and California, but no time at all in Utah and Oregon. Bucket list.

Climate matters. The southwestern mountains, deserts and canyons are loaded with birds I’ve never seen. Tucson, Arizona, is high on my list. The area enjoys a birding phenomenon referred to as “second spring.” Much of the state’s annual rainfall happens in late summer. August can get unbearably hot in Arizona, but the rains bring refreshed greenery and renewed bird enthusiasm. The birds are noisy during the part of the year when they’re quiet everywhere else. I want to go there.

Latitude matters. I dream of not-yet-seen birds along the southern border that are more typical of the tropics. From Palm Beach, Florida, to Palm Springs, California, drop me off anywhere and I won’t be bored. I explored Big Bend National Park along the Mexican border in 1993, and I’d return to that Texan hot spot in a heartbeat. I’ve twice missed finding golden-cheeked warblers and black-whiskered vireos near San Antonio. Gotta go back.

Along the northern border, Maine shares a similar latitude and a similar set of bird species with other states abutting Canada. But I’ve got a huge desire to visit Minnesota’s Sax-Zim Bog in winter. I like bogs, and this one is enormous. It’s famous for luring rare owls. This year is big for great gray owls that have moved down from Canada’s boreal forest. Granted, there aren’t any birds there that I haven’t seen here, but it’s now been 15 years since I witnessed a great gray owl that appeared in Milford. Sax-Zim bog is definitely on my bucket list, and if I could find a way to avoid people, I’d be driving there right now.

Fall-outs matter. There are places where migrating birds congregate in spring. High Island, Texas, is famous. It’s the first point of land that birds see when they cross the Caribbean, and they fall out of the sky, tired and hungry, unaware they are posing for photos. Thousands of northbound birds crossing Lake Erie touch down at Point Pelee in Ontario. But, alas, that’s in Canada. Magee Marsh in Ohio is a staging area for birds getting ready to cross Lake Erie. It’s become a major springtime destination for serious birders. But it can get crowded, so for my bucket list, I choose: Tawas Point.

Tawas Point is a Michigan state park, noteworthy mostly for camping, swimming and a lighthouse. However, the point juts southward into Lake Huron, and it’s the first point of land for birds crossing Saginaw Bay. Spring birding can get pretty lively. Bucket list.

What else? Sandhill crane migration on the Platte River in Nebraska? Over half a million birds pass through the area in early spring. I’ve not yet seen that spectacle. Maybe the prairie potholes of North Dakota? How about a return to Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming? I haven’t been there in 33 years. There aren’t many birds on the East Coast that I haven’t seen, but Key West has Antillean nighthawks. From there, it’s only a quick boat trip to Dry Tortugas National Park.

There’s a book on my bookshelf that I haven’t looked at since it was published in 2001. Maybe it’s time to pour a glass of chardonnay, and curl up by the fire with “Fifty Places to Go Birding Before You Die.”

Bob Duchesne serves as vice president of Maine Audubon’s Penobscot Valley Chapter. He developed the Maine Birding Trail, with information at mainebirdingtrail.com. He can be reached at duchesne@midmaine.com.

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