Saturday, July 1, 2017

Reaching 800 Lifebirds

In my 6 short years of birding, I have grown leaps and bounds as a person and as a birder.  The last time I wrote about reaching the 100 benchmark was back in 2015.  It has taken me nearly two years to reach the magic number of 800! As you will see in this post, I have covered MANY areas across the North American continent to achieve this goal. And along the way, I've met some amazing people....

a rare Manx Shearwater in the Pacific marks my 701st bird to kick start the trek to 800 lifebirds
I began number 701, the Manx Shearwater, on a pelagic in San Diego back in September of 2015. This is a rare bird for the Pacific side of the ocean but not uncommon during migration.  Normally this bird is found off the eastern side of the US in the Atlantic ocean.  With over 90+ excellent birders on board during this pelagic, not one bird, rare or common, escaped our gaze.  However it was one irresponsible birder who ruined the chances for a tough bird in the waters further away from the coast.  A large wave rocked our boat and the man who knew he was already unsteady on his feet decided he was going to try it anyway.  I watched it play by play.  His wife told him not to do it and he didn't listen.  As the wave hit the side of the boat, he fell forward and knocked his head on the rail into unconsciousness.  We were sent back to port and the ABA listers were, to put it mildly, angry.  It was interesting to watch everything unfold as it did.  The aging birder vs the vicious ABA bird game.

Chukkar 703

In 2015, I got married and on our trip to Colorado, we stopped in Utah to meet up with the wonderful Mia McPherson who I met through her blog, On the Wing Photography. She met up with us and showed us the beautiful world of Antelope Island.  There, we were able to view many Chukkars around the visitor center. I love grouse and I especially love their various habitats where they often like to hide. 

But after the wedding, the flow of new birds turned into a trickle.  At this time, I became a slow and methodical observer going after difficult to ID birds like longspurs and sparrows.  During the time period between October of 2015 and January of 2016, I studied my butt off.  As we approached February, we had a strange loon visit Arizona near Havasu City far far away.  So Magill, Micheal and myself headed up to this area near Katherine's Landing.  The drive to the Nevada/Arizona border was long but the observation of the loon was well worth the effort. What I remember about this bird?  Well, it was a cold and blustery day on the pier.  Magill was excited about using her new scope.  She set it up and we spotted several rare birds for the state that others later chased.  But while we were watching Golden Eagles mate, we heard a scream.  OH NO!  Where's Magill?!!!  We looked over and saw that Magill's scope had gone into the drink!  Thankfully, we were able to get the scope out of the reservoir before it disappeared into the dark cold waters. 

The Yellow-billed Loon(upper left corner) is another add, 710, to my loon observations. I love this group of birds for their underwater behaviors and also for their various calls.  Very beautiful!
During the 2016 year, we had many amazing birds visit our state.  It was, for me, probably one of the best years that we've ever had for rarity chases.  Super nice guy, and excellent birder, Keith Kamper found a Red-headed Woodpecker in a remote and rocky canyon.  

I went with the birding goddess (and lover of all things "hawk"), Muriel.  We had a fabulous day as we spotted her Rufous-capped Warbler AND our lifer, Red-headed Woodpecker.  What a great day!  With water packs on, we hiked into these beautiful and remote spaces to find our birds. 

Red-headed Woodpecker #720
From San Diego to Salt Lake City 
to Colorado to Arizona we explored, achieving specific goals. Again, this was a very detailed kind of birding. It was now June of 2016 that we'd face our ultimate challenge.  With several months of study and discussion, we went after the endangered and rare, Kirtland's Warbler in Wisconsin. Their population continues to increase but they are highly protected.  Most people go to Michigan to add their Kirtland's Warbler, but I wanted this warbler in my home state of Wisconsin.  We spent two days in the area.  Everything was top secret and our reporting had to be vague.

the Kirtland's Warbler number 730

The Wisconsin DNR was watching us and making sure we did not break any codes to get a view of this bird.  After all, these birds were nesting and in a very sensitive location. Some birders cross lines. We do not.  But how would they know that about us?

We heard several birds calling in the right habitat. But no views of them.  We got a hotel and early the next morning we headed back to the general area and found one lone male singing.  As for the success of nesting Kirtland's warblers last year?  It was a good year!  Half of the nests(I think around 12) were successful!  So that was certainly good news!  Thanks to the Wisconsin DNR for the reports and for being their guardian angels!

Kirtland's Warbler habitat
Then between Wisconsin and other treks, I took a very personal and solo trek out to Monterrey, CA where I met up with Debi Love Shearwater.  I had been craving a singular trek by myself somewhere special.  October is a great month for several reasons.  It celebrates the life of Bob Ross and also, the month celebrates National Cat Day! Autumn begins and with it, the promise of cooler temps.  And I also need to mention that it's our anniversary....or face the wrath of my better half.

Monterrey was magical. On our pelagic, I netted quite a few life birds.  At 740, I met my first albatross.  This Black-footed Albatross below is eating a squid.  Amazing bird!

Little did I realize at the time but my discovery of new birds would slow down for awhile. I had some sort of depression/health issue that I went through for several months due to overworking myself as a teacher. The anxiety of teaching an extra class along with the win of the orange clown for US president threw me into the hospital back in November. I could care less if the person was a Republican or a Democrat but to vote for that terrible man spoke volumes about the voter. For many of us, it put into question whether or not we'd want to be around a person who voted for Trump.  It seems the answer for many of us was an angry "no". Lots of Facebook blocking and barricades went up. And with our families who supported the guy, it's a no "discussion" lest there be all out war. So there continues to be a lot of anger in the US from his "win". Personally, this was a reminder that I can't control the way the world works. And the world is heading into choppy waters. Somehow, I have to figure out, along with a great many others, how to endure this ugly time period of American politics. ANYHOW.  Months would pass and I'd add one or two birds.  Sometimes, I never added a single new bird.  But that doesn't mean I stopped birding.  I studied out in the field seeing things for the first time that I hadn't noticed before....and that made everything worthwhile. 

The 2017 year arrived and we set into motion several key trips.  We would explore the Pacific Northwest with friend and bird guide, Khanh Tran.  We specifically sought grouse; a notorious group of birds that are often difficult to find.  

We had a great time chasing birds.  It was exhausting and some of the hardest birding we've had to do in a long while.....but it was very satisfying.  The Pacific Coast was everything I imagined it to be....rainy, cloudy and cold.  I loved it.  Portland's traffic is the worst and while most of the state is liberal, we found pockets of ignorance and savagery in several of the hills of the mountains.  Gun casings littered the ground.  A dead pig was evidence of target practice and a sign that it wasn't safe to go birding alone in several of these areas. I thought remote Arizona was dangerous.  Then we discovered Oregon. 

It took hours and days to finally observe these tricky Gray Partridges!  Thanks to Khanh's excellent skills, he spotted a whole covey of them.  We carefully turned around after we passed them along the road but that didn't stop them from quickly vanishing into the snowy horizon.  

The Gray Partridge made 750 on the list.  It was a beautiful area.  In fact, the whole trip was gorgeous.  Next time I go, it will be at a slower pace so that I can absorb it all into my brain.  Like I've said in previous posts, we're only given a certain amount of time.  What will we do with that time?

Months would pass and then......a White Wagtail?!?! came to visit a random water sewage treatment plant!

The White Wagtail, number 760
I drove through the beautiful Sonoran desert alone enjoying the weather and drive.  I made it to the sewage plant in Ajo and with some fellow Wisconsin hobbit friends and together we located the wagtail without any problems.  

And that is where I got stuck.  After that bird, there were no more ticks for several months but I knew that I would soon be adding many more birds onto my list as we planned for a trek into Costa Rica.  So I patiently waited.....

Once we arrived into Liberia, Costa Rica, the lifer ticks began to move forward.  In just a few days, I was at 770 with the Yellow-bellied Elaenia.  

On the same day, I hit 780 with the Violet-headed Hummingbird.  It's amazing how slow it can all go for months and then, just like that, the new bird counter springs to life!  It just requires a lot of strategic planning!

The following day, I added Black-cheeked Woodpecker to the list.  I hate to admit this.  But I will be honest.  Woodpeckers and Woodcreepers are not my favorite group of birds.  Sure, they're cool but they are not sparrows, parrots, grouse, owls, gulls or some of the many other bird groups I love.  They are up there with sandpipers and hawks.  Don't get me wrong, I love all birds.  But some bird families stand out more than others.  What's your least favorite bird group?  What's your favorite?

And for that comment, the bird gods judged me and made my 800th lifebird the Wedge-billed Woodcreeper.  Of course they would:)  Here's what I'll say.  The bird guides(the books) make the birds look so boring and uniform.  But seeing them in the wild come alive before your very eyes is exciting!  

Wedge-billed Woodcreeper

I have surpassed my goal of 800 and now am working towards the 900 mark.  It does get harder and more costly. I have also changed as a person. I'm more focused with my studies. As I rise to the challenges, I will often partner up with others to achieve my goals. You've seen in this post today that our journeys included many incredible people. We need each other if we are to succeed in our goals. It's easy to "sweep" an area for birds the first time around a new area.  But the game becomes harder as we focus on the more secretive birds. And that's where a helping hand is needed; whether it be a friend or a guide. Mental and physical health also play into this lifetime game. It's about knowing who you bird with and how those friendships will define the journey.  It's about supporting the right kinds of business. It's about trying new kinds of foods. And mostly, it should be about having fun. Somehow I have to figure out how to manage and balance it all if I am going to succeed. Over the next several weeks, I will present the beautiful world of Costa Rican birding.  It was an amazing trek into new areas.  For now, I sit behind my comfortable desk in a dark room with shades drawn.  The heat of the Arizona sun is too much for me right now.  I sip my coffee and plan for my next project.  Life is an amazing journey.  And so are the experiences that come with the adventures. Until next time.....


  1. Hello Chris! Wow 800 lifers! Congrats, that is awesome. Where will you be going next to add more lifers to your list? Happy Birding!

    1. Thanks Eileen! So excited. I have several projects that I'm working on for this year and next which should get me to the 1000 mark by next year. It's addicting this bird observation stuff:)

  2. You seem to be adjusting so well to everything which is going on in your life!
    So here you are now going for Nr 900! Good luck.

  3. Good read, Chris! It's awesome to me how you execute your well-planned bird trips and end up with so many Life Birds! Congratulations!
    And, thanks for sharing in such a comprehensive manner.

    1. It's a lot of "work" and it's not always successful. I'm working on more projects for this year and next and it takes a lot of coordination with people. Next year, I will be following a little lady at the very young age of 9 in another country who had the birder gene switched on. She will be my ambassador. I cannot wait to write the stories for that trek. Everything in life is so different now. It's so much fun combining my lesson plans with our passion of birding. We live a pretty spectacular life. Look at all the places we explore. Life is so good.

  4. I read this when you forst published it but could not find any comments section below here. Odd! Anyway, my favourite shots have always been the nesting sites like the nest cavities. Always love your pics. You've been almost everywhere.

    1. Hi there Kevin! Yeah, I've had the same issues with the comment box. At my work site, it doesn't pop up so I have to wait until I get home to comment. Such a pain. Hope you are enjoying your summer. All my best. Chris

    2. PS. And I'm working on the everywhere part. Don't think I'll ever complete getting there but I will certainly try!:)

  5. I love your perseverance and tenacity when it comes to this quest.

  6. Congratulations Chris on reaching 800 - a wonderful achievement.
    So sorry for lack of comments recently but I have been away and am now catching up on blog posts.


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