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Thursday, February 7, 2013

On Birders

... birdwatchers, twitchers, counters, Big Years and Life Lists.

Licence plate of Bill M., an Alamo Inn guest.
This all really started in 1934 when Roger Tory Peterson published his Guide to the Birds, the first bird guide. Up until then only a handful of college educated ornithologists could field identify all the birds in North America and even then they might have to shoot some birds to I.D. them all.  

Then in 1953 Peterson took his English friend, James Fisher on a tour of America to show him our birds. Out of that trip came the book, Wild America. At the bottom of the last page Peterson noted that he had seen 572 bird species that year. At that time it was assumed that no one would ever see that many North American birds in a lifetime again, to say nothing of in a single year. Other people had kept year lists. In 1939 a traveling businessman, Gary Emerson listed 497 species. This was broken in 1952 by Bob Smart's 510, but only a small group of birders even knew about year records until the Peterson number was published. Then in 1956 Stuart Keith retraced the Peterson-Fisher route and racked up a one year list of 598 and the race was on. 

As more serious birders took runs at a big year the numbers slowly increased. Then a non-birder James Vardaman, who admitted he knew very little about birds, threw money at it. He hired local guides and flew all over America, often taking flights to notch one or two species. Vardaman finished with 699 species and the serious birdie establishment was outraged that a non-birder wore the crown. They rallied behind their best hope at the time, Benton Basham. In 1983 Basham saw 711 species of birds. 711. Keep in mind that there are only 675 birds that regularly nest in America. The rest are birds that have drifted off course from somewhere else.

Aside: Benton Basham is old and now resides in a rough old mobile home which was grandfathered in when Estero Llano Grande became a State Park. After he conquered the birding world he became an expert on butterflies. Steve claims Ben now collects birdie licence plates, but I suspect he lies. ;-) When Basham rumbles by in his old, red stationwagon, birders still respectfully pause to watch him go by. 

In 1998 the stars came together. There was a record El Nino which caused severe storms and blew birds all over the map. Attu, the last island off of Alaska was still open to the public. Three men, Sandy Komito, Al Levantin, and Greg Miller took a run at the record which then stood at 721. Komito eventually won with 745 birds. He was a dick and some of his tactics were questionable - questionable enough that there are rumors of stripping him of some of his sightings, which would give the crown to Greg Miller. I hope so, Komito and Levantin were wealthy and able to chase bird sightings fulltime.  Miller was in debt going into the year, he still worked fulltime, he borrowed money and maxed out his credit cards ... only to place second. Help him out, buy a cap.

There is book about the 1998 race, The Big Year: A Tale of Man, Nature and Fowl Obsession. There is also a movie, which somehow became twisted into a comedy. The book is a great read. I have not seen the movie - upon the advice of others.

Now me. We know people who are birders with 700+ lifetime lists. They are chasers and listers. You cannot rack up those numbers without a conscious effort. I've seen a lot of different birds over my life. I have no idea how many. I love seeing new species, but I would rather spending time watching them. 

3 comments:

Mimbres Man said...

I am happy when I see or hear certain species. The other day when we were out driving about, we saw a (most likely) mountain bluebird. I hadn't seen in a long time since being in Venezuela for 12 years. Can't recall any blue colored birds in Venezuela besides macaw (which were/are spectacular). Saw a golden eagle yesterday. A friend said it is a local bird that people see from time to time. Anyway, not sure how many bird species I've seen, but get a kick out of the ones I have seen.

Margadant said...

We caught the movie last month on TV; I spent most of the evening repeatedly assuring BKM that, yes, this particular obsessive/compulsive disorder is real -- the movie a stretch, but this stuff goes on. (Stick with the book and your own observations -- avoid the movie at all costs.)

Anonymous said...

If it's all about The List you're doing it wrong.

Best,

Rick M.