After decades of on and off again birding, my meager ABA life list lay quietly near the 500 mark. In late 2005, returning list fever loudly heralded an approaching milestone. The year had been an extraordinary time for adding to my ABA life list, with nearly 100 new species sending my paltry life list to a point hovering at 598 in October. Only two species, so I thought, were needed to reach 600, but once at that summit, why not 700?
Finding so many species from the late 1950’s beginning to 2005 had not happened overnight or was inexpensive. Of course the first couple of hundred species were added to a youthful life list while birding mostly around my home headquarters, that being southwestern Oregon. There had been summer trips back to Arkansas to visit the grandparents when my good-natured father grimly propelled the car as fast as he dared. There was not much time for birding except a few larger roadside species and something possibly new hanging around the 33-cent gas pump. Once at grandma’s house, I escaped the cheek pinches and “my how you’ve grown,” comments to search for a few eastern birds. Of course, there were always more chiggers than birds, and before I knew it, there were tearful goodbyes and hugs, including, this time inescapable, cheek pinches. Again, my father’s strong hands gripped the steering wheel as he aimed us westward. Homeward bound, the roadside picnic table lunches and gas stops were a joy for me at that time. Who knew in 2006 at three bucks a gallon, gas stops would be a grim thought. The only vacation, that is, a trip that did not involve lots of relatives, was a journey to extreme southern British Columbia. Plenty of chances to see birds, even around the motels before the population got higher and surrounding habitats became more motels. I found a few additional new birds. This whetted my appetite even more. Immediately after high school, I climbed into my VW beetle for a proposed year-long birding fantasy in the United States. That is a whole different story. Suffice to say, while on the road, I managed to pick up several eastern species and a few Florida specialties, but the death of my car kept me from Texas and the Southwest. The missed area, at last, was birded in 2005. Of course, many Texas and Southwestern species were not found.
The opportunity to find a large number of species in the ABA region, Canada and the United States, excluding Hawaii, is dependent on a certain amount of luck, skill, time and money. Having been a serious birder beginning in my early teens and having surpassed six decades of life, should have sent my life list into greater heights. It did not. After all, my bird fix came almost daily working in the Division of Birds at Smithsonian’s Museum of Natural History. Shots in the arm were frequent via research in the collection. The omnipresent thrill of potential discovery in the vast collection fed my appetite, somehow replacing a need to go birding. Nonetheless, birders visiting the collection never failed to excite my psyche. I often wished I could be them, at least when they ticked off some species missing from my list. Although the day job kept me busy and interested, people my age who had the time and money also had life lists with many more species than mine. Sometimes, I think, visitors to the museum took it for granted that my life list was somehow huge. It was, in the since that I had seen most species from the smallest hummingbird to ostrich, but as museum specimens. Plenty of birders visited the museum for the express purpose of studying specimens of species they might see on some pending birding trip. During the ensuing years, I began to avoid talking about life lists for fear of embarrassing myself. The one thing that helped during the period of list envy was that my list drive was not as strong as it once had been.
Almost a decade following retirement was too full with non-birder activities to pursue missing species. Certainly, there were opportunities to see birds since Linda and I daily walked the trails of the lower Cascades near our remote home. There was always a chance of something new on those wonderful forays, but knowing that barely stirred the listing fever. However, before the end of that decade, the bug began to develop into an embracing fever. As the sleeping birder, I realized that, naturally, there were many more species out there and I wanted to see them alive this time.
The 2005 birding for 45 days straight roughly from Arkansas, Louisiana, glorious Texas, inspiring Arizona and up California to our home in southwestern Oregon did boost my ABA area life list considerably. Back home, with several Southwestern species under the belt, thoughts of fall or winter on the Oregon coast loomed. Maybe a stray Curlew or Sharp-tailed Sandpiper would mix with the usual shorebird suspects. I needed those two sandpipers, but fall zipped by, as did a trip to witness the shorebird migration.
Actually, we made a choice between the Oregon coast and a week in Panama to attend the ABA International Convention in late September. The choice was decidedly not difficult if you ignore the cost between going to Panama and your state’s own coastline. Kenn Kaufmann, in his “Kingbird Highway,” was right about birding becoming an activity that required money. Unfortunately, richness has not been something swelling our bank account. However, after careful consideration, including drawing on that economics 101 class, we opted to go south. August, the best time for shorebirds in Oregon, was a time for scurrying between travel logistics and the passport office. As for the actual ABA gathering, the conference was not so much about the business of the ABA movers and shakers, but an excuse, if there is a requirement for one, to round up a bunch of people who want to go birding. That was exactly what we did; we went birding from dawn to just in time for dinner for five days. Although exhausted, I tacked on about five more hours on a sixth day, the day when most everyone was departing north. Linda and I saw many life birds, including some non-countable species on the ABA list. The first was a Rufous-capped Warbler that was so close I nearly had to back up in order to see it. How easy. It was less than a half mile from our lodging. In Arizona, a few months ago, I suffered the anguish of going into French Joe Canyon for this bird. The trip was rocky, hot, and dry, not to mention I missed the warbler. Then there was the Swallow-tailed Kite near Colon, a species we missed on the Texas coast. Someday, I told myself as I worried the last hours of the trip through customs and airport security, maybe I‘d get those birds without the need of a passport.
Could I pass the milestone, the 600 mark by the end of 2005? Why this would be important seemed irrelevant overall, but listers frequently measure their accomplishments from 1 January to the last cold day in December. To avoid getting ahead of myself, I decided to do a recount. Maybe some Florida birds I saw in the 60’s were not counted properly. Maybe I had been asleep at the list, and passed the 600 mark. Unfortunately, there were no missing chads or birds. However, they were all countable according to the ABA rules. No. My list included Brant and Black Brant. The Black Brant is not on the official ABA list as of April 2006. The Committee on Classification and Nomenclature, a body of eight learned people acting on behalf of the American Ornithologist’s Union sanction what is recognized by the AOU and the ABA. The committee should consist of seven or nine to make the voting more interesting but perhaps not so peaceful for a possible dissenting voter. At any rate, as of April 2006, Black Brant simply did not exist. Those black geese were relegated to the status of a mere subspecies. I, along with many others, felt that the morphologic and genetic difference between the pale-bellied brant and the black bellied brant should award this hard working western bird specific rank. Having written so in a paper and having recognized the dark brant as a species in a book on Oregon, I felt it was ok to list Black Brant for my ABA list. No one likes a hypocrite, but I was not following the rules. Technically, and to avoid being drummed out of the association, my list should stand at 597. With taxonomic reluctance, but feeling pending vindication, I ratcheted my list down one notch. The Black Brant will have to wait. It was a good thing I also decided not to list Eurasian Green-winged Teal despite good taxonomic reasons to separate those Old World teal from our familiar Green-winged Teal. Maybe later.
Scanning on down my list, I stopped at California Condor. It was checked, but not until 2005 when Linda and I gazed into the abyss of Grand Canyon. If only I had attempted the species in the late 50s. Living in Oregon put me in somewhat geographic proximity of the struggling population in California. Lack of a driver’s license and later lack of sufficient funds put a stop to any condor adventure. Of course, as a young stalwart teenager, not only did I feel invincible, I ignorantly believed California Condors were likewise indestructible. However, they were not. Later, in the early 60s I had high aspirations of seeing the species during my yearlong birding journey around the U.S. A complete meltdown of my transportation prevented any California birding then, and later, I was too busy with college, military and my day job to look for condors. So I believed. Similar to the regret sinking in when you find that the meaningful person not seen in years dies before a procrastinated contact, wild California Condors were gone forever. It would have been worth the effort, not so that I could count them, but so I could have felt them in their own wild habitat. The Grand Canyon condors were awesome, inspiring, and magnificent and were there because humans assisted them. In a nutshell, the California Condor does not meet the interpretation of the ABA rules, which state “An indigenous species which is reintroduced into an historic range of the species may be counted when the population meets the ABA Checklist’s definition of being established or when it is not possible to reasonably separate the reintroduced individuals from naturally occurring individuals.” Ok. Removing California Condor from the count does not rankle my listing sensibilities except maybe a little.
Yes, regret undeniably shadows the removal of the great condor from my ABA list. If only I could turn back the clock. Of course, if I could, I would have gotten the California and I would have rushed to the Charleston, South Carolina region in the summer of 1962. That was the last time anyone saw a Bachman’s Warbler. I was there, but in October that year, in the exact spot and with the exact observer, who saw what the last was confirmed Bachman’s Warbler. Timing is sometimes everything.
My eyes stopped at Greater Prairie-Chicken because of reintroductions. So far, the only individuals I had seen were at the Nature Conservancy’s Texas City Prairie Preserve juxtaposed on coastal prairie between Houston and Galveston. Could these birds be counted? Clearly, some of the birds Linda and I saw that ever so early April morning were captive bred individuals of the endangered subspecies attwateri. However, our enthusiastic host told our small group huddled in the cold, dark blind that some of the members of the lek we observed were wild birds. That is good enough for me. I am counting the species. Even if threatened by ABA committees or attorney birders, I will not chicken out. It stays on my list.
The self-policing of my ABA life list suggested I look at the counting rules once again. ABA’s rule three states “The bird must have been alive, wild, and unrestrained when encountered.” I have no problem with the unrestrained part. Counting birds in a zoo seem unreasonable, and led me not to count, long before invention of that ABA, a recently caged Flammulated Owl on Gene Kridler’s desk at Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Oregon. Flammulated Owl is still missing from my list, but I have faith. Someday, but the grassquit I found was mortally dead. In fact, it was so dead for so long that it had to be prepared as a spirit collection, eternally suspended in a glass jar of a solution of alcohol at Smithsonian. To not list a species destined to be a specimen was contrary to my sensibilities in 1962 when I scooped it from the side of a Florida byway. After so many hours at my day job at Smithsonian, I definitely cannot dismiss road killed Black-faced Grassquit. After all, the bird, as a specimen, provides verifiable documentation. Science requires repeatable evidence, and the grassquit, incidentally my first specimen at Smithsonian, may be measured, examined, photographed, and more as many times as an investigator desires. Most of what we know and can confirm about bird distribution, let alone, migration, molt, morphologic and genetic taxonomy and more, is the study of specimens. Field guides and the ABA enjoy the fruits that specimens contribute. I am definitely counting my Black-faced Grassquit. In fact, I cannot prove I saw many of the species I have found since species one, except for that grassquit.
The outcome of housekeeping of my list results is one less bird, the removal of California Condor, but retaining a chicken and a grassquit. More or less officially, following ABA convention, partly, that is, my ABA list stands at 596, not 598 by October 2005. Could I at least reach 600 by the end of the year? The question, “Could I find new lifers by 31 December 2005?”
During the fall of autumn leaves, I heard that a Curlew Sandpiper was sashaying in the tepid waters of a small sewage treatment pond on the north coast of Oregon, but the rare bird and schedules at home could not mesh. However, species number 600 seemed possible, albeit remote, on a November trip to the northern coast near the mouth of the mighty Columbia River. Although not in the pursuit of shorebirds, a stretch of oceanfront produced a Rock Sandpiper for a new bird for the year. The sandpiper was also an important species to help breach the 500 mark for the ABA area in 2005. We did, and in the meantime added a couple of life species.
10-11 November 2005
A new shearwater and, unbelievably, a new gull were checked off on 9 November. The next potentially new life birds might be at the south jetty of the Columbia River in Fort Stevens State Park. The purpose of the fort was thwarting any invasions by the British during the Civil War. Having lived in and among Civil War locations in the east, I could not help but wonder. What were they thinking? Still, I am glad there is a state park now and protects the great birding region of the South Jetty. The jetty includes a long rock structure extending 6.6 miles out into the surging Pacific Ocean on the south side of the mighty Columbia River. The length of the North Jetty approaches four miles from the southwestern shore of Washington. The jetties, built partly in the late 1800’s have ever since have been a work in progress. Besides the rocky jetty, there are sandy beaches and a marsh flushed by incoming tides leaking under the jetty and cleared by fresh water rushing down at low tide. Sand dunes, most about four to five feet tall up from the highest of high tides, standing along the river and inside the protective jetty might produce a resting migrant or two. A 20 or so foot observation tower anchored inside the jetty rises near the edge of the parking lot. It is a good place to check both the ocean and marsh.
The wind buffets through the sturdy wooden rails along the stairs leading to the platform of the tower. Four or so people squint seaward while clutching their unzipped coats, surprised by the cold wind that the jetty no longer blocks. I grab my flailing coat and batten down the hatches from the hard sea breeze. At one corner of the tower is a guy peering through a scope. He was looking toward the marsh on the riverside of the gray jetty. About the time I surmise he is a birder I also guess he is Mike Patterson, the birder guru of the northwestern corner of Oregon. We had never met, but I remember corresponding. He had written the museum about, as I recall, something about Allen’s and Rufous Hummingbirds. After brief introductions, he points to where I might find Snow Bunting and Lapland Longspur, the latter a potential life bird. The bunting, a species I had not seen in over 40 years since birding Maine, would be a nice addition to the year list.
The tide was out far enough that I’m able to cross the fresh water streaming out of the marsh. I hit the other sandy bank nearly at a run. Icy fresh water at the ford splashes over the top of my boot. One foot cold and wet, one just right, I have to hurry. It would be important to cover as much of the dunes as possible and get back before the tide comes in. Otherwise, besides possibly missing the birds, I would have to walk a very long distance to get around the tidal marsh and back to the parking lot. The westerly wind roars passed my bare ears. Birding along the edge of the fore dunes on the upper side of the beach is beyond nippy and not productive. I trudge inland, following the Columbia River and the dunes as far as time would allow. Finally, turning back, I decide to search the top of the dunes. The dry, soft sand and knotty tussocks of grass are difficult to walk on, and, to avoid stumbling too much, I have to watch my feet more than I want. However, my route pays off when I hear birds calling. To my left scurries two Lapland Longspurs, each trying to avoid me seeing them and keeping low and out of the forceful wind.
Leaving the Lapland Longspurs, I stumble into the unrelenting wind and a few more yards down the dunes before looking back at the edge of the standing water of the tidal marsh. A large plover stands motionless above the tidal water. It is a late Pacific Golden-Plover, and another new year bird. A few more yards, and near where I plan to turn left to walk along the riverside of the dune, something looms toward me. It is dark. Could it be a juvenile gull, a jeagar, a falcon? Not taking another step, I plant by feet firmly in the shifting sand to brace against the frigid wind and watch the bird as it flies straight toward me, then, as if taunting, it gains a few feet in altitude before it turns its head to look at me. Flying low over the dark jetty rocks, the bird soon blends into the surrounding hues as it melts away. Between my initial sighting and before the avian mystery was gone from sight, which takes only a few seconds, my birding brain flips through the pages of my past. When the bird had made its approach, I knew it was a falcon. Could it be pealei, a western subspecies of Peregrine Falcon? First, the falcon flew differently than the many Peregrines I have seen. The bird, when flying almost close enough to hear its feathers against the air if it were not for the constant wind, revealed to me surprisingly broad wings and tail. The underside of the wings were two-toned, not uniformly dark as in Peregrine Falcons. Ok, this was not a falcon I had ever seen. My brain scrolled through a little over two dozen-years at Smithsonian, and, more specifically, the collection of hawks, and countless hours looking at photographs and illustrations of falcons. As the bird sailed away I knew it was a Gyrfalcon. It was a so-called brown morph in juvenile plumage, according to William Clark and Brian Wheeler’s field guide to North American hawks. As I read, I recalled some of Bill’s innumerable visits to the museum. There, he meticulously examined every specimen, making copious notes and always stopping either at my office or in the collection that I routinely frequented to discuss the finer points of hawk identifications. Years passed and visits from Bill grew less frequent. He either was too busy to stop and chat or realized I would never have the enthusiasm he had about hawks. It was probably a little of both, but I am grateful for our conversations and knowledge he imparted. I should write him about seeing my first Gyrfalcon.
Wow, 599, and a Gyrfalcon at that! With only one more to reach the magic 600, what species could I tick? Maybe a Northern Fulmar? Yesterday, at Boiler Bay, on the central Oregon coast, I had missed Northern Fulmar. A Short-tailed Shearwater, a new bird, made up for not seeing the fulmar. Obviously, I had not spent a lot of time birding the Oregon coast. Even the Thayer’s Gulls were new life birds on this November trip. Because of research on certain gulls, finally seeing a live Thayer’s Gull did bring a kind of ornithological closure for me. What is a Thayer’s Gull and its relatives is another story to ponder just as I wonder what would be ABA species number 600?
The next morning I arrive at the south jetty to make another try at the Snow Buntings and maybe see the Gyrfalcon again. Coast visitors are generally sparse in number in cold November, especially on a weekday. However, today was a day to celebrate Lewis and Clark’s trek to the Pacific, and the parking lot was full of cars. Fortunately, most were bused from the parking lot where the main event was to take place. The wind is relentless as are the frequent rainsqualls. The low tide was higher than usual and heavy surf crashed water over the top of the 20-foot jetty. The average height of the jetty is 26 feet above low tide, but angry waves were, in places repelled by the jetty, but in other areas the force of the ocean rules. The high tide prevents access to the dunes and the wind was too much, apparently for gulls or that missing Northern Fulmar.
When I talked briefly with Mike the day earlier, he told me that a Temminck’s Stint was hanging out in the Grays Harbor area in Washington. Why I did not drive the few hours to see a species I may never have a chance in seeing in North America is one of my more obtuse decisions. A Temminck’s Stint! What was I thinking? It would have meant another night in a motel and a few more gallons of gasoline. Regardless, it would have been a very inexpensive Temminck’s Stint. Although now I have a sinking feeling about the whole affair, at the time seeing the Gyrfalcon seemed sufficient for quenching my thirst. I also was not thrilled about the prospect driving the 4.1-mile two-lane bridge spanning the Columbia River in the November storm. It may have the longest continuous truss in the nation, but the 200 feet height above the shipping lane and buffeting wind was not a stint for an acrophobic cripple like me.
Days later I emailed Mike about the falcon. A few sightings of Gyrfalcons were later reported from the coasts of Oregon and Washington. It felt great to check off number 599.
A Falcated Duck, perhaps the one seen last winter by everyone living in Oregon except me, was back at a small pond a few miles north of Eugene. In early December, Linda and I drove the 200 miles to see the duck. We arrived at the RV park where the wayward bird paddled the very morning of the day of our visit. Unfortunately, it was not now morning and the pond contained only a few Canada Geese and mixed species of common ducks. We thought that the Falcated Duck might return to the pond later in the day. A late and greasy lunch at a truck stop, and conversation with the kind manager of the RV park filled the void, the void on the pond and the void on our life list. Our second try for the duck that day ended by the darkness creeping into the afternoon on the heels of lowering temperature and expectation. We vowed to return to the Eugene area after the hunting season when waterfowl are less skittish, but in the meantime, the Pacific Northwest was deluged by day after day of record heavy rain. Reservoirs overflowed, water pooled everywhere, which is exactly where a Falcated Duck could be, everywhere. It was now the year of the duck, but not the time for our Falcated Duck sighting. A relative, an Emperor Goose decided to stay awhile in northeastern Oregon, but our family obligations won out over that particular wild goose chase. The magic 600 was out there, but by the end of the year, I was birdless in Jacksonville.
Early months of 2006 slipped by while waiting for contacts to tell me that Whooper Swans had returned to the Lower Klamath, an easy day trip assuming the mountain passes were not snowed in. Nothing new was in reach. Months had now passed and I needed a new life bird. I really wanted one. There were no beads of sweat, yet, and no nervous shaking, but that could come. As spring began rolling north, Linda’s left foot, which had kept her from hiking on some of the field days in Panama, begged for surgical intervention. While enduring the recovery, a Tufted Duck and later a Brambling entered the borders of Oregon. They came and went. The podiatrist said a long drive was out of the question, and I was not about to leave Linda standing on her one leg. For the time, we formed a tripod. As for next year’s vagrants, we vowed to be Ralph and Linda, the on-the-spot birders. After all, surely the Falcated Duck would run the hunters’ gauntlet until next winter.
While waiting, I compared my ABA life list with a few references to answer the burning question: Where do I need to bird to see that 700th species? I began by making lists of species found in general regions or states and provinces. From the beginning, I realized that some of the regional species missing from my life list were species that might never occur in the ABA region in my lifetime. So, my list of potential life birds by region would not include most of the species occurring as accidental or casual. Incidentally, at 62, my lifetime is shorter than some birders with the same goal of hitting 700. Nonetheless, I would try to ignore the time factor and consider I would be birding strong to the end. Thankfully, I had hiked into the Chisos Mountains and spied the Colima Warbler. That species may have required the most physically demanding workout thus far. Attempting to be realistic, I considered that the number of triumphs demanding too many physical demands would most likely diminish with my increasing age and aches.
Starting on the east coast, I calculated there were four species as potentially new life birds. These are species I could see from land. Another eight might be from pelagic trips from either Atlantic or Gulf waters. Having lived on the east coast for 30 years certainly placed me in a positive geographic position to at least attempt finding those dozen or so species. However, in addition to the working at the museum that overrode my desire to chase birds, I had insufficient funds. The first four years living in the East were during my stint with the Navy. Pay was so low I often had a night job working at a gas station or whatever other job I could find. There was no time for stints or other bird missing from my list Birding was beyond my budget. Not until the twilight years of my museum career did I have the funds and time to help fill in my eastern bird gaps, but by then it was too late. I had long filed my life list in the back of a file drawer and forgotten the thrilling scent of the chase. Years had passed since trying to persuade colleagues to look for coastal birds after a passing hurricane, go on a pelagic trip, try to see a migrating Connecticut Warbler, or bother to listen to Claudia Wilds on the phone as she read the local rare bird alert. Claudia, during her frequent visits to the collection, also would pass on information about local bird finding. Her enthusiasm almost but not quite caused my listing fever to get me going. However, usually our conversations would evolve to gull or tern identification and taxonomy. Also, having birded in the wild west of Oregon in the 60s had afforded the pleasure of discovery. Birding in the east seemed tame by comparison. What was the excitement seeing the same bird maybe a few dozen other people had already seen? Birding, I thought, in the east was akin to watching a TV rerun. Of course, I was most definitely wrong.
Today, the bug is stronger than ever, and I am anxious for the chase. Time, even though retired, is still a factor. Personal obligations must be met, but I no longer answer to those who employed me during those fascinating and happy museum years. Even then, my time in the museum, allowed me a couple of life birds. I saw my first Snowy Owl from out the window of the Division of Birds. And, one morning on the way to work I stumbled on to a Lesser Black-backed Gull. I could see it from my office window. Although that is not many life species to acquire in a couple dozen years, it was something. During those times my attention was directed mostly to taxonomic and nomenclature matters. I usually had four or five concurrent projects, which meant to keep track of progress; I made lists, almost daily. I recorded what had been done and what was needed doing. Being a government worker, I also had to have other kinds of lists, depending on the current administration or some other honcho and their degree of anal digressions. I hasten to acknowledge that my immediate colleagues and supervisors were most definitely not the cause of bean-counting styled lists or reports. The problem was the bureaucratic ordered lists that, in the form of reports, took lots of time and taught me two things. Some administrators may cause counter productivity and some lists may be useful to measure progress, or not. Although the latter may sound bureaucratic, saying so did not cause my head to explode. Lists do measure progress, including life lists.
My list of eastern birds measures what I might need for my ABA life list, but that is only a dozen species. What about the rest of the region? How do I find 100 more species to make the milestone 700?
A good place to start would be Florida. Probing the literature reveals a chance of 20 species, some of which are not exactly regularly occurring birds. Several species are ABA countable parrots that mostly reside in the Miami and Fort Lauderdale regions would be worth looking up. Should I also try to find the unsanctioned parrots? Some of them might be ABA countable in the future. Probably my best use of time would be to attempt the ones on the ABA list and head south. About 11 more species from the Dry Tortugas wait to put their x on my life list. Of course, would Florida be there by the time I arrived. As plans to save the Everglades fall into place, global warming is raising sea level, swamping the river of grass with briny spirits and engulfing coastal estuaries.
Let’s see. With luck, about a dozen species from the upper east coast region and off the coast could be added to the life list. Perhaps 20 could be added from Florida mainland and maybe 11 more from the Tortugas. That’s 43 species. About 20 more, not including a couple of species on the Florida list, could be found in Texas. That makes my total 677. Wow, I’m doing pretty well, but this is birding make-believe. For the time being, dreaming will suffice. After all, it could happen.
Moving ever westward in the clockwise survey of unseen birds produces a list of species occurring in Arizona. The list of 11 mostly includes species missed during an early May sojourn in 2005. One is mainly a winter bird. Maybe an early summer trip would yield an even 10 species.
Now, the total includes 87 species. That leaves about 8 boreal species that occur in the contiguous United States, three interior species, the Gunnison Sage-Grouse and European Tree Sparrow in St. Louis, Missouri, a couple from California, and I have 100 species to add to the present 600. A couple of pelagic trip off the west coast could increase the list by 18 more species. Those 18 would help make up for all those species I missed elsewhere. While dreaming, why be conservative. A handful of rare or accidentals that might be found on a pelagic trip, Florida or Arizona were out there waiting to be identified and tallied.
Of course, finding 100 more species in the contiguous U.S., especially from a single visit to any one of the regions mentioned, would require plenty of luck. It would also require seeing some accidental or casually occurring species to fill in for missed species on the regional lists. As most birders know, an increase of birding hours could translate to an increased chance to find accidentals. It worked for me in the 60s, when I birded every day for nine months. I had not planned on the Rufous-necked Stint in Ohio or the Zenaida Dove and Black-faced Grassquit in Florida. Today, I can further increase my chances for finding more species because of the rapid and widespread exchange of information over the internet and email. Maybe I could hit the magic 700.
Because I might have to go to Alaska, I made more lists. Alaska is a big and varied state and the number of birds depends largely on what part of the state you visit. Of course, that is true about any locality, but even more factual for Alaska. Not counting the boreal species to gather up in a trek down south in northern Washington to Montana, 20 or more species that would be life birds would add to the life list from a road trip to Fairbanks and a side excursion up the Dalton Highway to Prudhoe Bay. Potential lifers including about 7 from a trip to Nome and possibly 20 more from various islands, and that is just a few of the more or less regular accidentals. It would also be more than nice to get out in the Aleutian chain for auklets. Famous, great giver of life birds, Attu, the western most Aleutian island, might present rigors I’m not sure I could physically meet. It could be fun trying but the point is moot since birders no longer have the access they once enjoyed. Maybe it is just as well. Surely I can hit the 700 mark without Attu, and preferably without too much physical or monetary damage. Of course, what is too much? Nonetheless, time was a wasting. A colleague next door to my museum office often said, “You’re not getting any younger.”
Although my friend’s pronouncement concerned matters other than going for a big life list, it was something to keep in mind. After all, then being on the cusp of retiring raised several questions, such as hanging in there until I am 65 or older or leaving and having time, for instance to do some serious birding. I opted to retire early first and foremost to have some quality time with Linda. And, both of us were concerned about helping care for our aging parents. At that time, I had not been re-infected with the listing bug. First, just after retiring I had a few ornithological matters to get out of my system, such as about five years working as the taxonomic editor of a new book on birds of Oregon and a paper on generic relationships of pied woodpeckers. Gratifying work if you can get it. Unfortunately, as with most scientific publications, I never saw a dime, not even an inflated one. It was fun though, and I was happy to put my taxonomic stamp on the birds found in Oregon and pleased to help sort out the shortcomings of pied woodpecker taxonomy. It also limited time for birding. Sometime later, Linda revives her earlier birding bug, and we join forces in the quest of birds.
Fast forward, remember the business about birding in 2005, and the starting gate is about to open for the jaunt for species 700. As with the first 599 species, time and money will help make the next 101 birds possible. Multiple geographic targets that potentially yield 100 species have been outlined. Now it is just a matter of being at the right place and the right time. Linda’s foot, kicked us into new plans. Regrouping, we decided for less auspicious goals for the year. Redpolls and Bluethroats in Alaska could wait. Hurricane swept southern Florida could recuperate another year or two before looking for tropical terns and boobies. Someday soon, we promised ourselves a few more boreal and tropical species.