Posts Tagged ‘Harris’s Sparrow’

Birders don’t call these games, but consider the following activities.

Life List

The most basic birding game is simply keeping a list of all the birds that you have ever seen anywhere.  Not much beats the thrill of seeing a bird for the very first time, so this game is played by nearly all birders everywhere.  I clearly remember foolishly wondering, shortly after starting my life list, what I would do after I had seen all the birds possible in nearby locations. And, then I learned about all the other birding games.

Cabot's Tragopan on my 2012 China trip. One of my favorite birds ever! Photo by Tony Mills.

Cabot’s Tragopan on my 2012 China trip. One of my favorite birds ever! Photo by Tony Mills.

State List

Many birders keep a list of all the birds that they have seen in a particular state, usually the state in which they live.  This activity usually involves actively “chasing” rare birds that appear anywhere in the state in order to increase one’s state list.

County List

This activity is similar to State List, but for just one county, usually the location of one’s residence.  Even more so than with State List, birders will cancel other plans, call in sick to work, or do whatever is necessary to see any new bird that shows up in their county.

Bad photo, but great bird - the first Whimbrel ever observed in Forsyth County.

Bad photo, but great bird – the first Whimbrel ever observed in Forsyth County.

ABA List

Some birders put the most importance on their ABA list, birds observed in the ABA (American Birding Association) Area, most simply defined as North America north of Mexico.  For some, their ABA list has a higher priority than their life list.  Birders who are obsessed interested in their ABA List may fly across the country to see birds already seen elsewhere just to get them on this list.

Other geographic areas

Any geographic area that you can name can be the target for a birding list – Ecuador, China, Asia, the Western Hemisphere, the Lower 48 (US states) – the possibilities are nearly endless.

Blue-winged Mountain-Tanager in Ecuador.

Blue-winged Mountain-Tanager in Ecuador.

Big Year (ABA Area)

Until recently “Big Year” meant ABA Big Year. This is the game that was made into a book and a movie, “The Big Year.”  It told the story of three men obsessed with “winning” the most birds in 1998.  People have mortgaged their homes to pursue this activity. It also requires tremendous effort and the stamina to endure heat, cold, loss of sleep, and other discomforts. In spite of these challenges, the majority of us who do not have the time, money, and endurance to play this game have fantasized about it.

If I were doing a Big Year in 2017, this Smooth-billed Ani seen in Florida would be a good start.

If I were doing a Big Year in 2017, this Smooth-billed Ani seen in Florida would be a good start.

Big World Year

This is now the ultimate game – how many birds can you see in one calendar year with the entire planet as the playing field. In 2008, British couple Alan Davies and Ruth Miller traveled around the world attempting to see 4,000 species. They completed the year with 4,341 species and wrote a book about their adventure, The Biggest Twitch. In 2015, Noah Strycker set out to see half the world’s species, approximately 5,000 birds. He also met his goal and set the new world record with 6,042 bird species. Noah’s record was immediately challenged by Dutch birder Arjan Dwarshuis in 2016. He finished the year with 6,833 bird species.

The closest I'll ever get to a world big year was in 2014 when I went to both China and Belize, where I saw this Great Kiskadee.

The closest I’ll ever get to a world big year was in 2014 when I went to both China and Belize, where I saw this Great Kiskadee.

Big State Year and various location/year combinations

Where I live, Forsyth County (NC) Year List is a popular game, although I don’t know anyone who will admit to playing it. However, about a dozen birders go birding nearly every day. They make it a point to see species that require special effort like American Woodcock, a bird that is usually seen only in particular places at dusk.  If anyone else finds a “good” bird (i.e. uncommon for our area), they will go look for it. I keep trying to break my addiction to this game, but so far I’ve been unsuccessful. And, I’m not sure that I really want to quit. We have the friendliest birding community that I know of anywhere. We don’t compete with each other and everyone is quick to share the news when they find a good bird.

The adult male Anna's Hummingbird in Buxton - a nice addition to my 2017 NC list.

The adult male Anna’s Hummingbird in Buxton – a nice addition to my 2017 NC list.

Want to read more about Big Year birding? There is even a Wikipedia article called Big Year.  The American Birding Association (ABA) outlines the official listing rules at Listing Central and displays the numbers that ABA members have reported.  All of these birding games are made easier by using eBird, which automatically maintains many of these lists for you as well as providing alerts for “needs” and rare birds.

County Birding

This is a little different than the basic County List because it focuses on finding birds in ALL the counties in a state. One common version is 100 birds in every county. In Maryland, which has only 23 counties, they play 200 birds in every county.

50 Birds in 50 States

I have friends who are working on these lists – to see 50 species in each of the 50 US states.  What a great way to see the country!

I don't have 50 birds in Iowa yet, but this young Harris's Sparrow got my list off to a good start.

I don’t have 50 birds in Iowa yet, but this young Harris’s Sparrow got my list off to a good start.


Bird-A-Day is a twist in which one records a different species observed every day for as many days as possible throughout the year.  In 2016, I made it through half the year recording my last new bird on July 1.  I swore that I would not do it again, but here I am deep into it in late February 2017 and plotting how I can beat last year’s attempt.

Photographed Birds

Any of the above games, but only birds that you photograph count.

Great Crested Flycatcher. One of my favorite photos.

Great Crested Flycatcher. One of my favorite photos.

Birders are creative and I’m astounded by the new things that I am learning every day. Day List? Yes, some people even keep lists for each calendar day of birds seen in any location, in any year, but on that specific day.  This list of lists could go on and on, but I’ll quit now and leave it up to you to find more or even invent your own birding game.  I’ve got to go look for a Woodcock now.

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“I learned that hot spots aren’t hot every day, even at the right time of the year.”  I wrote that about visits to Dauphin Island, Alabama, and High Island, Texas, during my big 2012 Texas trip.  It sounds like I learned a valuable lesson, right?  Wrong. I left for Minnesota in late October already counting my life Northern Goshawk that I would see at Duluth’s Hawk Ridge.  How could I miss?  “They fly right over your head” folks said when describing the wondrous spectacle of hawk migration in Duluth.  Well, I did miss the bird.  But, fortunately, I also had other goals for the trip.

I saw this pretty little Song Sparrow before I was out of North Carolina.

I saw this pretty little Song Sparrow before I was out of North Carolina.

Ever since I bought my new wilderness green Subaru Outback two years ago, I have been dreaming of birding road trips.  Until this fall, my longest trips had been to Florida, but now I had an opportunity to test drive a more adventurous trip.  I would also have a chance to indulge my growing obsession with state birding. I have had an interest in seeing the number of states on my birding lists grow for a long time, but the new eBird personal profile pages with maps fueled a need to fill in the blank states.  If I took the western route north and a more eastern route home, I could add five new states.

My first new state was Missouri.  I spent the night just the other side of St. Louis and checked the BirdsEye app on my phone.  Cuivre River State Park was just half an hour away and many birds had been reported there.  Perfect!  I drove to the park on the morning of Wednesday, October 26.  I quickly discovered that the park is huge (6,300 acres) and I didn’t have a clue about where to find the best birding spots.  I did not find many birds that morning, but I enjoyed driving around the park and walking a couple of short trails.  Note for my next trip: you can’t do too much research about birding locations.

A White-throated Sparrow in Iowa

A White-throated Sparrow in Iowa

The next state was Iowa, where I met Tom Dunkerton, an excellent photographer and naturalist who I met in Florida a few years ago.  Due to schedule constraints, we expected to have only one morning together, but Tom surprised me by calling Wednesday afternoon and saying that if I could get to Neal Smith NWR before dark, he would show me around.  That was incentive enough to drive there from Missouri without dawdling along the way with unnecessary stops.  We had about 45 minutes to drive around the immense NWR before dark, a place I will be sure to spend time on my next trip.

A young Harris's Sparrow sings in Jester Park.

A young Harris’s Sparrow sings in Jester Park.

Tom picked me up on Thursday morning and we headed to one of his favorite sparrow spots – Jester Park.  We saw several species, all up close, feeding on grass and weed seeds.  I could have stood there all day soaking in the beauty of these birds.  Tom captured the magic of the morning with this video of a young Harris’s Sparrow singing.

The best surprise of the trip was that LeConte’s Sparrows were still in the area.  I had assumed that they would all be south by then, but a few lingering birds were still around, so we left Jester Park to look for LeConte’s Sparrows.  I was thrilled to get wonderful close looks and even a few photographs.

Le Conte's Sparrow in Iowa

Le Conte’s Sparrow in Iowa

I wish that morning could have lasted for days, but Tom had to get to work and I needed to drive to Minnesota.

It was great to see Diane, one of my favorite birding buddies, and we enjoyed the chance to catch up during our drive to Duluth the next morning.  On Friday afternoon, we met Angie and the three of us went to Hawk Ridge, location of one of the best-known hawk watches in the country.  I was shocked to discover that they had seen very few raptors that morning.  The weather was awful so the prospects for the afternoon were no better.  The hawk counters advised us to come back in the morning at 7:45 AM.

Sax Zim Bog was less than an hour away, so we headed that way and spent the afternoon enjoying the simple pleasures of the bog.  Our favorite sight was a large field with a carcass that had attracted four Bald Eagles, three magpies, crows, and ravens.

My car at the Sax-Zim Bog Welcome Center.

My car at the Sax-Zim Bog Welcome Center.

The following morning we returned to Hawk Ridge.  I patiently watched the Goshawkless skies for over four hours before giving up.  The few raptors that had come by were too distant to see well, so I didn’t feel like we’d be giving up much if we left.  If I was going to see a Goshawk, I wanted to see it well.  They did have one juvenile Goshawk after we left, but I did not regret the lovely afternoon drive along the Lake Superior shoreline enjoying a gorgeous fall day with friends.

By this time, I had reconciled myself to missing the target bird of the trip, so when Angie told Diane and me that Sparky Stensaas, executive director of Friends of Sax-Zim Bog, was leading a field trip at the bog on Sunday, we immediately decided that we wanted to go.  I was surprised to see about 25 birders show up the next morning.  It would have been worth it just to hear Sparky’s commentary on the bog and its birds.  We learned about Rough-legged Hawks.  The have tiny beaks because they eat small prey, mostly voles.  And, it’s suspected that they can see concentrations of vole urine.  Amazing!  And, we had great views of a Rough-legged Hawk hunting in the bog.

Red-breasted Nuthatches enjoy the feeders at the Sax-Zim bog Welcome Center.

Red-breasted Nuthatches enjoy the feeders at the Sax-Zim Bog Welcome Center.

We also saw two Ruffed Grouse during Sparky’s trip, but I was unable to get a photo.  Sparky gave us directions for a route back to the highway with good chances for more grouse.  We saw one right away, but a passing truck flushed it into the woods.  And, then we saw another.  This was the most cooperative grouse ever, allowing us long indulgent looks and many photographs.  The bird did look at us with a wary eye, but then went back to feeding on the side of the road, and finally walked into the woods.  It was, as Diane called it, a sacred moment, and one we will always cherish.

A Ruffed Grouse in the Bog.

A Ruffed Grouse in the Bog.

Diane and I drove back to her house near Minneapolis that afternoon and I left for the long, slow drive home the next morning, on Halloween day.

The first stop on my way south was in Illinois, to stay the night and visit with my friend David’s mother, Darlene.  We discovered that Rock Cut State Park was just a couple of miles from her house, so I invited Darlene to go to the park with me on Tuesday morning.  We didn’t see many birds, but did find quite a few butterflies and enjoyed our walk on a gorgeous fall morning.

An Orange Sulphur at Rock Cut State Park

An Orange Sulphur at Rock Cut State Park

Our walk was longer than planned because I took the wrong trail.  We were lost, but we ran into a man walking his dog who gave us directions.  We walked a while longer, following his directions, and suddenly the man and dog were walking towards us.  He had come back to check on us and walked the rest of the trail with us.  He waited with us when we stopped to catch our breath and helped Darlene over a rough spot in the trail.

After this heart-warming start to the day, I drove almost to Indianapolis.  On Wednesday, I continued the pattern that was developing for travel days – visit a park in the morning and drive in the afternoon.  This time is was Indianapolis’ Eagle Creek Park, one of the largest city parks in the nation with 1,400 acres of water and 3,900 acres of forest.

Cedar Waxwing at Eagle Creek Park

Cedar Waxwing at Eagle Creek Park

On Thursday morning, I visited the last park of the trip, Hisle Farm Park, near Lexington, Kentucky.  I picked it because it looked like it wouldn’t be far out of my way, not because I expected much.  No one else was there when I arrived and I didn’t see or hear any birds.  I got out of my car anyway and soon heard meadowlarks singing.  I walked in their direction and soon heard more birds.  I walked about two miles through fields and along the wooded edges.  Song Sparrows were everywhere, Robins and Cedar Waxwings covered the treetops.  In one little spot in the sun, I watched Song, White-throated, and White-crowned Sparrows, Titmice, Chickadees, Goldfinches, a Golden-crowned Kinglet, and other birds all feeding on the ground and in the low berry-covered shrubs.  The temperature was just right; there was the slightest breeze.  It was a perfect end to the birding for my trip.

Another Harris's Sparrow from Iowa. Can't get enough of these beauties!

Another Harris’s Sparrow from Iowa. Can’t get enough of these beauties!

I really did not see a large number of birds on this trip, just 66 species, but I did add birds from five new states.  It could have been my poor vision and hearing, poor planning, or just plain laziness.  However, the Midwest in fall isn’t the birdiest time and place of the year.  There is a reason that birders love “north with the spring” trips.  Now that I’ve driven 3,760 miles and proven to myself that I like road trips, my next big trip just may be “north with the spring.”

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