Wednesday, January 5, 2011

The Best Bird of the Year, or, the simple things in life

Scaled Antpitta, Tandayapa, Ecuador

Every year, once a year (usually between the last week of Dec and the first two weeks of Jan), the infamous question arises, "What was your best bird of the year?"

In past years, this question has been relatively simple.  The American Flamingo I saw near Corkscrew Swamp in the mid 90s, the lifer Western Kingbird I found in Kansas one year, the lifer Lazuli Bunting that flew over the hood of the car in Colorado a few years later.  More recently it was birds like the Purple Sandpiper or the White-faced Ibis or the Band-tailed Pigeon I saw in Cape May, NJ in the spring of '06, or the Roseate Tern or the Curlew Sandpiper that I saw there the following year.
Perhaps the Scissor-tailed Flycatcher in early Spring of '08 during a week spent in High Island, TX, or the Baird's Sparrow seen during the Young Birder's Conference in Minot, ND that June, or maybe it was the Flame-colored Tanager at Madera Canyon during VENT's Camp Chiricahua that July. All of them the best in their own way, even though the Tanager eventually won out.

'09 became slightly more difficult when more birds were seen and more rarities were found.  Perhaps my best bird in '09 was the 15th Arizona record of Crescent-chested Warbler, a bird that I had always wanted to see. Maybe it was the 1st New Mexico State record Clapper Rail that I found at Bosque Del Apache one day in mid May, or maybe it was the highly cooperative Sinaloa Wren that always seemed to know when I was coming and never failed to show itself. Perhaps it was the 1st ABA record Gray-collared Becard that decided to show up in Cave Creek Canyon one day in early Jun that only a handful of people ever got to see, or maybe it was the 1st ABA record Brown-backed Solitaire found by my friends at Camp Chiricahua that year.  My birding travels later that summer made it even more difficult. Yellow-footed Gull at the Salton Sea, a 1st known record of a hybrid between Great Knot and Surfbird that hung out at a Snowy Plover Reserve in San Diego for a few weeks, many lifers on my first ever pelagic trip on Monterey Bay, the Yellow-billed Magpies that I found on my way back to Arizona.

My trip home that year made it even harder.  Green Jay, Audubon's Oriole and Magnificent Frigatebird near Corpus Christi, TX, White-tailed Hawk sitting on a telephone pole near Aransas NWR in a total downpour, Audubon's Shearwater blown up off the gulf by a freak storm in Louisiana.  I had nearly 500 species to choose from that year.  Rarity again trumped all others on my list with the Becard, the Wren and the Solitaire all tying for first place.

This past year however has been different.  Before last year, I placed a high priority on keeping a year list and keeping my life list totals as exact as possible.  2010 started out the same. I spent the first few months of the year running up my year list as much as possible. Then, I took my first (and very much unexpected) trip out of the country. The 8 day tour to Costa Rica with VENT changed a lot of things for me. All of a sudden, I was seeing more birds in a single week than I could see in the US in several months. The birdlife of Costa Rica in March was extravagant, Toucans, Toucanets, Parrots, Parakeets, Tanagers, Orioles, Warblers, Sparrows, Motmots, Antbirds, Oropendolas and many others, all vying for attention. Each seemingly trying to outdo the previous one with spectacular colors and progressively wackier songs.  How could anything back in the US compare with these birds of the tropics?

A month later, I was in Ecuador, living and working at Tandayapa Bird Lodge in the Andean Cloud Forest near Mindo. These birds were not quite as gaudy or spectacular as the Costa Rican ones, but they were special in their own way. Each with its own unique set of habits and its own character.
After a month in Ecuador, I flew home thinking that birding would not quite ever be the same again.

Back home in Wisconsin, several really good sightings found their way into my year. Multiple Ibis of two different species all over the state, nesting Black-legged Stilts at Horicon Marsh, my second WI Ruff turned up in Dane county in April and, along with it, my 600th ABA lifer in the form of a female Smith's Longspur.

A trip to Colorado in June cleaned up almost all possible lifers for me in that state and included some quite rare birds for that region. My lifer Lewis's Woodpecker was quite a welcome one as it was a bird I had long searched for without success. Another was my lifer White-tailed Ptarmigan which was finally done eluding me.  Shortly after, my family took a trip to the Medicine Bow Mountains of Southern Wyoming where I found more Three-toed Woodpeckers than I believed possible. They were overshadowed however by only the 3rd ABA record of an Orange-billed Nightingale-thrush that chose to skip its usual Texas stopover all together and land in Spearfish Canyon in the Black Hills of South Dakota, a feat unheard of before.

September yielded my 3rd trip to the tropics, my second trip to South America, and my first real taste of birding in the Amazon Rainforest.  Here, birds abounded everywhere. Daily lists exceeded a whole year's worth of birding back home in WI, and the entire trip total for the 18 days I spent in Southern Peru nearly matched my whole life's worth of birding in North America.  It was about this time that I lost track of my lists entirely. inundated with more birds in two weeks than I had seen in 10 years left me with a pile of paperwork almost too big to tackle.  My ABA life list is fairly complete and easy to keep track of, but I haven't the slightest idea what my world life list is except that it's somewhere around 1600 species give or take a hundred or so.

Birding the Tropics is at once both exciting and frustratingly difficult. A lifer around every corner, and yet, that's only if you can get a good enough look to identify it.  Over my 3 trips to Central and South America this year, I learned many things about birding and bird identification. I especially learned to study a bird for as long as it is cooperative and not just glance at it because, especially for some species, there's a good chance you may never see that bird again.  The excitement of another lifer around every corner drives you on and on to see every part of the tropics and eventually the world.

When I arrived back home after this 3rd trip, birding seemed dull, boring and easy. These were birds I saw all the time, there were no possible lifers here and I could look at them whenever I wanted to. So, with nothing else to do that's what I did.  Until November that is when a Ross's Gull showed up in Denver, CO. With this new lifer so close (Ross's Gulls live north of the Arctic Circle), I and 5 other friends gave chase and made the long drive overnight out to Denver to see the bird.  Twitching and chasing birds long distance is, has been, and I think, always will be fun. The thrill of driving long distance just to see something with wings, a body, a head and feet keeps even the most exhausted birders wide awake, crossing our fingers, hoping the bird will be there when we arrive if nothing else, simply to make the long drive worth it. Then comes the exhilaration of actually seeing that bird you drove so far for, and then the mental and physical exhaustion taking over on the long drive home.

I ended the year of 2010 with a short trip to my favorite winter birding hotspot, Sax-zim Bog where I finally found a long-awaited lifer, Great Gray Owl.  Another of the many birds I had been wanting to see for many years, it was quite a nice end to the year.

Last week, one of my friends just asked me the yearly, expected question, "What was your best bird of the year?"

I thought about this for a long while. I thought of all the places I had been and all the things I had seen.  What could I really, truthfully call the best bird of the year?

Was it the Snowy Owl on Jan 1st at Buena Vista Grasslands? Or was it the Northern Hawk-Owl at Sax-zim Bog a month later?  Maybe it was the Rufous-naped Wren in Costa Rica that was my 600th world lifer, or perhaps the Toucan Barbet in Ecuador a month later? Or was it my 600th ABA lifer Smith's Longspur in WI in April? Perhaps it was the stunning Resplendent Quetzal of montane Costa Rica or the Snowy Cotinga of the lowlands? Or maybe it was my lifer Lewis's Woodpecker or White-tailed Ptarmigan in Colorado? or all the Three-toed Woodpeckers in Wyoming? Or perhaps it was the Orange-billed Nightingale-thrush that so randomly chose to appear in the Black Hills?  Maybe it was hearing Black-faced Solitaire in Costa Rica or White-eared Solitaire in Ecuador?  Or was it the Spangled Cotinga or the Flame-faced Tanager or the Scarlet Macaw in Peru?  Was it the Ross's Gull in Colorado this fall?  Or was it the Great Gray Owl at Sax-Zim Bog so recently? Or perhaps it was the Inca Terns and the Diademed Sandpiper-Plover of Peru?  Perhaps the spectacular Lyre-tailed Nightjar in Ecuador? or the Mangrove Cuckoo at 8000ft in Costa Rica? A bird seemingly so far from its regular habitat that it looked completely out of place.  Was it the two species of Ibis in one scope view at the same time at Horicon Marsh? or was it the Black-necked Stilts that were doing their best to raise a successful nest so far from their normal range.  Perhaps it was seeing Giant Antpitta up close in Ecuador or finding the beautiful Cinnamon Flycatcher?  Was it the Eye-ringed Thistletail or the White-tufted Sunbeam or the Royal Cinclodes in Peru? or was it seeing a very out of place Black-billed Cuckoo in Colorado?  Perhaps it was finding a cooperative Eastern Screech-owl near my home in WI or finding a pair of Whooping Cranes in my home county?  Or was it being the first person to photograph a Chuck-wills-widow in WI or seeing my lifer Kirtland's Warbler?
Maybe it was the Costa Rican Pygmy-Owl or the Peruvian Pygmy Owl? Or was it the spectacular Sword-billed Hummingbird of Ecuador?  Was it the Northern Shrike I found on almost every CBC or the Audubon's Warbler I found in WI on a CBC in western WI?  Or maybe it was the Great Potoo of Peru or the Common Potoo of Ecuador? Or maybe the overly cute Collared Redstart in Costa Rica or the stunning Flame-throated Warbler or the young Torrent Tyrannulet sitting on a branch over a rushing stream begging to be fed?

Or maybe, just maybe, I told them, it was that Tufted Titmouse at my backyard feeders the other day gathering sunflower seeds to stash for a colder, less fruitful time of year.


Mathieu W said...

You have quite a big list of really cool birds to choose from... But I'm sorry, but there's no White-cheeked Solitaire in Ecuador?! Do you mean Peru or do you mean Black Solitaire??

Nevertheless congratulations to such amazing sightings

Chris W said...

I must've meant Peru! lol :)