100 Birds or Bust: a 24-hour Birding Big Day

In one of my favorite movies, The Big Year, Steve Martin, Jack Black, and Owen Wilson give a comedic portrayal of three “extreme” birders competing to break the North American record of finding and identifying as many birds as possible within a calendar year. Loosely based on the nonfiction book by the same name, the characters chase birds to the far corners of the continent from the Everglades to the Aleutians. To win a “Big Year,” according to an article on Audubon.org, a participant should expect to identify more than 700 species, travel 270,000 miles, and spend 270 days away from home…The winner must be ruthless, not to mention have a photographic memory, a supersonic ear, and the fortitude to brave blizzards and garbage dumps.” On a larger scale, birder and author Noah Stryker set a new Big Year world record in 2015 by seeing 6,042 species of birds–almost 60 percent of known bird species–in a continuous round-the-world trip, traveling through 41 countries on all seven continents. That’s a serious birding trip. Closer to home, at a recent Atlanta Audubon meeting, one of our members described a no-frills pelagic trip he took to St. Matthew Island in the middle of the Bering Sea just to see a rare species of bunting, and I have several retired friends who think nothing of hopping in the car and driving five hours to the Georgia coast if a rare bird is reported in the state.

Although family, work, and finances preclude rare bird chases and off-the-grid trips at this point in my life, I had my first “hard core” birding experience recently when my friends Mary, Michelle, Dottie, and I participated in a “Big Day” challenge in order to raise money for Atlanta Audubon’s education and conservation programs. With a goal of counting as many bird species as possible in Georgia in a 24-hour period, our team, Owl Drink to That!, knew we couldn’t come close to the state record of 192 species or even to beat the other teams in the competition, so we approached the competition with a bit of a different strategy.

13102626_10101231587755087_7809601961368456619_n

Michelle provided custom koozies for our bird-themed adult beverages to kick-off our Big Day adventures.

After a cocktail on the porch of my parents’ mountain home, we headed for an early pizza dinner before our 7:00 PM go-time, meeting up with our birding friend Theresa who lives in the area. Dinner ended right on time, and we headed out to the parking lot, averting our eyes from the European Starlings we’d seen on the power lines when we arrived and directing our attention to the Barn Swallows nesting among the eaves of the building. (While beautiful, starlings are unfortunately a non-native species that competes with native species for cavity nesting sites, and we preferred to have a native Georgia bird to kick off our count).

13063021_10101232827480667_179940950675864017_o

Barn Swallow at the Foothills IGA by Michelle Hamner

With the remaining daylight, we headed to a walking trail at some nearby meadows to see what we could find before nightfall, when we hoped to hear owls and other nocturnal birds. We picked up our first 20 species or so there, including an Eastern Screech Owl lazily peering at us from a nestbox in a tree along the trail.

IMG_2038

Eastern Screech Owl by Theresa Hartz

At dusk, we headed to Theresa’s house, where we were delighted to hear an Eastern Whip-poor-will calling on cue, but we didn’t have any luck getting a Chuck-will’s-widow or a Barred Owl to answer the calls we played from the bird apps on our phones. As we were heading back to my parents’ house, I saw a clearing next to some dense woods and suggested we pull over and try our luck calling a Chuck-will’s-widow again. I rolled down my window and played the call on my phone, and instantly we had our reply—right outside the car window–as if I’d magically conjured the bird–a lifer for my teammates. (I couldn’t embed my sound recording, but have a listen here.)

Back at my parents’ house, the Barred Owls I often hear calling were quiet as we sat outside listening to the insects and frogs, and around 11 o’clock my teammates decided to turn in for the night since we planned to be up again at 5:30 AM. Being a night owl myself, I decided to sit outside on the porch awhile longer. Wouldn’t you know?! The house had just gotten dark and quiet when I heard the call of a Barred Owl! Since the rules of a Big Day require that all members of the group must see/hear 95% of the birds identified, I began quietly stomping on the deck and calling out, “Owl. Get out here!” toward my friends’ bedroom windows, purposefully opened for this reason.

Of course, once my friends were back outside in their pajamas, the bird was quiet. So we waited, probably only a few minutes, but feeling guilty for “crying owl,” I began to wonder if I’d conjured this bird only in my head. Finally, just as we were giving up, we all heard the familiar, “who cooks for you, who cooks for you all” of a Barred Owl in the distance.

The next morning we were out the door before 6:00 AM. Our plan was to visit some mountain locations before making our way down to Phinizy Swamp Nature Park in Augusta, where we hoped to see some shorebirds since we wouldn’t have time to go to the coast. At various mountain roadside stops, we found many of the expected local species as well as several species of migratory birds just returning to their breeding grounds after spending the winter in the tropics. Anyone who isn’t impressed with the variety of beautiful birds in North America hasn’t been paying enough attention! How can you not be wowed by birds like Chestnut-sided Warblers, Rose-breasted Grosbeaks, and Indigo Buntings?!

012

Chestnut-sided Warbler

may 2016 (4)

Rose-breasted Grosbeak

On our way to Augusta, we pulled over a few times in random places—adding Cooper’s Hawk and Purple Martins to our list, among others. My friend and coworker Dottie was extremely patient chauffeuring three people who were regularly pointing out the window and exclaiming, “what was that bird on that wire/house/fence?!” We almost missed our birding “hotspot” outside of Athens, an unmarked dirt road in the middle of nowhere that is popular with birders in the area. We had hoped to squeeze in a visit to the county dump (which is known to attract gulls, birds of prey, and other surprises) but were told that it wasn’t open to the public on that day of the week. After a quick bite to eat, we were on the road again headed to Augusta, right on schedule to arrive for a few hours of birding before our 7:00 PM cutoff. Just as we were approaching the swamp, we passed a promising spot beside a large lake called the “Mayor’s Fishing Pond.” After only a short time outside in the now steamy 90+ degree heat, our energy was starting to wane. Then Dottie spotted a pair of interesting looking birds circling overhead that Michelle and Mary identified as Mississippi Kites! We all forgot about being hot and tired and were practically dancing—an unexpected find and a life bird for my three teammates! We all felt reenergized and ready to continue our birding quest.

IMG_2044

Phinizy Swamp Nature Park

Phinizy Swamp Nature Park is a lush and lovely place, and being the first time any of us had visited, we were excited to explore and see what we could find. As soon as we entered the parking lot, we were surrounded by birdsong. From the boardwalk trails, we saw egrets, ibis, and herons, as well as a colorful array of migratory songbirds like Blue Grosbeaks, Orchard Orioles, and Northern Parulas. At the end of the boardwalk trail, we were faced with a decision to make; trails leading into the wetlands stretched ahead in opposite directions, and we were still several birds shy of our goal of 100 species. Neither trail looked very inviting, stretching into the distance with no cover from the scorching sun. With the clock ticking down to our final two hours, we decided to take the trail that we thought would get us back to the parking lot sooner, hoping to pick up a few final species. We plodded along, scanning for birds who were wisely taking cover from the heat. An adorable family of grebes were the only birds we saw until we finally made it back to the tree line and collapsed in the shade, very close to calling it quits.

036

Pied-billed Grebe with one of her babies on her back.

Just then, Ruth, one of the park’s environmental educators that I had recently met at a conference, pulled up her SUV. She had heard that we would be visiting and had decided to try to find us to say hello before leaving work. What a savior! With just one hour left to go, we weren’t even sure we would make it back to our car by 7:00, much less find more birds. Ruth not only offered to give us a ride back to the parking lot, she offered to take the scenic route past much of the wetlands that we had missed! In that last hour, we picked up several additional species–Bobolinks, Painted Buntings, Glossy Ibis (a lifer for Dottie and Michelle), Spotted Sandpipers, and Wood Ducks. When Ruth dropped us off at the parking lot at about 7:01, our checklist was at 98 species. We were a little bummed we hadn’t met our goal, but we were all excited about the amazing birds we had seen.

IMG_2052

Tired and dirty, but still smiling at the end of our 24-hour birding bust…

As we sat and cooled off with a bird-themed beer, we reviewed our list again. Happily, we had miscounted! We had met our goal of 100 species after all. (Although truth be told, Ruth identified the distant flying Wood Ducks for us, so they wouldn’t count for an “official” Big Day, as outlined by the American Birding Association.) With a three hour drive to Atlanta ahead of us, we were ready for a good meal before getting back on the highway, but with less than four hours of sleep, I was struggling to keep my head off the table after a few bites.
The ride home was easy, and it was fun to reflect on all of the highlights of our 24-hour birding extravaganza—both the highs and the lows. I learned that a Big Day is a lot more about chasing birds than seeing birds. We spent several hours in the car (still birding!), and I’d guess that we identified at least half of our birds by ear only, rather than by sight. The pace is tiring, with little time to stop and “smell the roses.” (In fact, I got “fussed at” a couple of times for pausing to take photos of wildflowers.) Will I do it again next year? Absolutely! The colorful warblers, the nesting screech owl, the conjured Chuck-will’s-widow, the lifer Mississippi Kites, the family of grebes—all these amazing birds are right here in my very own state. Being outside with all senses tuned in to nature while exploring new places and having adventures with friends—all for a good cause–sign me up! Maybe you’d like to sign up next year, too?!

 

Backyard Buffet: Native Plants for Wildlife

DSCN6587

Native plants provide the best nectar sources for butterflies like this beautiful Monarch. In addition, many native insects can only reproduce on specific native plants.

I started this blog to celebrate our beautiful planet and the amazing diversity of life with which we share it, and hopefully, to inspire others to do the same. When we celebrate and appreciate the world around us, we want to take care of it. The effort we make, if only in our own backyard, makes a difference. Pretty soon, I will have a new backyard and with it, an incredible opportunity to create a haven for wildlife.

At the end of this year, my family will be moving to a 1.6 acre lot–a small patch of woods and open meadow along a creek. To make things even better, our property is adjacent to a large park with wooded trails and a lake. Although it is located in the same suburban neighborhood where we currently live, it feels a world away. I can’t wait to be settled in the home we are building, but more than that, I can’t wait to be settled in my own little nature sanctuary. So far, we’ve seen foxes and deer, numerous species of birds (including a resident Red-tailed Hawk), and scads of pollinating insects. One reason we have such an abundance and diversity of wildlife is the variety of native plants on the property.

DSCN6546

The leaves of Hearts-a-bursting are readily eaten by deer and rabbits, and the berries are consumed by birds.

DSCN6549

Goldenrod is a favorite of the American Goldfinch, and a number of other bird and mammal species dine on its seeds as well.

The lot we’ll soon call home has become overgrown with years of disuse, but in that disuse, it has become useful for the wildlife that shares the land with us. The meadow is covered with native grasses and wildflowers like heath aster, goldenrod, blue mistflower, and boneset, attracting many species of butterflies and birds. Splashes of jewelweed along the creek beckon the hummingbirds, and hearts-a-bursting bushes offer a bounty for woodland mammals and birds. The calls of nuthatches and chickadees resound from the tops of pines and oaks, and the dead tree that stands at the back of the property bears the marks of many woodpecker feasts. Aside from removing a few invasive exotic plants, I plan to leave the lot relatively untouched.

DSCN6593

Heath Aster is a favorite of butterflies like this Fiery Skipper.

Jewelweed

Jewelweed, which blooms in late summer and fall, helps migrating hummingbirds fatten up for their journey to Central America.

What we grow in our own backyards can profoundly affect the diversity of life around us. Non-native butterfly bushes, for example, are touted as excellent nectar plants, but cannot support the reproduction of a single species of butterfly in North America. Native plants are much better at sustaining biodiversity, which is crucial to the health of our planet and our very existence.  In contrast, the typical American yard, comprised of tidy, mowed grass and non-native flowering plants and shrubs, provides very little benefit to wildlife and actually does harm to the environment. Here are a few facts about lawns that may surprise you:

  • Lawn grasses are not native to the North American continent and make poor habitat for wildlife.
  • Lawn grasses and exotic (non-native) plants reduce or eliminate insects available for insectivorous birds, as well as for other birds when they are feeding nestlings.
  • Acre for acre, the American lawn receives four times as much chemical pesticide as any U.S. farmland, killing an estimated seven million birds each year.
  • Phosphorus runoff from lawn fertilizer causes algae blooms that suck oxygen out of our waterways, killing aquatic life.
  • During summer months, as much as 60% of municipal water usage goes to lawns. (In a time when much of our nation is facing catastrophic drought, water is a resource we should be using wisely.)
015

Blue Mistflower produces dense flower clusters and covers the ground with a matt of leaves. I’ll take this over a traditional lawn any day!

Plants and animals share a profound connection. Plants provide food and clean air to breath, as well as sustain wildlife. Wildlife, in turn, offers a number of tangible and invaluable services to people–such as pollination, seed dispersal, pest control, and sanitation. We can’t afford to be careless about protecting our earth and the life we share it with.  We are currently living during the “sixth mass extinction,” the greatest extinction period since dinosaurs were wiped off the planet, so we can’t act too soon.

So, start with your own backyard–it needn’t be large to make a difference! Add some beautiful native plants to your landscape that will attract more butterflies, birds, and other wildlife. Learn more about backyard wildlife sanctuary certification programs in your area, and have your yard certified as an example for others. You’ll be doing yourself and the earth a favor. In the wise words of anthropologist Margaret Mead, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”  _____________________________________________________________________

An incredible and beautiful book about the connections between native plants and healthy ecosystems is Doug Tallamy’s Bringing Nature Home.

Many states have native plant societies which can help you learn more about the best plants to grow in your area. To learn about native plants in Georgia, including the best places to buy them, check out the Georgia Native Plant Society.

A wonderful blog about gardening with native plants is The Humane Gardener.

 

 

Praise for the Pigeon

Recently, I had the pleasure of “bird-sitting” a charming pigeon named Martha. Found on the ground with an untreatable injury and unable to fly, she was deemed non-releasable at the wildlife rehabilitation center where I volunteer (AWARE). Sadly, for most birds, this prognosis requires humane euthanasia, as wild birds are generally easily stressed and not suited for a life in captivity.* Well-adapted to living in proximity to humans, however, rescued pigeons often fair quite well, and because they are non-native to North America and not protected by the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, they are one of the few wild birds that can legally be kept as a pet. Many people would ask, “who would want a pigeon for a pet?!” Indeed, the pigeon is a much maligned bird, often referred to as a “winged rat.” Luckily for this particular pigeon, my friend Susie, a high school science teacher, wanted to give her a home and to introduce Martha to her students to foster an appreciation for birds and the environment. I enjoyed briefly having this calm, curious bird as a guest in my home and at my office at Atlanta Audubon Society (where she was, not surprisingly, a big hit) until Susie could pick her up. Having also worked closely with pigeons in rehab, I can tell you that they are smart, personable, and beautiful birds, and they have a rich and fascinating history.

photo 3

Martha the pigeon visits the office.

Determining the exact historical range of pigeons, also known as Rock Doves, is nearly impossible, but fossil evidence in Israel confirms they have been around for more than 300,000 years. They have been associated with humans for at least 5,000 years, having been raised for food, used as racing or homing pigeons, or kept as fancy pets (bred in a wide variety of color patterns, ranging from pure white, to rust, to slaty-blue). Pigeons in the United States are feral descendants of escaped or released domesticated pigeons; truly wild pigeons exist only in Europe, North Africa, and western Asia, where they typically dwell on rocky coastal cliffs. The birds we see in our cities have adopted the artificial “cliff” faces created by tall buildings and bridges for nesting and roosting, the best available substitute for their natural habitat.

045

The adaptable pigeon has fared well living in urban areas.

Pigeons are smart and adaptable. Studies have shown that they can recognize human faces, learn the alphabet, and pass the self-recognition test when looking in a mirror, and their navigational abilities have been prized for thousands of years. In fact, selectively bred homing pigeons have the amazing ability to return to their homes when displaced 2,000 miles or more. They’ve served as long-distance messengers and as prized athletes in international races. Such notable figures as Genghis Khan and Julius Caesar used homing pigeons to carry important messages, and the Greeks used pigeons to send news of Olympic victories. One of the most famous pigeons in U.S. history, Cher Ami, saved 194 American troops trapped behind enemy lines during World War I by delivering a message indicating their location. In spite of being shot in the chest and losing a leg, Cher Ami delivered the life-saving message before she expired. She was awarded the French War Cross for her service and is enshrined in the Smithsonian Museum. The incredible navigational abilities of pigeons are not fully understood, but scientists believe they rely on a number of extraordinary capabilities, including the ability to hear infrasound (like the sound of the ocean hundreds of miles away), the ability to use olfactory cues (they follow their nose), and a sensitivity to the earth’s magnetic field (think built-in compass system).

If you take the time to look closely, pigeons are beautiful, too, and have a number of endearing qualities. Even your “run-of-the-mill” pigeon dons a spectrum of vibrant, iridescent color including purples, bronzes, and greens, and each bird has its own unique markings. Adult pigeons have striking orangey-red eyes, and who can resist those pink feet! Pigeons are strong and graceful in flight, too. They have been clocked at close to 100 miles an hour and are surprisingly acrobatic. Watch closely the next time you are stopped at a traffic light with a flock of pigeons taking wing. On the “personal” side, pigeons are faithful mates and devoted parents. They form life-long monogamous pairs and display affection to each other. Both parents play an active role incubating their eggs and feeding their young. Newly hatched pigeons (squabs) are fed by both parents for the first few days through regurgitation of “crop milk” (not to be confused with milk made by mammals; never feed milk to birds as they cannot digest it!) and are gradually introduced to seeds. Parental care continues until the young are nearly grown, which explains why baby pigeons are rarely seen.

053

Pigeons don’t all look the same. Each has unique plumage.

This month marked the 100th anniversary of the extinction of the Passenger Pigeon, a related species that once darkened the skies for hours as they passed overhead in flocks of millions of birds. In just a few decades, humans drove this bird to extinction, the largest human-caused extinction in history. (Here is a fascinating and stark account of the extinction of the Passenger Pigeon: Why the Passenger Pigeon Went Extinct.) Let’s hope we have learned a lesson. The last surviving bird was a captive named Martha (in whose honor I suggested the name for Susie’s bird). Let’s hope we’ve learned a lesson. Common as they may be, today’s feral pigeons deserve our compassion and respect, or they too may face an unthinkable fate. If you’ve been following my blog, you know that I have a special fondness for animals that are maligned and misunderstood—like opossums, coyotes, vultures, and crows. I hope that by reading you will begin to rethink these unique and wonderful creatures.

The beautiful Passenger Pigeon, which once darkened the skies with flocks of millions of birds, went extinct 100 years ago this month as a result of human over-exploitation. Let’s hope we have learned a lesson. Image courtesy of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.

*Some exceptions are large birds of prey and members of the crow family, which can sometimes adapt to living with humans and can make excellent wildlife ambassadors with proper enrichment and training (see My Friend, Edgar Allen Crow). These birds, however, are protected by the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, which “makes it illegal for anyone to take, possess, import, export, transport, sell, purchase, barter, or offer for sale, purchase, or barter, any migratory bird, or the parts, nests, or eggs of such a bird except under the terms of a valid permit issued pursuant to Federal regulations” and includes all species native to the United States or its territories. Anyone wishing to keep a wild bird must obtain a permit from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

What Birding Has Taught Me

As I write this, I am flying back to Atlanta, having spent the weekend in Summit, New Jersey for my 25th high school reunion. Excited as I was to spend time with old friends and to visit old stomping grounds, perhaps the highlight of the weekend was escaping the dinners and the small talk and going birding with one of my oldest and dearest friends in our old neighborhood. Although I spent the first 18 years of my life in New Jersey, I don’t recall having any curiosity about the birds in my backyard. It must have attracted them, with its towering old trees and expansive lawn surrounded on all sides by thick tracts of rhododendron. Just beyond our fence lay hundreds of acres of woods, part of the Watchung Reservation. I suppose I could identify the pigeons and crows seen in town, as well as a few of the regular backyard visitors like cardinals, blue jays, robins, and mourning doves, but I certainly didn’t know about warblers or vireos. Visiting my hometown with a greater awareness of the birds around me was immensely rewarding. Strolling along the streets in my old neighborhood, I was treated to spectacular looks at Baltimore Orioles and Black-and-white Warblers. The Blue-winged Warbler at the nearby Audubon Sanctuary was a life bird for me. How fun to see Black-capped Chickadees and note their different song. By looking carefully for the birds, I also noted many other beautiful things about my hometown that I took for granted growing up.

016 - Copy

Baltimore Oriole–what brilliant color! How did I overlook this bird growing up?

021 - Copy

Blue-winged Warbler. Like many warblers, these insectivores are elusive and in constant motion. You have to look carefully and be patient to see them.

I only discovered the joy and excitement of birding a couple of years ago. Feeding injured and orphaned birds at AWARE Wildlife Center spurred me to want to learn more about them. I attended Bird Fest at Unicoi State Park in the spring of 2012, and I was hooked after the first bird walk. I was astounded that the small group of knowledgeable and convivial birders on that walk spotted 45 species in just one morning (and now realize that was a respectable, but not exceptional number). How could I have been so oblivious for so long?! Now I never leave the house without my binoculars, and my birding adventures have taken me from such birding hot spots as Dauphin Island in Alabama to Denali National Park in Alaska. I study my field guides and keep eBird lists. My yard list for my tiny suburban backyard in Tucker is currently at 50 species.

Northern Parula

Getting ready to release a Northern Parula (a warbler species) at a banding station on Dauphin Island. What a spectacular bird and memorable experience!

Birding makes life so much richer. It teaches us not only about birds, but also teaches us many other life lessons and skills. Birding teaches us to be in the moment and enjoy what is right in front of us. It demands us to slow down and pay attention to our surroundings–to notice the dappled sunlight in the trees, to hear the birdsong in the air, to feel the rustling wind on our face. It helps us to recognize the interconnectedness of all living things and the importance of protecting natural habitats. Birding also helps us to sharpen our observation and recall skills. In order to identify a bird, we must quickly process a lot of information–color patterns, call notes, the shape of the wings and bill, and so on. Such sensory workouts help develop mental acuity and keep our brains active. In addition, birding entices us to explore new destinations, from the park down the street to remote corners of the earth, enabling us to take in ample fresh air and beautiful scenery. From New Jersey to New Zealand and beyond, birds allow us to admire and enjoy all of the beauty and diversity of our remarkable planet.

019

Looking for birds forces us to slow down and notice details about our surroundings–like the sunlight in the trees at my local park.

002 (3)

This Pondhawk (seen during my recent trip to Dauphin Island) would have been easy to miss!

Having some reflective time during this trip to my childhood home reminds me how significantly my life has been enhanced since I really discovered the birds around me. I invite you to pay closer attention to the birds around you. I’d be surprised if you didn’t find that your life is enriched when you do.

Note: Earlier this year, I started working as the Director of Education for Atlanta Audubon Society, a dream job that allows me to share my passion for birds and nature with others. This piece was originally written to share in the AAS newsletter. I encourage you to find an Audubon chapter in your area and get involved. Audubon chapters often provide free bird walks and other opportunities to learn and to gather with fellow nature lovers, and they do important conservation and advocacy work.

A couple of great articles about the benefits of birds for further reading:

http://www.mnn.com/earth-matters/animals/blogs/can-bird-songs-boost-your-brain

http://us.cnn.com/2014/05/30/opinion/doherty-save-birds/index.html?sr=sharebar_twitter