2014 Big (Learning to Bird) Year Wrap-up
As I posted back in late 2013, I decided to pursue a birding “Big Year” for 2014 to learn the ins and outs of bird identification. Although I was relatively new to birding and hadn’t been keeping a “life list”, I had a long history of taking pictures of any wildlife I saw. As I learned to identify birds over the past year, I slowly unraveled the mysteries of my old vacation photos and found I had documented 105 species! Keep in mind however, at this point, I was an absolute newbie at birding. On January 3, I saw a flock of black speckled birds that had me stumped for 2 weeks. They were Common Starlings (the most numerous invasive songbird species in the United States).
So, I began on January 1, 2014 armed only with my digital camera and 55-300mm zoom lens as I owned no binoculars. I found my first rare bird on day 3 and finally found a common bird I had been searching for eight months later. I spent most weekends in one park or another and most weekdays looking for any opportunity to go birding. It became my #1 favorite free-time activity and although I tried to tie it in with keeping a blog, I discovered that I love birding way more than I love writing about it.
But most importantly, it became an outlet I used to get through a dark time in my life that I’ve worked hard to leave behind. Birding became more than a hobby. It was therapy. When I’d go birding, the stress of the rest of the world would slip away for an hour or two and I’d return feeling like getting through another day was just a little more within reach than it had been before. The fact that I was continuously learning kept me stimulated and the checklist style mentality of getting “1 more species” kept me engaged. It was the best distraction. Being able to rescue a bird I had never seen before from the glass in front of my building made everything seem worthwhile.
My grand total was 275 species identified with every species documented and photographed but one (White-crowned Pigeon). All in all, I ended up birding five different states, a couple of National Parks(Muir Woods, the Everglades and Dry Tortugas), about 20% of the parishes in my home state of Louisiana and just about every wildlife refuge and state park in the southern half of the state.
I had a lot of fun, learned a lot and was even able to include birding into my professional career by performing nesting and bird surveys for wetland permits. I’m definitely going to continue the hobby for 2015, though I doubt I’ll go quite as far out of my way for a bird if I’ve seen it before just to up my year list. I’m going to concentrate on my photography for the species that are around and hopefully take a class to learn how to become a better photographer.
Here are some highlights of My 2014 Big Year:
Day 3 of my big year I took my 6 month old son on a morning walk in Lafreniere Park in Metairie, LA and I spot one of the most beautiful tangerine-orange birds I have ever seen. My first thought was “Wow. How have I missed seeing birds like this my whole life?” Turns out it was because it was my first rare bird sighting. My first clue was that I was completely unable to ID it with my ‘Eastern’ birds field guide. This guy got blown off course from somewhere out west and only a handful are seen in Louisiana each year.
Two weeks later, on my first birding field trip, I showed someone a picture of it and they immediately said “Oh! You’re the one who found the Bullock’s? Hey, this is the guy who found the Bullocks!”.
I felt famous.
I was in San Francisco, California in May to be a groomsman for a friend’s wedding. The wedding was held on a beautiful outdoor overlook of a perfectly picturesque valley and we were all standing around in our tuxes for the rehearsal when I looked down the hill and saw a large bird with a dangly headpiece sitting on top of a bush behind the wedding pavillion. I got some odd looks from the rest of the wedding party when I ran to get my camera, but my friends understood… that I’m weird. And you shouldn’t be surprised if I do something odd. Quail five.
I feel like I earned this one. One of the local birding masters had spotted this rare visitor from the Caribbean in City Park in New Orleans and I decided I was going to go find it as well. When I arrived early on Saturday morning, a horde of birders were already out looking. After a few hours of no one finding anything, I figured the winding cart paths through the overgrown scrub vegetation seemed to be fairly well covered, so I decided to go off-road. Unfortunately, I was wearing shorts and navigating the 8′ tall brier patches to reach the isolated islands of oaks beyond the paths became a painful and bloody experience. It paid off though. All alone, I took a break under an oak when I heard its song, looked up and there it was.
I felt good. I walked down the path into Coturie Arboretum and took a rest at the picnic table at the lagoon. I was approached by a couple on bikes who inquired why there were so many people out. I told them we were trying to see a bird and suddenly they were telling me stories about the bald eagle they had seen this morning. Now, you see, I don’t usually push people that I know are just bullshitting, but something clicked in me that day. I had just spent 5 hours, bloody, itchy, covered in insect bites to really honestly be able to see something and now these over-perfumed yuppies were in MY FOREST (yes, I think of it like that and I realize it’s a mental disorder, but that’s a story for another day.) telling ME that they had seen something that I am fairly certain they had not seen so by god, I was going to fight it. I told them they had likely seen a Mississippi Kite and tried to point out the large black and white one that was circling overhead. Dismissed without so much as a glance up. And then, they started talking about wild boars in City Park.
Yes. I should’ve walked away right there but I responded that there were not any wild boars in City Park to which they answered “Yes there are.” They said they came here after Katrina and they had met a hunter with a machine gun hunting them. I said that that there might have been boars, but there haven’t been in a few years (the amount of time I’d been coming to Coturie) to which they simply responded “Well. You can’t really know that.” and rode off.
I could’ve exploded. My mind roiled with the inconsistency. I grew up near the Pearl River in Mississippi. I have known the signs to recognize wild hog since I was a child. I have been treed by a wild hog. I had just spent 5 hours on 20 acres of and was able to locate A HALF OUNCE BIRD.
And then I realized they were idiots. I felt better.
My wife and I took our five year anniversary trip down to southern Florida to visit the Everglades and the Florida Keys over Thanksgiving. She’s not into birding as much as I am but she tolerates it up to a point. Well, I hit a few target species like the Snail Kite and Short-tailed Hawk on normal non-birding expeditions out in the national park areas but I had an ABA countable species I thought should have been an easy spot since it’s most often seen in fast food restaurant parking lots; the Common Myna. We used AirB&B and had a nice room reserved in Homestead, FL where I knew people had seen the myna before. Every morning, I swung by the Burger King or IHOP and hoped to see this super common introduced species. No luck. On the last day in Florida, we were heading back through Homestead from the Everglades when I looked over into the Starbucks parking lot and there was a Common Myna. The people in the car next to me thought I was crazy.
I missed quite a few birds I had seen before 2014 such as the Golden-crowned Kinglet, Sandhill Crane and Wild Turkey. I feel like I did quite well on warblers considering how new I was. The only warblers I feel like I truly missed were the Swainson’s and the Black-throated Blue Warbler. The Black-throated Gray Warbler that I got on December 31, 2014 was just amazing. Others, like the Lucy’s Warbler seen in Grand Isle (not by me) were one-shot birds that I just never had the time to chase.
Ducks were a real bane of my existence at the beginning and aren’t much better now. Their dull winter plumages still send me running for a field guide even for familiar species. I missed the scoters seen in Baton Rouge, and both the relatively common American Wigeon and fairly rare European Wigeon seen in Cameron Parish and finally saw my first Northern Pintail on Jan 1, 2015 at Bayou Sauvage NWR in New Orleans.
I cleaned up on rails and the two elusive herons (American Bittern and Least Bittern) but I was never able to ID a King Rail or a Yellow Rail. Maybe this year I’ll have to attend the Yellow Rails and Rice Festival in Cameron Parish.
All in all, I really enjoyed learning the art of birding this year and I feel it’s something I’ll continue for perhaps a lifetime of enjoyment. The community is incredible in Louisiana and always makes one feel like a welcome member of a family and the experience has been one that I’d love to share with my family in the future.