So I went up to Philadelphia this weekend, and got a lot done. I hung out with the Dorsai security group at their get together (they are lovely people and boy, do they know their Scotch) went to my buddy Lizardbeth’s thirtieth birthday party, saw the Liberty Bell, and, perhaps most importantly, had a photoshoot with the amazing J. R. Blackwell, who is well known in the geek author community as “That person who can get a photo of you that makes you look cool and not nearly as bloated as other cameras think you are.” (This is very important for those of us who naturally have that squishy bit under our chins, which adds about eighty pounds unless the lighting is juuuuust right.) Haven’t gone through the photos yet, but am very hopeful.
But the BIG thing this weekend was the 600th bird.
Not my 600th bird. My lifelist stands at a cool 351. But my buddy Tina, who has been personally responsible for adding about a hundred birds to that total, is an ABA bird lister, and she was out in pursuit of her 600th bird.
ABA listers are a not-uncommon subset of regular birders. The ABA listers can count only birds seen in the US, Canada, a couple of islands (not including Hawaii) and 200 miles off shore. The ABA (American Birding Association) keeps a master list of birds that are known to have occurred in this area, provide rules for counting, and so forth.
There are not quite a thousand birds on that list.
A much reduced number of those actually live here–this includes all the weird birds blown in from other continents and so forth, some of which have only been seen ONCE in the history of birding. There’s an actual ranking system, 1-6, with 1 being “Regular and widespread” and 5 being “Accidental visitors recorded less than 5 times in North America.” 6 is “extinct, cannot be found” or “extinct in the wild, all specimens in captivity and not yet re-established.”
So for example, a Great Blue Heron is a 1. (They’re everywhere.) A Whooping Crane is a 2. (They’re here, they’re just hard to find.) A Bare-throated Tiger-Heron is a 5. (Get on a plane to go see this bird.) A Passenger Pigeon is a 6. (You’re a goddamn liar.)
Every bird I’ve ever seen is a 1 or a 2, except for the thirty-odd birds I got in Europe, which wouldn’t count on an ABA list.
It is probably possible to hit about 500 birds being a relatively casual birder, as I am. I go out on birding trips, when I travel I take a few extra days, I wander around with binoculars. I take field trips to the High Holy Grounds of birding, like High Island or Cape May. I would even do a pelagic trip to go get those weird birds out in the 200-miles-offshore range. But I don’t hover over the bird mailing lists to hear about rarities. I just go to places where I’ve never been and pick up all the commons. It’s a big continent.
Past that, though, you gotta be a twitcher. You gotta get the word that somebody spotted a Citrine Wagtail, jump in the car, and drive for twelve hours because there will never be another in your lifetime. Once you’ve filled in all the normal birds, the only way to increase is to start jumping when a rare bird gets blown in from Eurasia. And that’s how Tina, who is hardcore, came to Philadelphia with 599 birds on her list.
Tina had taken the great birding oath to get the 600th bird as a tattoo, and as a result, she didn’t want just anything for 600. It had to be something cool. She is also forbidden to bird alone, owing to medical reasons, and since I am usually game for anything and she likes me for some weird reason (I assume because I don’t complain about the weather and err on the side of “I have no idea what that was” when it comes to bird ID) we got up early on Sunday and set out after the 600th bird. (And as weird and obscure as this hobby is, I was legitimately honored to be along on the hunt.)
The bird we went out in pursuit of was the Northern Lapwing, a Code 4, which had been spotted in a place called New Egypt, New Jersey.
So we piled into the car and we drove through the wilds of rural New Jersey, following directions from other birders. I braced myself for a long and nerve-wracking chase, similar to the time we drove around for three hours checking every Canada Goose on a golf course looking for the one rare Emperor Goose hiding among them, or Snowy Owl Quest 2012, which took two days and got us stuck in a ditch and Kevin still shudders when he talks about the waves. (People from the Atlantic side of the continent do not really understand the Pacific, I swear.)
We made the turn-off. We crept past houses, past barns, past a great many cows…and there was a guy with binoculars, staring into a field.
“You got the bird?” asked Tina, in hushed tones.
“Yep,” he said. “Just in front of the red longhorn steer.”
She unloaded the scope. She set it up. We looked through the scope.
Three Northern Lapwings stood in front of a placid red cow, picking idily at the muck.
As great moments in birding went, it was admittedly kind of anti-climatic. Tina and I did the lifer dance. We hugged. Several other birders showed up, pointed scopes at the bird, nodded to each other. A very chatty man with a thick New Jersey accent tried to show us his scrapbook of photos of rare NJ birds, including a Yellow-Headed Blackbird. (We agreed that it was a very good bird for New Jersey.) As with almost any gathering of birders, I was the youngest person by over a decade.
Then we got in the car and she played Blur’s “Woo Hoo!” song on the stereo and we went back to Philadelphia.
Sometimes it’s just that easy.