Sometime long ago when I started birding, when I was seven, I read that the ultimate lifetime goal for birders in the US was to see 700 species in North America. For birders, “North America” was defined by the American Bird Association (ABA) and it meant North America north of Mexico, but not including Greenland. About 650 species occur regularly here, but there are others that stop by occasionally. The official ABA tally for this region, including all the rare vagrants ever documented, is about 1,000 species.
But 700 is the standard lifetime goal. When I was a kid, very few had achieved it. Now, thanks to the widespread popularity of birding, cheap air travel, and internet rare bird alerts, the ABA reports 410 people in the “700 club”—and amazingly 56 over 800 and three over 900. In first place is Macklin Smith, with 928, an English professor at the University of Michigan and one of the nicest people I’ve ever met.
Even beginning birders, with enough time and money, can get to 700 in a few years. Add an unhealthy dose of obsession, serious frequent fliers can reach 700 in a single “big year”. This has been done at least 20 times. It has taken me 45 years—and counting; I’m at 699.
It all started when my mom took me to the local library. I loved wildlife, nature, and simply being outdoors. I devoured Ranger Rick magazine each month. I needed a simple bird book to help me identify the birds coming to our backyard feeder in southern California. I found Birds: A Guide to the Most Familiar American Birds, the pale blue one with the robins on the cover. Though I checked it out seven times, for a total of 14 weeks, there wasn’t much in there that looked familiar. I quickly discovered its eastern bias; it featured illustrations of Blue Jay, Northern Cardinal, and Tufted Titmouse, and only made passing reference to western counterparts deep in the text. My only option was to move up to an “adult” field guide. I acquired the Golden Field Guide, Birds of North America, the old olive-beige one with the three buntings on the cover. It featured illustrations of just about every bird possible. Some were even described as “casual” or “accidental”, which I figured out meant really really rare in North America. But, most significantly, the book featured, in the index in the back, little empty check boxes next to the bird names. You could check off the ones you had seen!
If being in the wild appealed to the Cherokee side in me, perhaps it was my English blood that got excited about this sporting aspect. And I was really into sports trivia then. I followed USC Trojans football, LA Dodgers baseball, and AJ Foyt the Indy car driver. I knew lots of stats. I even knew that Georgia Tech once won a football game 222-0. I immediately went through the index, checking off birds for my list: Mallard, Red-tailed Hawk, Mourning Dove, Scrub Jay, House Finch, White-crowned Sparrow, Brown Towhee. I got up to about thirty. Desperate for more, I went to our garage freezer. My dad was a duck hunter and I knew there were paper-wrapped birds in there with labels. I found one with “Canvasback” scrawled on the white package. My nagging suspicions were later confirmed—you should only count free-flying wild birds; I walked that one back. I hit 222 fair-and-square with a group of Buffleheads on the Lincoln Memorial’s Reflecting Pool. I was 10. I passed Georgia Tech a few months later camping in the Sierra with my family: Green-tailed Towhee.
My mom connected me to the Los Angeles Audubon Society. I wrote a letter to Kimball Garrett at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County, informing him of my observations of communal nesting among House Sparrows at my swing set. He penned an encouraging reply. Another nice guy named Mark Detwiler took me on a field trip to the Salton Sea. Perhaps my “best bird” came in the summer 1979. I was with my mom and the Audubon group atop Mt. Pinos. We counted seven soaring California Condors and gasped as an eighth appeared behind us, flapping low over the treetops. There were only a few dozen condors left in the wild then. They were all brought into captivity eight years later, when I was in college.
Forty-five years is a delightfully slow climb, allowing me to savor each life bird. I’ve graduated from the check boxes in the back of the Golden guide to an Excel spreadsheet, but my favorite list is the one I keep in chronological order. I can remember the habitat, lighting, and smell in the air for almost each “lifer”, like having a mental photograph seared onto the desktop in my mind. Number 387 was a Wandering Tattler in the summer of 1994. It was way out on the Ocean Shores jetty. As the wind picked up and the horizontal drizzle intensified, the slick rocks became treacherous. I picked my way out past the turnstones, toward the end of the jetty, colder and wetter with each step. Sometimes you really have to work for your lifers.
My path to 700 has paralleled a few other journeys. I’m happily married to a non-birding spouse. I raised three boys and coached soccer for 20 years. I’ve also been a full-time student or employee the entire time. With all these domestic obligations, I haven’t been chasing birds all over the country, although I did convert every family trip into a secret birding expedition. Number 515, Purple Gallinule, came from the Anhinga Trail boardwalk at the Everglades, while my oldest child ogled over a nest of baby alligators.
Rather than chase rarities, I preferred to find birds on my own in remote and unvisited places. This added an adventurous flair. On my first trip to southeast Arizona, with Michael Perrone and my nine-year-old son, I found many of my specialty Arizona “lifers” on the west side of the Huachucas. We camped while poorwills and trogons serenaded us. We looked out over a hundred miles of grasslands and canyons, but we never saw another person. The bird I remember most was a Buff-breasted Flycatcher in Scotia Canyon, number 551. I may be the only birder in the nation to get their life Buff-breasted Flycatcher in Scotia Canyon.
When I was homebound in Davis, California, with no way to add to my list, I developed alternative passions: first gulls and now Fox Sparrows. I learned to identify the various ages, forms, and subspecies so well that I passed from confused to confident to skeptical.
Nevertheless, I’ve managed to hit the road some, and my list has continued to grow, providing some of the best memories of my life. Number 694 was a Bluethroat, actually quite a few of them, singing all around my tent on the edge of a stream along the Kougarok Road forty miles north of Nome. I was camping with that same son from the Arizona trip. He was now a college graduate—not a birder but also not one to turn down a trip to remote Alaska. For me, there’s nothing like a lifer on territory with vast virgin wilderness as far as the eye can see. But the brilliant songster from Asia had trouble competing with another noise– the sound from the ice breaking up and streaming past our campsite like ten-thousand tinkling chandeliers. Number 695 was the next day—a Red-necked Stint along the shore of Safety Lagoon. The bird was banded with an orange flag. I later learned it was tagged in southern Australia, 8,000 miles away.
Number 696 was a spectacular Swallow-tailed Gull from the Galapagos Islands, which turned up only a few miles from where I was helping another son move into the University of Washington. Number 697 was back home in California—a Red-footed Booby at Half Moon Bay. This bird was subject to my chasing rule. I don’t chase rarities unless my birding time at least equals my travel time. In this case, the booby was a two-hour drive away, so that’s four hours round-trip driving. According to my rule, I spent at least four hours birding before returning home. I confess I broke this rule once, for number 644, the Ivory Gull in Pismo Beach.
Number 698 was twenty minutes from my house, North America’s third record of Citrine Wagtail. I would have loved to have found this bird myself, but the re-find was nothing short of miraculous. The bird was reported a day late, and the location given was somewhere along the 6.4 km auto-tour route at the vast Yolo Bypass Wildlife Area. And it was blowing 60 mph. I’m thinking this was karma for the Taiga Flycatcher I missed years earlier, also twenty minutes away, because I was coaching a soccer practice. The Galapagos theme continued with number 699, a Nazca Booby I picked up after a work meeting in San Diego.
And so here I am, like at the end of a good novel, a little sad that it’s about to be over. Number 700 could come in several different ways: a rarity I find myself (that would be the ultimate), a rarity I chase (probably more likely), an expected bird I travel to find (there are a few of these left), or a split (please no). I’m back to Nome in a few months, as much for the beauty as for the birds, where Rock Ptarmigan still awaits me. But if there’s one rule that holds true about birding, it’s that when you go looking for one species, you find something else.