I thought it would be fun. After reading all these competitive birding books like “The Big Year” by Mark Obmascik, “Birding On Borrowed Time” by Phoebe Snetsinger, and the blog “Birding Without Borders” by Noah Strycker, and in the spirit of the “World Series of Birding” sponsored by the New Jersey Audubon Society, I invented this game. Here are the rules: Starting on January 1, observe and record a bird, any bird. On January 2 observe and record another bird, but it must be a different bird. Likewise on the 3rd and so on. The winner will be the person who can go the furthest into the new year seeing a new bird each day. I thought it would be a hit, but I could not get any of my birding friends to sign up, so I plunged right in, competing with myself and setting a personal baseline to strive for in subsequent years.
This is not a mindless game–there is some strategy for success. The obvious technique is to list the most unusual bird each day, saving the more common and easier birds for “desperation” days. Mind you, this game was played by a person with a day job, and as you recall the hours of daylight in January and February are pretty meager. During weekdays you need to find your bird along the road to and from work, or maybe even at lunch break.
I started the year off with a Cedar Waxwing, not a real common bird and a great start at saving the more usual birds for later. January 2 and 3 however were “wasted” by using an American Crow and Mourning Dove. Luckily I had a week off from work then, and flew to Florida for R&R and a whole new inventory of birds to choose from, like a Common Ground Dove on January 7 and a Glossy Ibis on the 8th.
On January 6 I was having a wonderful evening meal at a Naples Florida restaurant with another couple and suddenly remembered I hadn’t yet seen or claimed a bird that day–the contest was still new and hadn’t been ingrained into my routine. Without saying anything to my friends I got up from the table between the entre and dessert (I think they thought I was going to the restroom) and went out into the dark parking lot, looking for a Boat-tailed Grackle or any bird around the street lamps. None were present. I was dejected and thought the contest was over after only 5 days, but then remembered I had noticed a Great Egret landing on our pond while I laid, half asleep on the lanai that morning. New life and I returned to the table to enjoy that dessert.
I knew I was in trouble on January 26, back in Maryland, when I drew a job assignment at a small rural hospital 50 miles to the north. I would have to leave home and return in the dark and there would be no time at lunch to check out the hospital grounds. I did know that the road to the hospital was through rural countryside and the last 5 miles in early daylight held some promise. It was in the last field before town, along a hedgerow, that I thankfully spotted a flock of Wild Turkeys, Ben Franklin’s choice for our national bird. Saved again for another day. January ended with a Cooper’s Hawk on the 31st and February began with an Eastern Bluebird.
The wintertime vacation weeks in Florida and weekends up north were still giving up easy birds in February, but those weekdays in Maryland were becoming difficult. Luckily I knew of a small farm pond about 2 miles from home, right next to a rural road with a wide shoulder. It usually had a nice variety of waterfowl visible in the early morning light or at dusk, without even getting out of the truck. I milked it dry in February and early March.
My birding friends declined to join me in the contest due to various spoken and unspoken reasons. The spoken was “why bring new stress into your life?” What could be stressful about birding, I initially thought, but I was wrong. By late February and early March the common birds were drying up and each day required a strategy to stay “alive”. It probably affected my driving habits, constantly watching the fields and telephone wires for a new bird. One advantage of being the author of the contest and rules was I could change them in mid-stream, and I did. I counted a Muscovy Duck, (a domestic, introduced specie with native birds only seen in south Texas) on February 13, and decided to accept vocalizations if I ever heard that Great Horned Owl again at night.
We decided to take a day trip by boat from Marco Island, Florida to Key West. My father-in-law is a WWII veteran and after serving in the South Pacific he finished his navy duty in Key West and wanted to see the old base again. The Navy rolled out the red carpet for its veteran and we got a personal tour of the current Naval Air Station, so much different than the 1945 installation. The trip also offered some easy bird choices, but the strategy is to select the unusual. My choice was the famous Key West Rooster; another minor rule change.
I finished March with an Indigo Bunting and started April with a Black-bellied Whistling Duck in Florida, but it was almost time to head north again. I had already used up all the ducks on the pond and those pesky European Starlings nesting under the eaves of the hospital emergency room entrance. Pickings were very slim, in fact so slim that I went down with a whimper on April 9. I was hoping to make it to spring migration, but no such luck. My last bird, number 98, was a Florida Osceola Turkey, one of 5 subspecies of the Wild Turkey–I know, another rule change. It was finally over and a relief. My driving habits improved and normality set in. But 98 is the mark for next year. Any takers?