Ruth Bass: Out the window or on the road, the bird list grows


RICHMOND >> My brother and I were barely past printing our first and last names correctly when we started doing annual bird lists, an activity that included getting excited over seeing a crow soon after Jan. 1 and probably abandoning the whole project before it was time for bluebirds to nest.

But the habit continued, as regular as making resolutions on New Year's Day. Those small lists are long lost, but the fascination for birds never lost its shine, perhaps genetically embedded through our parents and grandmothers. We both still do lists – he putting them in the computer year by year and me putting them in the computer with the aid of a marvelous piece of software called AviSys, produced by a perfectionist in New Mexico.

Because of that software, I can produce all kinds of lists, including only the birds I saw on a trip to California and Oregon this year — a slew — or all the times I've seen a great blue heron. The lists go back to 1970, so while my childhood crows are not there, plenty of old, pre-computer notes were located and duly typed in.

It was on the West Coast this year that I added more "new" birds than in any recent year, including a Eurasian wigeon, a tricolored blackbird and a Townsend's warbler. Special trips have added lots of birds to my list, with standout spots being Merritt Island National Refuge and Corkscrew Sanctuary in Florida, Okefenokee Swamp in Georgia, all over Hawaii and half-day adventures with private guides in Yuma and Flagstaff, Ariz.

When the New Year rolls in, it will be time for a new slot in the computer. It will be LY12, which stands for Little Year 12, a category established after I read a riveting birding book called "The Big Year" by Mark Obmascik. Because of the recent trip to California, my computer's LY11 counts 143 different birds seen in 2015. But that, by big year standards, is piffle. The year prize-winning journalist Obmascik wrote about — and it was so exciting that it became a movie — covered North America in 1998 when two men took on Sandy Komito and his record of 721 birds. The three — amid other wannabes — traveled by car, plane and boat some 275,000 miles and spent thousands of dollars in a quest that makes holy grail tales seem pale. In the end, Komito prevailed with a total of 748. Not piffle.

It would be hard to explain to a non-birder, especially someone who doesn't notice the arrival of robins in spring or the honking of southbound geese in the fall, why these creatures fascinate, even to the point of obsession by the super-competitive. But in addition to fostering bird walks, bird feeding and bird lists, birds are incredible creatures. They knew about climate change decades before politicians began pooh-poohing it. The tiny hummingbird can stoke up on nectar and fly 600 miles over water for the winter. A chickadee who is nowhere within hearing will find a newly stocked bird feeder within a half hour.

Told for years that birds had no sense of smell, I've puzzled over the way seed-eaters appear so quickly, as if they had me under surveillance. But a new look at Cornell University material on the Internet indicates that the information is wrong, so apologies are due to all those I've misinformed in the past. Scientists once felt birds had no sense of smell, but they've changed their minds and now attribute a keen sense of smell to many species. The turkey vulture, it turns out, is one of the best and zeroes in on yucky road kill very quickly.

Here at home, with a life list of 366 different species recorded since 1970 — not even halfway to Komito's one-year list — I've entered LY12 and can't wait for the first blue jay to show up. Or even a crow.

Ruth Bass feeds birds in Richmond. Her web site is


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