Ruth Bass: The challenge of the annual bird list



They’re off, and so am I. Every January 1, ultimate bird watchers begin their annual scramble to record the most birds seen in 365 days. And every January 1, after reading "The Big Year: A Tale of Man, Nature and Fowl Obsession," I’ve begun anew with a computer bird list called The Little Year.

My brother, who doesn’t own bird software, just types in his list and periodically sends me his total to date. He’s always way ahead, mostly because he spends six months on an island off South Carolina. (We have no roseate terns in the Allendale parking lot.) You’d think he’d have abandoned sibling rivalry (the no-holds-barred approach to any and all issues and competitions) now that he’s an octogenarian. But no. Even as an avid golfer to whom handicaps matter a great deal, he offers no handicap for birding.

Two years ago, actually with the help of a bird trip with him to Caw Caw Sanctuary, I came out ahead. It was a grand year here for redpolls, something South Carolina doesn’t offer even in the worst of Canadian food shortages. Last year was good for me, dismal for competition. Nonetheless, hoping winter will bring redpolls, followed by indigo buntings in spring, I have created a new file LY10, my 10th Little Year.

We do not emulate the obsessive people who travel a total of some 275,000 miles for their Big Year. They grab a plane when they hear some cockamamie bird has landed in the Aleutian Islands and know when they get there that at least one of their major rivals will already have spotted the target. They travel incessantly, spend a lot of money, plunge into swamps, survive deserts and try not to help anyone else out. That last is quite different from every bird trip we’ve ever taken -- fellow birders at our non-marathon level are anxious that we see what they see and they’ll spend many minutes making it happen.

In 1998, journalist Mark Obmascik covered the annual madness and wrote "The Big Year," which reads as fast as a who-dunnit and introduces bird amateurs to pros run amok. That was the year the winner recorded the most birds ever in a single year, 675 species. My basic aim, no planes or trains involved, is to reach 100 or a bit more -- with little long distance travel, few formal birding trips and constant attention to who might be flying about right where I am.

The redpolls were an accident of nature, something that happens in our backyard every few years. The low-flying black-billed cuckoo was last year’s grand surprise -- although I’d heard it on the mountain before it made a rare appearance. And this year, along the coast of Connecticut, the snowy owl has come down from the north in huge numbers, looking for food that’s lacking in its regular Canadian hangouts.

So the search begins in 2014. Ly10 is ready in my AviSys software, and the winter birds are cooperating nicely -- chickadee, goldfinch, tufted titmouse, white-breasted nuthatch, mourning dove, junco, crow, blue jay, cardinal. The lady cardinal, a window banger last spring, is at it again, and we can only hope she doesn’t suffer a concussion.

Then, on the way to the post office, I added a red-tailed hawk, sitting majestically in a roadside tree -- David Sibley’s book confirms that it’s a perch they love. And, quite a surprise, a northern flicker -- its coloring spectacular against snow -- perched in a shrub outside Ms. Cardinal’s favorite window. We don’t often see flickers -- they’ve apparently used up all the grubs they once harvested regularly on our back lawn.

The year-round robins will show up soon to eat the winterberries, my list will be up to 12. If only each month would yield 12 new ones, I’d beat my brother hands down, no handicap needed.

Ruth Bass is a novelist and free-lance writer. Her web site is


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