I am not an avid birder. I'm a rabid birder. My deep dive into serious birding last year propelled me into the orbit of two dedicated and knowledgeable birders, who think nothing of driving halfway across the state of Arizona in pursuit of an uncommon bird. Not only have I learned about bird identification and habitats from Susan and Brian, but I've also had the opportunity to see parts of Arizona I've never been to in the 18 years we've lived here. And what an incredible state this is, especially for birding! Arizona's riparian corridors are important routes for hundreds of species of migratory birds and home to many more. Overall, Arizona’s species list of around 550 is the highest of any state without an ocean coastline. The total is aided by quite a few rare vagrants that occasionally cross the border from Mexico, such as Flame-colored Tanager and Streak-backed Oriole (see image gallery at the end of this post).
I’ve heard some birders claim they don’t care about the number of birds they see, aren’t into the competition or the chasing of birds. But nearly all birders track their sightings with either an online checklist program, a hand-written birding journal or on a napkin, so they are in some sort of competition, even if it's just to exceed their own personal lifetime or yearly goals. Besides, the thrill of the chase is addicting. One could even say obsessive.
Many birders use eBird.org, an online checklist program that is a collaboration between the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and the National Audubon Society. Although I've heard birders complain about the program as "just a game" that injects unnecessary competitiveness to the hobby, serious birders know it is much more than that. Launched in 2002, eBird documents the presence, absence and abundance of different species through participant-submitted data and that provides scientists with invaluable information about bird habitats and migration. The tools provided for accessing all of the data allow participants the ability to explore different regions and birding “hotspots” and set up alerts for rare birds sightings and regional “needs” on a daily or even hourly basis. A scoreboard shows a participant’s rating among the top 100 birders in any county, state or country, based on the number of species seen. Toward the end of the year, things do get a bit more competitive as pressure to see First of Year (FOY) species intensifies before all counts return to zero on January 1.
Our big push at the end of last year was an 800+ mile, three-day trip through beautiful Southeast Arizona. Trekking across isolated dirt roads through grasslands, riparian areas and rocky mountain dirt roads, we found 107 species of birds, ten of which were new to me. The most memorable birds were the three Short-eared Owls we saw at dusk, an awe-inspiring experience that can only be described as religious. My favorite photo of the trip was that of a Rufous-crowned Sparrow wedged inside an agave, coquettishly looking over its shoulder at me.
Now, nearly a fourth of the way into the new year, the pursuit of uncommon beauty has only intensified for me. We've traveled as far west as Dateland to see a Wood Thrush and Lake Havasu for a Laughing Gull, northeast to the White Mountains, southeast to the beautiful Chiracahua Mountains and just about as far south as one can go in Arizona to Patagonia to add a rare Carolina Wren to our life (for me) and year lists. We don't always find what we're looking for, but the thrill of the chase is reward enough sometimes...well, almost!
Let me introduce you to a few of the uncommon beauties I've met recently. There are so many more I could share with you, but I want you to keep coming back for more! You can click on any image to get a better look and turned view the images as a slide show.