One archetypal image of a birder is the person who leaps on a plane and flies across the country to add a rarity to his/her life list. This characterization is captured well in the 2011 movie “Big Year.” In it, three birders played by Steve Martin, Owen Wilson and Jack Black decide independently of each other to pursue a “big year.” A “big year” is a quest to see how many bird species a person can sight in in a 365-day span, beginning January 1, within territorial North America, as defined by the American Birding Association. The goal might be to set a personal best or to top the existing record (at last report 745). On more than one occasion in the film, one of the three protagonists drops everything to go in pursuit of a particularly rare bird hoping to best the other two competitors and to break the existing record.
As amusing as this obsessive competition might be to casual or non-birders, it is the exception rather than the rule and is not necessarily the most satisfying aspect of birding. New Hampshire resident Eric Masterson proposes a different path in his well-received volume of 2013 Birdwatching in New Hampshire. Eric extols the virtue of the “good bird” experience. He acknowledges the thrill of sighting a rarity but also asks the reader to consider the special character of the “chance encounter,” seeing something unexpected. He cites the experience of working in his backyard and looking up to see 900 migrating broad-winged circling overhead or as he notes, “a chance encounter with a flock of shore birds on an inland pond away from their expected coastal habitat.”
There is much to be said for Eric’s approach. I am not above driving a couple of hours in hopes of adding something to my life list. A couple of weeks ago I drove over to Waterbury Center, VT to seek out a northern hawk owl, normally a bird of the boreal forest that was being reported there on a regular basis. That venture was a success. Hawk owl sighted. More recently my birding buddy Wayne and I drove to the Lake Champlain Ferry dock in Charlotte, VT seeking out a tufted duck reported from there. No luck that time. Birders said it was around, but it eluded us.
The satisfaction from success and frustration from failure are part of the birding enterprise. But Eric is right. It is often the happenstance encounter that leaves the most indelible memory. There is the slight thrill I feel when I happen to glance out the kitchen window and discover a brown creeper spiraling its way up a nearby tree trunk in search of food. There was the surprise of driving down NH Rt. 10 on a rainy, July morning, and as we passed Post Pond being startled by the sight of an American bittern drinking water from a puddle on a house’s lawn, something you’d never expect that very secretive bird to do. And I won’t forget that dreary, mid-November afternoon; I was still living near Boston, when I looked out my deck window to see a Baltimore oriole sitting on the fence. It was a place it should not have been that time of year, but the flash of its bright orange plumage amidst all the gray and brown was a tonic for the spirit.
Those encounters remind me why birding can be so deeply satisfying and inspirational. The variety and number of different bird species with their specific behaviors and habitat adaptations is a window into the special complexity of life on this planet. Chance, “good bird” encounters only serve to heighten that sense of wonder.