Tuesday, November 11, 2008

A Year of Birding Strenuously

Yesterday marked a milestone for me: indeed, self-imposed and of no real consequence to what I do even today, but a milestone nonetheless. Yesterday, at 4:35 pm, in the dying light of a cold New England day on an obscure dirt road near my house, I saw a flock of eight Short-eared Owls hunting low over a hay field. I had gone out there on a tip from a fellow birder who posted on our state-wide birding discussion list (VTBIRD) that he had seen them there the day before as dusk was creeping in. I raised my binoculars to my eyes, hoping that I would find them before it became full-on dark, and I saw them in an instant. Graceful, quiet, impressive as hell, especially because of their (to me) surprising numbers. I watched them for about 30 minutes, never trying to get too close for fear that they would fly off to a different field. Eventually, even with the almost-full moon in the sky, it was too dark to see even their distinctive wing markings, so I called it a day and went home.

But as magnificent as they were -- and I cannot overstate just how magnificent they were -- that is not why yesterday was a milestone. Those Short-eared Owls represented the 150th bird species that I had seen this year in Addison County, where I live. I had successfully hit a target that I had set for myself at the beginning of the year: I wanted to see 150 species of birds in my local area this year.

There was nothing magical about the number 150. It seemed doable (with some attention and effort), I knew it was possible given the number of bird species that have been reported for the county over the last 10 years (courtesy of Vermont eBird), and I knew that there were plenty of other birders in this region who would probably see 150 species by May alone. But I knew that a target would be fun and keep me trying just a little bit harder (hence the whole "standing on the edge of a wind-swept hay field in the growing darkness of a mid-November dusk" episode), and based on my previous years of birding here I thought 150 seemed reasonable.

No, it wasn't the number. What to me was the most exciting is that I did it in my local area. In fact, for the first time ever, I spent ALL of my hard-core birding efforts only in a small area (about 800 square miles, which when you think about it is not all that large; it's a square just 28 miles on a side). For the first time ever, I purposefully chose not to burn fossil fuels driving to distant locations to see rare European or South American vagrants, not to try and be intimate with the natural history of an entire continent but rather only with the dirt roads, woodland stands, and muddy seeps around my neighborhood. Heck, I even ignored rarities reported from neighboring Vermont counties, sticking to my mantra: Think globally; Bird locally.

And I feel like I succeeded. Yes, I hit my target of 150 with 40 days to spare in the year -- I count my years from the Winter Solstice, not from the arbitrary assignment of January 1st in the Gregorian Calendar (about which I can write another time) -- but more importantly, I feel like I have regained an intimacy with my home landscape that no amount of natural history jet-setting could provide. I've had the privilege of seeing how different farmers time the harvest of their corn and hay, how the water levels in small no-name tributaries rise and fall, and how the light reflecting off of Lake Champlain changes week by week. I feel like I know this place better than ever before.

And I feel like I found, at least for now, a compromise between my awareness of our moral responsibility to care for the Earth in deed as well as in word and my desire to simply Get Out There and witness the Web of Life in action. I am better for it. And I can't wait until next year; 160 species, here I come!

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