A memorable achievement (I hope!)
(Listen to the radio version here.)
Now that I’m 71, I’m starting to collect evidence that my brain isn’t operating quite as reliably as it used to. On May 2, I wrote a blog entry, “When Numbers Get Serious,” in which I mentioned not remembering what the #600 bird was on my life list, but that I’d seen it during my 2013 Big Year.
Uh oh! Somehow I’d forgotten all about an amazingly wonderful experience that happened, not during my Big Year, but 14 years earlier, on spring break in 1999, when Russ and I brought our kids to Florida. My life list was at 598 when I opened my car door at the entrance of Lake Kissimmee State Park, and at that very moment, my lifer Bachman’s Sparrow was singing away—#599. And barely a minute later I got #600—Florida Scrub-Jay! Not just one, but a family group of three, and they flew right up to us, even alighting on our family’s mascot Piggy, a puppet we brought on all our trips. This was before I was taking bird photos, but that’s a picture still seared into my mind’s eye, which was apparently caught blinking while I was writing that blog post.
Not only is the Florida Scrub-Jay splendid anyway, but March 1999 happened to have a blue moon, and I celebrate any month with a blue moon as National Blue Jay Awareness Month. The Florida Scrub-Jay happens to be a blue jay, so what could have been more perfect for that auspicious number? And how could anything that wonderful and significant have slipped my mind even if it did happen almost a quarter century ago?
To top it off, one of my close birding friends, Holly Peirson, gave me the American Birding Association’s “600” pin to commemorate!
Another recent example of forgetfulness: I forgot to add Shiny Cowbird to my life list when Russ and I were in Everglades National Park in 2019 and I saw two or three in the parking lot at Flamingo. I was feeling very sick that day, the birds weren’t cooperative for photos, and I somehow spaced out when doing my eBird checklist, even though Shiny Cowbirds were a lifer! So I started out this year’s Florida trip with one more species than I’d realized—otherwise, the Shiny Cowbird would have been #700.
Shiny Cowbirds extended their range from South America into the Caribbean and then into Florida in the 20th century, and like other cowbirds, they’re nest parasites. It makes no sense for humans to judge them for either expanding their range on their own or using a childcare system that approximates that of many of us humans, but Shiny Cowbirds do represent a major threat to the survival of several endangered Caribbean birds, so I’m just as glad they weren’t my #700 bird.
I knew from the start that #700 was most likely to be a non-native bird since most of the birds I was still missing from South Florida were parrots that had escaped captivity and become established. And that’s exactly what happened. One of the birds I wanted to see most badly was an Antillean Nighthawk, a native species Russ and I tried hard to see when we were down in the Keys in spring in both 1997 and 2019, without luck. The birds aren’t found regularly until May. But our wonderful guide, Rafael Galvez, heard two fly over before dusk near Boca Chica Beach on Key West on April 23, the very first evening of the tour, and managed to get most of us on them before they flew out of sight. Adding #697 on the very first day was an auspicious start to the tour.
Just three to go! And two days later, we hit an exotic bird extravaganza. First, we went to a neighborhood in Kendall where we saw a Spot-breasted Oriole and several Red-whiskered Bulbuls. I’d seen the bulbuls in California during my Big Year, and I’d seen the Spot-breasted Oriole in that exact same neighborhood back in 1997, so neither of those were lifers. But then we headed for the Biltmore Hotel and Golf Course in Coral Gables. The Egyptian Goose was #698—ten of them were wandering about the golf course. I’d already seen them in a California park in 2013, but those aren’t considered countable yet even though they seem to be just as established as the Florida birds.
Dozens of parrots were perched on the window ledges, eaves, and other perches on the Biltmore Hotel building, including two I needed. A pair of Yellow-chevroned Parakeets that I saw but didn’t get my camera on became #699, and a single bird that was even less cooperative, the Mitred Parakeet, grabbed the #700 spot. Ironically, the only parrot photos I got there were of Red-masked Parakeets and Lilac-crowned Parrots, two introduced species that are not yet considered established enough to be countable.
The funnest element of all this was that one of the other people on the tour, Sara Bettencourt, was also working toward seeing her 700th bird for the ABA Continental List, and we did it on the exact same bird!
Three days after our exotic bird extravaganza, in Homestead, I added one more native North American lifer—a bird I’ve seen multiple times in Cuba, Panama, Costa Rica, Trinidad and Tobago, Ecuador, and Peru but never before in the US—the Smooth-billed Ani. This splendid relative of cuckoos and roadrunners is rare and declining dangerously in Florida, where I’ve yearned to see one since I saw it in my first field guides. We didn’t get the greatest looks—my photos aren’t even what I’d call marginal—but that bird meant more to me than the three exotic lifers I saw at the Biltmore.
Funny thing—ornithologists are talking about lumping two Empidonax flycatchers, the Cordilleran and Pacific-slope Flycatchers, back into a single species, the Western Flycatcher. If this becomes official, it’ll take one species off my life list, putting the Smooth-billed Ani in the #700 position, which would be especially cool because the #500 species for my Big Year happened to be the Groove-billed Anis that I saw in Santa Ana, Texas—they were more cooperative than this year’s Smooth-billed Ani as far as photos go.
I bought the ABA #700 pin to wear on my ABA hat with my old #600 pin, making me officially one of those acquisitive birders who celebrates numerical milestones. I don’t have any more numerical goals now, and the ABA doesn’t have any pins for higher numbers anyway, so this is where it ends. I’ll be the first to admit that hitting 700 was a ridiculous achievement, but nevertheless I’m ridiculously proud that I achieved it. I just hope I remember I did it!