For the Birds Radio Program: A Burnt-Out Case, Part I
I’ve been working on my Conservation Big Year for more than three quarters of a year now. It’s been jolly fun even as it’s been exhausting and more expensive than I’d hoped. But as I get down to the wire, with 542 species seen and hopes of making it to 600, I’m finding that some of the sweetness is being overpowered by acquisitiveness. I still needed Spruce Grouse and a few eastern shorebirds two weeks ago when I headed to Ithaca to meet with some people at Cornell and to Brooklyn to visit my daughter. On the way from Ithaca to the Big Apple, I drove up to one of my old stomping grounds, the Montezuma National Wildlife Refuge, where I lucked into being invited to tag along on a field trip for the Rochester Birding Association. One great dike that I’d never been able to get to had been opened up specifically for the field trip, and I was hopeful of seeing a late American Golden Plover or White-rumped Sandpiper. Both species had been seen within the previous couple of weeks, though it was getting a little late in the season for either, but they were the two most common shorebirds that I was still missing, so it was certainly worth a shot. As it turned out, we didn’t see either, but I did see two distant Hudsonian Godwits—new for the year for me, and a lifer for several field trip participants. So I was thrilled.
I also was coming down with the flu, which laid me low at my daughter’s for a few days. Then she and friends were headed to Vermont for a weekend, and I went along to take a side trip for birding. After I dropped them off, first I headed to a Vermont state wildlife management area in hopes of seeing a Spruce Grouse. I had a most cooperative one at the exact same spot last fall.
I’ve looked for Spruce Grouse on Highway 2 north of Two Harbors many times over the years. It’s best to be at the most likely spots right at daybreak. Sometimes you see one, and sometimes you don’t—in good years you have little better than a 50/50 chance, and in poor years less. When I see one I’m thrilled. When I don’t, though, it doesn’t much matter, because I’ve had such a great time seeing so many other wonderful birds and there’s always next time. But it felt different in Vermont. The weather was ideal and I got to enjoy Gray Jays—new for my Vermont list—along with kinglets, warblers, thrushes, and other fall migrants, in a lush, boggy forest, but my stomach was gripped by a sinking feeling of failure, something I virtually never feel during normal birding, even when I miss a hoped-for target bird. I was headed to the Maine coast in hopes of getting that plover and sandpiper, and stopped by the Vermont wildlife management area again on the way back. The second time was the charm—I got a momentary glimpse of a Spruce Grouse flying across from one tree to another, and saw another one from my car. But somehow, my sensation was more of an “it’s about time” relief from irritation than a joyful “Wow—a Spruce Grouse!”
This Big Year started out as a jolly way to see lots of birds, but focusing too much on the pursuit of a specific number seems to take away some of the fun. My trip to the Maine Coast was also marred by a sense of purpose overpowering my usual sense of fun and adventure.