For the Birds Radio Program: A Burnt-Out Case, Part II
Laura Erickson has been having a super year, but is wondering about the hectic pace she’s been following for her Big Year.
Last month, I headed to Popham Beach State Park on the Maine coast in hopes of seeing two common shorebirds I was still missing for the year—White-rumped Sandpiper and American Golden-Plover. I’d been at that same state park this summer—it’s where I finally saw a Roseate Tern and took my very best pictures ever of Piping Plovers and Least Terns. The plover and tern weren’t new for the year—I savored them for their own sake, not the sake of my list.
Popham Beach State Park is a lovely jewel of a park, so I was happy about the prospect of a second visit there in one year. Exactly like my first visit, I lucked into arriving right at low tide, when hundreds of shorebirds were pigging out on a mucky area. I’ve never seen so many Semipalmated Plovers, Semipalmated Sandpipers, and Dunlins in one spot before—it was truly thrilling, and I got plenty of photos. But throughout, I kept scanning through these wonderful birds hoping to spot among them one of the species I still needed. Simple scans affirmed that no large plovers—Black-bellied or American Golden—were around at all, but I finally caught a brief look at a White-rumped Sandpiper off in the distance. Its wing drooped, which may be why it was still around about a week after most of them had headed south.
Rewarding as it was to add another species to my Big Year list, it was heartbreaking to realize that the one I was seeing was hurt. It did fly when something suddenly alarmed the birds in that part of the beach, but a drooping wing is a sign of weakness that doesn’t portend well when it was supposed to spend the winter in South America. Without the focus on finding a new bird for the year, I’m not sure I’d have seen it at all—savoring all the nearer shorebirds would most likely have kept me plenty busy and satisfied. It was that greedy need for yet another species further away that kept me from enjoying the wondrous abundance right at my feet.
It’s not that I’m not always somewhat acquisitive, hungry to see as many species as I can, but until this trip to Vermont and Maine, I haven’t felt the least bit anxious about my species total. Something had shifted. Was it that I was taking such a long trip with such a low potential for new species, since I’ve covered much of the eastern half of the country pretty well already? Was it because on this trip I got sick for the first time all year, making me more stressed and cranky? Was it part of the national malaise, everyone anxious and worried and angry about the looming (and now re-looming) shut down and debt ceiling deadline? Whatever it was, it suddenly seemed meaningless and even silly to be trying to see new birds more than I was enjoying the ones right there.
I still have a few trips to go before the year ends—to South Texas for a conference promoting diversity in birding and for the Lower Rio Grande Valley Birding Festival; to Arizona, to southern California, and to south Florida. By the time I’m done, I’d love to have seen 58 more species for the year. But for the duration, I want to get back to enjoying every bird I see. Cool as it would be if I reach 600 this year, I’m hoping that magic number 600 falls off my radar for the duration.