For the Birds Radio Program: Lifers at 55

Original Air Date: June 11, 1997

Today’s program is about lifers I’ve added while zipping along freeways and highways. 3:16 Date confirmed

Audio missing


Birdwatching is supposed to be a low-key, slow-speed sort of activity, but sometimes we have to pick up the pace. I spent lat week in Florida, and one day as my husband Russ and I were driving along Highway 1, zipping between two of the Keys, we passed a couple of terns sitting on the bridge railing. Something about them struck me, and I suddenly realized they were Sandwich Terns. Lifers! But we were racing along at 55, with lots of traffic behind us on the two-lane highway, so we had to keep going. This was on the bridge between Grassy Key and Long Key, which is maybe a couple of miles long.

Fortunately, my husband Russ is a rather tolerant kind of guy, and when we reached the end of the bridge, he pulled over and turned the car around so I could get a better look. Unfortunately, the angle of the bridge and railings was bad for viewing from that side of the road, so I didn’t get to see them again until we reached the end of the bridge and turned around again. Traffic was lighter on this pass, and we could slow the car down to 40. This time I had my binoculars set and got a perfect look: they were, indeed, Sandwich terns, named for Sandwich, Kent, in England, where the first specimen was collected. Even at this speed I could clearly see the yellow tip of the black bill, the slight crest, and the black feet, diagnostic of this lifer. Not only did I add it to my life list and Florida list–I also got it on my Zeiss list, the list of all the birds I’ve seen through my Zeiss binoculars. But there was yet one more list I wanted it on, so we turned around yet one more time and made another double pass, so I could see it through my Kowa scope.

The Sandwich Tern isn’t the first bird I’ve added to my lifelist while going 55 miles per hour. Last summer I saw my first Yellow-billed Magpies while driving a California freeway at high speed. That experience was far more frustrating than this one with the terns. There wasn’t an exit for miles, and although I got perfect, clear looks, there was no time to grab my binoculars before we had left the flock far behind.

The first Bald Eagle I ever saw was also discovered while we were going highway speed. That was back in 1976, when Russ and I were going through northern Michigan. Although he was the one driving, he’s the one who spotted the eagle perched in a huge pine tree. It was one of the great thrills of my life. At that time, Bald Eagles were extremely rare in Michigan, and I wasn’t at all expecting to see one. And seeing it was more satisfying than seeing either the terns or the magpie for another reason as well. When we saw the eagle, we were on a quiet two-lane road where we could pull over, sto the car, and view the eagle at leisure.

Over the course of my birding, I’ve seen or heard many birds while driving fast along busy highways, but getting a lifer at high speed is a rare and wonderful event. Speeding through life is a hazard of the times, but there are still plenty of birds to enjoy.