For the Birds Radio Program: Lists

Original Air Date: Feb. 18, 1991

Instead of looking over seed catalogs in February, Laura looks at her old bird lists. (Date verified)

Audio missing


February is the month when gardeners pore through seed catalogs, their thoughts escaping to sun-warmed soil and flowers reaching to the summer sky. They look at the catalog pictures with memories of gardens past and expectations about gardens to come.

I’m not a gardener, but I get the same February satisfaction from pulling out my old bird lists. I can reminisce about birds I’ve seen before and plan trips to see them again, and conjure up strategies for finding the ones I’ve missed.

1975 was the best year of all, because every bird was new. From the Black-capped Chickadee in Baker Woodlot at Michigan State on March 2 through the Common Merganser swimming in the Belmont Yacht Club in Chicago on December 23, I found and identified 120 lifers that year. It was on May 11 that I discovered warblers. I sat on a rock in the Red Cedar Woodlot on campus as a rainbow of warblers brightened the trees above me. Most of them came and went before I could find them in the field guide, but I did manage to figure out the identities of four different finds that morning. By the end of the year, I had identified 13 species of warblers, including Number 100 on my lifelist, the Tennessee Warbler.

If 1975 was the best, 1976 was even better, because there were still plenty of new birds to be found plus old friends to see again. On June 6, on a drive to Grayling, Michigan, my husband spotted an adult Bald Eagle perched on the spire of a spruce–the very first Bald Eagle we’d ever seen. When we got to Grayling, we went on a Kirtland’s Warbler tour. That rare little gem was singing right where it belonged along with a Prairie Warbler snoring out its sleepy song. I had both of them in my binoculars at the same time. And above it all floated a most unexpected sound, the song of a mockingbird. Four quality lifers within an hour.

Later that month, we went down to Savannah, Georgia. What exotic riches for a midwesterner! Snakey Anhingas, bizarre Purple Gallinules, Snowy Egrets promenading in their golden slippers. Number 196 was a King Rail strolling across a dike leading two chicks. And a pair of Least Terns darting gracefully over a pool at Fort Pulaski marked Number 200 on my list.

I passed the 300 landmark in Bentsen-Rio Grande State Park in Texas two years later, surely the best year yet, when a Black-shouldered Kite flew right above our picnic table and landed in a nearby tree. Among the 46 lifers Texas gave me were roadrunners, chachalacas, Vermilion Flycatchers, avocets, Roseate Spoonbills, and Whooping Cranes.

A Franklin’s Gull in the Milwaukee Harbor brought my total to 400 on August 31, 1980. The next day my father died of a sudden heart attack. The afternoon following his funeral I took a long walk by myself. Two Buff-breasted Sandpipers walked alone beside me for a ways, almost as if to show their sympathy. Now every sighting of a Buff-breasted Sandpiper or a Franklin’s Gull makes me think of my dad.

We took a vacation in Nevada and Arizona when our first baby was six months old. I added 54 lifers on that trip, and got to see roadrunners and other Texas birds again. That was surely the best year ever. The only day I didn’t see a new bird, Joey’s first tooth came in, which was pretty much as exciting.

Some people don’t keep lists because it focuses their attention away from the actual experience of enjoying birds. My list is a tangible memento of fleeting moments that would be otherwise lost forever. And it sure is nice to pull it out on a dreary February day and live some of those old days again, and to plan out new memories of the best years yet to come.