My Northwoods Bird Wish List

I can’t be the only one who, whenever I’m visiting an area with the potential to add a number of species to my life list, compiles a mental wish list of birds to watch out for. Sometimes I have more luck checking off my desired species than others (my national park road trip with my family last summer, while spectacular, netted me only two lifers – Mountain Bluebird and Juniper Titmouse), but that’s life. Inevitably I have a list of boreal birds I’d like to add to my life list during my two years here in nothern Wisconsin, too. So far I have yet to get a single life bird since moving here but I still have plenty of time.

I’d really like to see…

  • Long-tailed Duck (and perhaps Red-necked Grebe, and if I’m very lucky maybe Harlequin Duck as well) – thank you Sax-Zim Bog Birding Festival! Scored my lifer Long-tails on 2/17/13.
  • Spruce Grouse
  • Black-backed Woodpecker (and sure, in an ideal world Three-toed Woodpecker too, but Black-backed is a more realistic goal)
  • Boreal Chickadee One mixed in with a flock of Black-capped on 9/2/12
  • Bohemian Waxwing Spotted in an ornamental tree in front of the bank in Land O’ Lakes on 1/15/12.
  • Common Redpoll (and possibly Hoary Redpoll too if I’m especially lucky). Scored the Common 12/15/11 – see here. Picked up the Hoary at Sax-Zim on 2/16/13.
  • Pine Grosbeak Saw this one at the same time as the Bohemian Waxwings – see above!
  • Evening Grosbeak See below.
  • Perhaps some of the northern owls, too – Great Gray? Saw-whet (yes, I’ve never seen a Saw-whet)? Northern Hawk-owl? Scored my Northern Saw-whet Owl on 3/24/12 (see here) and my Great Gray Owl and Northern Hawk-owl in Duluth on 2/17/13.

At least I’ve learned that I can’t wait for the birds to come to me – I have to make the time to seek them out, like when I trekked to Moody Forest in Georgia to get my life Red-cockaded Woodpecker. I’m hoping eBird, with its ability to show me a map of local hotspots for any species I type in, will make this easier. I’ve already identified an old logging road in the area that seems to be the place to go around here to find Spruce Grouse, and I’m hoping to check it out when I have time soon.

Happy birding!

I wrote this as a draft on Tuesday. Wednesday morning I was in the office of one of the school administrators I work with when a Purple Finch turned up at the little feeder suction-cupped to her window. When I commented on it, saying that I’d only seen Purple Finches a couple times before because they aren’t common in Ohio, she told that an Evening Grosbeak had been hanging around the previous day as well. Trying to contain my excitement and not come across as a crazy person, I asked her to please, PLEASE tell me if it turned up again. A few minutes later from my own (windowless) office down the hall, I heard her yell “REBECCA, COME QUICK!”, leaped out of my chair, booked it down the hallway, and was rewarded with the sight of a female Evening Grosbeak at the feeder.

Check. Good thing my office doesn’t have a window with a birdfeeder. I’d never get any work done.

How eBird Is Making Me a Better Birder

If you follow me on Twitter (and if you don’t, why don’t you?!), you may have noticed I’ve been tweeting about birds more than usual lately, and in particular I’ve been tweeting about eBird. So much so, in fact, that I almost typed it as #eBird in the subject line of this post.

I submitted my first-ever eBird checklist on September 23, and since then I’ve submitted a bunch more, all from walks I’ve taken around campus. It’s a little annoying to click on “My eBird” and have it tell me that my life list is a paltry 18 species – it’s really 560! – but that’s how many I’ve seen since I started submitting my records to their database. Although I’d been aware of eBird for years, what finally gave me the push I needed to start submitting data was my mom emailing me a link to a bird photo ID quiz they posted recently. Wait, even my mom knows about eBird? Maybe it’s time I started using this thing.

So I did, and something a little surprising happened.

Let me be clear: I’ve never stopped loving birds. Ask my parents what the first thing I did was at every national park we visited on our road trip last summer – I grabbed a copy of the official bird checklist. Birds were what turned me on to nature study, and I knew the names of all the birds in the neighborhood long before I knew the plants or bugs or what have you. But I’d gotten to a point where, unless I was in an area where I was especially likely to see new species or was tagging along on an Audubon club outing or something, I rarely just picked up my binoculars and went birding. Between when I moved here in July and last week, my binoculars probably hadn’t come out of their case more than twice.

Then came eBird.

Suddenly I had motivation to go out and look for birds – if I kept submitting checklists, not only was I contributing to citizen science, I was moving up in the rankings of top Vilas County birders! And if I wanted to submit the most useful best data possible, I had to have not just a list of species but counts of how many individuals of each species I’d seen. Remembering to count the birds I’m looking at has never been my strong suit. I can be a frustrating Christmas Bird Count companion – “Oh, that was a gorgeous flock of Black-throated Sparrows!” “Yeah? How many were there?” “Uh…” Well no more, I tell you, no more!

Another thing I have to do if I’m submitting a checklist is make a good faith effort to identify every bird I see. No more “Oh jeez, fall warblers, why even try.” Of course I already wrote about this at more length in my post about the warbler butt sketch, but it’s true, suddenly I’m training myself to pay attention to the little details that I might have missed. Oh, is that warbler hover-gleaning? What kind of tree is it in? Does it have an eye ring? Wing bars? …Wait, hang on, that’s just another butter-butt, isn’t it? Dang.

Yep, not only am I finally getting back in the habit of taking my binoculars with me when I go for walks in the woods, my birding skills are actually improving. Thank you eBird. Right now I’m #12 on the list of top contributors in my county – let’s see how long it takes me to become number one.

Are you keeping track of the birds you see and submitting the data to eBird? If not, why the heck not?