Wednesday, December 31, 2008

One Year, Three Hundred Fifty Birds, and an Education

New Year's Eve came and went, and no new birds reported, so I coasted into the new year with lots of time to reflect and look back at all that I had done in 2008. It's hard to believe that a year ago I was just starting with the goal of hitting 300, and racing from bird to bird to front-load my list as quickly as possible. There's something about this activity for me that makes my memory seem sharper, and I can picture being in the swamp at Fort Drum, the snowy trails of Bloomingdale Bog, and the hot days at Cupsogue, all as clearly as if I were there again. It's been an incredible year, and I got an education in birding that I could have only had through love, not money. I was schooled by all the masters of the New York birding scene: Shane Blodgett, Shai Mitra and Pat Lindsay, Doug Futuyma, Tom Burke and Gail Benson, Willie D'Anna and Betsy Potter, Bob Spahn, Peter Dorosh, Tom Stephenson and a dozen others, each of whom was generous without exception in sharing their vast knowledge and experience. That coupled with all the great reports and help from people all over the state, and I feel as though I was really just the driver and photographer, and that the true birding was done by everyone who spends their spare (and not so spare) hours in the field, feeding their hunger to be with the birds. I am certainly a better birder for it, and maybe a little different as a person.

The checklisting was what drove me, and for that I'm grateful. The competitive appeal of checklisting can make you do things you might never do...wait for eight hours in the snow, in one spot, to glimpse a reclusive Townsend's Solitaire, or make a dozen eight hour trips upstate to see that newly found bird, to sleep in the car in a parking lot in order to be at the "right place" at sunrise, and to spend a year of your life in non-stop pursuit, whenever and wherever it takes you. Checklisting is the little evil for the greater good. Because in fact what turned out to be truly valuable this year was all the in-between moments...the hours spent with Shai studying terns while waiting for a rare one to appear, the "unproductive" walks in Massawepie Bog for the (never seen) Spruce Grouse, the long but always too-short summer days spent checking the inlets of Long Island, and the hundreds of conversations and encounters with all the passionate birders of this great state.

On New Years Eve I went for a walk with Mary Eyster in Prospect Park, where I began birding, and we had a nearly perfect day. It was crisp and clear, and we had some beautiful birds. A gorgeuous male Purple Finch came into a call and perched a few feet away. The feeders had a festive congregation of doves, red wing blackbirds, nuthatches, Fox Sparrows and woodpeckers. A flock of Robins moved from one tree to the next, and called the alarm as a powerful Red-Tailed Hawk came soaring in throught the trees. There was no chasing here...just a walk in the park, with birds. And that's how I hope to spend many more days as this bright new year unfolds.

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