According to eBird, I've recorded 196 species in five states so far this year. Not a huge number of birds by any stretch. I've seen 76 of these species this year at my office, and 34 at our rowhouse since moving there in February. I keep lists, because I'm a birder. Its just part of what I do.
Once upon a time, when I first used birdchaser as my hotmail address, back before hotmail was bought out by Microsoft, I did more than keep a list. I actively chased birds to add to my life list, and even thought about competing in bird listing competitions. I still dream about doing an ABA big year to see how many species I can find in North America (north of Mexico) in one calendar year. I used to bump into some of the most avid bird listers in North America while chasing such goodies as Common Crane in Nebraska and Siberian Accentors in Idaho. After I first moved to Austin, my wife and I would house sit for a couple while they travelled the world seeking new birds to add to their list. One of them, a retired oil executive, had over 6,000 species on his world list. While I may have thought about birdchasing at that level once upon a time, when my little ones started to arrive, my birding took a much more local bent...which is where I've been for the last few years. I had put birdchasing mostly to the back of my mind, where I could manage the obsession with brief excursions tied to work travel or to see rare birds appearing locally.
Then, I picked up To See Every Bird On Earth by Dan Koeppel, whose father Richard racked up a list of over 7,000 birds in a lifetime of birding and 59 major trips over 17 years before retiring from active birding after some serious health scares. Soon the floodgates were opened, and I found myself dreaming of trips to see exotic birds and wondering about some of the major bird listers that I had heard my friends talk about in the early 90s. Here in Koeppel's book, I got a glimpse of some of these characters--including the legendary Phoebe Snetsinger, who died on a birding trip to Madagascar a few years ago after racking up a still-record-holding list of over 8,500 species, and a current favorite Peter Kaestner, a diplomat for the US state department with a list of over 8,000 birds. (see a list of current global listing standings here)
Most of the book chronicles the struggles of Keoppel's father to find a footing in a world that undervalued his interest in birds, and seemed to have been stacked against a young birder seeking a fulfilling family and emotional life. The story is punctuated with bird sightings, but the hard-core bird listing doesn't enter into the narrative until rather late in the book. While Keoppel does a fair job explaining the global listing obsession, I was left wanting more in-depth coverage of this fascinating branch of birding. Keoppel mentions such infamous early 90s birders like Harvey Gilston--who reportedly couldn't identify hardly any of the over 7,000 bird species he had seen, and walked away from birding in 1991, or the British husband and wife team of Michael Lambarth and Sandra Fisher, who only counted birds they shared until Sandra died and Michael, too, walked away from the quest to see all the world's birds. While Keoppel spends a good chapter with legendary bird tour leader Bret Whitney of Austin, and birding with Peter Kaestner...these are the highlights of the book. I still want to see a juicy, down and dirty treatment of the world birding listing scene. Until that book is written, this will have to suffice as an intro into that world and some of the characters that inhabit it.
What drives people to spend hundreds of thousands and upwards of millions of dollars, not to mention years and years away from their families, to try and see so many birds? Koeppel declines to offer a reason, suspecting that any answer would involve complex personal psychological factors beyond his ken. After reading this book, I wonder about that myself. And to wonder how long I can stave off such madness in my own life. Can I be satisfied with yard and county listing and a handful of trips around the country each year to see some new birds, or am I teetering on the edge of a madness that few could fathom? I'm slipping off to Veracruz, Mexico this fall for an ornithological conference. Maybe, just maybe, I'll have to dust off the world bird checklist that has been languishing on my library shelf these last few years. If I dare!
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