For me, 2021 was the year of the bird.
I discovered a new passion and hobby that has carried me away. In the spring, I went birding three to five times a week, sometimes with friends, sometimes alone, before class and after work, in my neighborhood and at parks around the city and state. The thrill and excitement of spring migration captured my imagination in a way I didn’t think possible. Watching birds has changed my life, though it took me a long while to get here.
For years, I’ve wanted to become a “birder”. My trip to Tanzania in 2017 was the first time I paid any attention to birds (other than my beloved common loons that I grew up with in northern Wisconsin and Minnesota). As I clutched my field notebook and pen in one hand, and the railing of our open-air safari jeep in the other, bouncing along dirt roads in search of wildlife, I remember feeling in awe of how knowledgeable my safari guides were.
They knew every mammal, insect, and plant that we encountered in Tarangire and Serengeti National Parks, but what amazed me most was their knowledge of birds. Sure, I could tell an elephant from a warthog, but those birds? Flashing their feathers as they flew by us, perching on a nearby tree branch if we were lucky? I was in awe. I decided that I wanted to learn the spirits of my home as well as they knew theirs.
In Alaska, I also found a community of birdwatchers and -knowers. But the tundra birds seemed too daunting to learn compared to the standstill arctic wildflowers that I ended up falling in love with.
Little by little, I continued to dip my toes into the world of birds. Two years later, I enjoyed birding in New Zealand enough to purchase a birding book, though I was more of an incidental than purposeful birder.
That summer in Denali, I was sure to record birds on my hikes with visitors. I didn’t yet have a good system for tracking my sightings, but I took my Sibley guide everywhere and worked with my visitors and bus drivers to identify the birds we saw: kingfishers, spruce grouse, white-crowned sparrows, Swainson’s thrushes, osprey, willow and rock ptarmigan, yellow-rumped warblers, and even a gyrfalcon nesting along the park road.
Yet even with these experiences, I never found motivation to learn my Midwestern home’s birds after moving to Wisconsin, even though it was something I’d dreamed of doing after returning from Tanzania. Maybe it was because the more exotic birds I saw in other places, the less exciting my backyard birds seemed to me. Regardless, I was wrong. The more we learn about our own home, the more we care about it, are connected to it, and it couldn’t be more true for my current home in south-central Wisconsin.
In March 2021, I did the long work of organizing my previous bird sightings into an online database called eBird. Managed by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, eBird is a community science database with more than 700,000 birders around the globe contributing valuable bird observations.
I dusted off my Tanzania field journal and my New Zealand birding guide to enter my international birds to my life list. I added my Denali observations too, as well as the Madison-based birds I did learn during the fall migration Birdathon team I organized for my graduate school cohort.
At the time, I had 109 birds on my life list. Every time I see and record a new bird, it is automatically recorded to my life list with the location I first saw it.
Without knowing how to get started, I began by bringing my binoculars with me on my walks with Bozeman around the neighborhood. Though they were a bit dinged up, they were quality: Vortex Diamondback 8×45 binoculars, with crystal clear glass that allowed plenty of light in. John snagged them out of the Denali concessioner’s lost-and-found bin–after going unclaimed for 30 days, they would have been shipped to Fairbanks and sold for profit. Though I know these must have belonged to a birdwatcher, I hope they would be happy to know this pair of binoculars helped someone else fall in love with birds, too.
Some of my first lists in March had around 11 different species on them. As spring continued, the lists expanded with my skillset and the timing of a blooming migration. I began exploring new parks with fellow grad students early before class. The thrill of seeing and identifying new birds encouraged me to see more Madison parks than I’d ever seen before.
The year wore on, and truthfully by mid-June as the migration waned, I also felt like I needed a break. I birded less frequently, but still took my binoculars and camera when we traveled to new destinations, recording my sightings in Indiana Dunes National Park, the dunes of Kohler-Andrae State Park in Wisconsin, and in central California for Thanksgiving.
The year ended with a trip to the Sax-Zim Bog in northern Minnesota, a well-known winter birding destination, a chance to see birds that only came this far south ever, and some only in the winter: birds like evening and pine grosbeaks, common redpolls, boreal chickadees, and great gray owls. My dad and I left the house at dark and spent the morning driving backroads through the bog looking for the elusive great gray owl. The temperature dipped below -15F.
While we didn’t spot the great gray, we did have a chance to see a snowy owl perched along county road 7 thanks to a tip from a fellow birder. Seeing its white feathers ruffling in the wind, yellow eyes alert yet calm, rushed me back to the first and only snowy owl I’ve ever seen in Utqiagvik, Alaska. How amazing is it that so many birds make such powerful migrations every year, connecting every continent on the globe?
I’ve got new goals and excitement for what birdy experiences 2022 will bring, but I also want to reflect on the last year. Check out my highlights below:
- In 2021, I saw 163 bird species across 6 states, starting with the Canada Jay during our winter camping trip in the boundary waters and ending with the snowy owl near Duluth.
- Of those birds, 121 of them were lifers, meaning it was the first time I’d ever seen or identified them (WOW!).
- Highlight birds
- The cinnamon teal was the first rare-to-Dane-County bird that I ever saw. I spotted it at Donald Lake Farm County Park after reading eBird reports that it was in the area.
- The palm warbler was the first warbler I ever identified on my own, in Indiana Dunes National Park.
- Though I had seen one in Utqiagvik in 2018, my dad and I were able to spot a snowy owl in the Sax Zim Bog on the second to last day of the year. It was my first sighting in Minnesota, and his first ever!
Stay tuned for more birdy stories this year! And enjoy some of my favorite photos from the year below.