Transitions in the birding year

Pair of Barrow's Goldeneyes

Pair of Barrow’s Goldeneyes

The first full day of spring, which in Montana means weather straight out of the ADHD mind of the godhead. Warm sun, thunder, torrential rain, freezing rain, snow, and, finally sun again, arrives with much faith and hope for the eager birder. Just as the weather is a chaotic mixture of winter and spring, the local avian assemblage also exists in a state of interfusion and flux. The last lingerers of the winter migrants are holding on into the spring months. A few Common Redpolls huddle around well-stocked feeders. A lone Rough-legged Hawk hunts in a field even as competition from arriving Red-tailed Hawks increases daily. With each passing day, new migrating arrivals fall into the warm valleys. The ubiquitous American Robins continue to build in numbers, their various calls greet the dawn. The Canvasbacks and Redheads settle in on the pothole ponds of the prairie. The medley of birds grows to over-flowing with the inclusion of Snow Geese and Tundra Swans passing overhead. The white Vs resemble waves on a calm ocean, a current of birds heads north to the reaches beyond the treeline.

I live to bird these periods of transition. The novelty of the returning migrants and lament for departing winter residents makes for a delightful yin-yang birding recipe. This time of year also coincides with the annual inflation of the year list, and how I love a growing bird list. It seems that with each day, a new tick seems to appear on that list. Sandhill Crane, check. Greater White-fronted Goose, check. Each tick comes with a flourish of joy, and tinge of clinging. There can be more gratification in the tick than in the bird. Have I got this whole birding thing upside and backwards?

Radd in the Costa Rican rainforest Carara National Park

Radd in the Costa Rican rainforest Carara National Park

This spring, I am determined to undergo my own transition of sorts. I love my lists, perhaps too much. I have chased rare birds over hundreds of miles with caffeine-fueled frenzy, only spend 5 minutes with the objection of my desire (or worse miss it all together), another tick on the old life list. Big Years, Big Days, Life lists are all twists of collection mentality that have dominated a great deal of my birding activity. Now, I think to its high time to simply appreciate the birds as they present themselves. Time to commit to the experience, and not the accumulation of check marks on an inherently meaningless list. Each sighting is a transitory experience that will never be replicated, and the present moment is the only authentic time to be immersed in the bird itself. Through this lens, a American Robin is as equally amazing as the most unlikely of rarities.

Does this mean that I am done listing? Absolutely not, only that the list is no longer the primary motivation for my birding pursuits. When in the middle of the next Big Day, I will (hopefully) be more focused on the amazing experience of seeing a vast representation of the given geographic area’s avian life. It is time to transition into the birding moment.

Written by Radd Icenoggle

I am a native Montanan, who has spent a lifetime as an outdoors and wildlife enthusiast. I earned a degree in biology with an emphasis on habitat relations. During my studies, I had the great fortune to research and compose a thesis that explored the effects of slope aspect on...
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