The Big Year of Dewees Birding: What we learned

screech owl
The Screech owl I didn’t get in my big year birding: this one is from the South Carolina Aquarium

On New Year’s eve, tired and chilly, I found myself alone in the driveway playing screech owl calls from my ipad into the dark forest.  Shivering and straining to hear an answer, I waited in vain.  I trudged upstairs for warmer clothes and managed to convince my good natured but disinclined husband to come along for a quick (“I promise!”) trip into the deeper forest at the end of Old House Lane.  We bundled up in the cold wind, and tried several other locations.  An orange moon was peeking over the horizon, making a glow in the moist air, and the distant sounds of fireworks from downtown Charleston were the only answer to our attempts to roust a screech owl to round out my year end list for the big year contest of 2102.  I finished the year without one, but I had to laugh at myself for trying to eek out one last bird on the last hours of the year.

I was a big fan of this big year idea: inspired by The Big Year: A Tale of Man, Nature, and Fowl Obsession by Mark Obmascik. I thought it would be a great way to involve the whole community in birding. We have some records, diligently recorded in the 90’s by Ed Conradi, and digitally entered into Cornell University’s database by Bill Sullivan, and those records paint a relatively comprehensive picture of what birds can be found here. But this would give us a chance to gather data on a regular, non-birding event sort of basis. So I expected to learn some new birding skills, see some new birds, and help flesh out our informational picture of what is here on the island.

green heron
immature green heron

It turns out, our Big Year Contest didn’t quite go as expected. First of all, there were really only 5 entrants by the end, and Reggie and Ted weren’t nearly as data-entry obsessed as I was. Which was fine, because the three of us had some great fun birding, and we enjoyed three generations of birding some days, with both Reggie’s mom and my parents, and the Sullivans and their grandchildren. And it turned out, it wasn’t really about the numbers in a lot of ways.  I LOVED the competition; don’t get me wrong.  I had a very funny exchange with Mary Kay Sullivan on one of the last days of December, where we each thought the other was leaving the island and we each pretended to be sad to see each other not have those hours for birding… and we each agreed that we didn’t really mean it at all!  And while the community wasn’t out there birding every day in pouring rain and icy wind and blistering sunshine, the entire community DID rally behind the idea of our seasonal birds with the awesome exhibit at POA weekend with Margaret’s fabulous watercolors. The photo contest was also a big hit, with Allen and Bubber each sending in some amazing photos.

people birding
Palmetto Pro Birder Class

I also found that we counted the most birds when the largest number of people were birding. More eyes and ears find more birds. Ironically, there were no Christmas bird counts in 2012– One was in Dec 2011 and one was in January 2013, so the biggest count day was taken out of our contest, and that probably made it more fair. The spring bird count in May found us all here, and that’s when Mary Kay and Connie scored one of the biggest “gets,” a swallowtail kite. South Carolina Master Naturalists spotted a Piping Plover. And the Palmetto Pro Birders class yielded a great look at an American Bittern.

As part of my personal connection to the contest, I read Kenn Kaufmann’s “>Kingbird Highway, the story of his quest to win the North American Biggest Year competition, at age 16, by hitchhiking all over the US. Encouraged by the sense of discovery, I also read some of the works of early Naturalists (more on them later,) and Carl Safina’s “>Eye of the Albatross, which are books worth reading. I’ll share this, my favorite quote from Kaufmann, which is really what it’s all about. The act of birding gets us out there, awake and attentive.

clapper rail
clapper rail

Yes, it’s good to go on a quest, but it’s better to go with an open mind.  The most significant thing we find may not be the thing we were seeking.  That is what redeems the crazy ambivalence of birding.  As trivial as our listing pursuit may be, it gets us out there in the real world, paying attention, hopeful, and awake. Any day can be a special day, and probably will be, if we just go out to look.

Kenn Kaufman, Kingbird Highway, 2005 notes

The totals don’t seem quite as important any more, but my number is 161, listed below. As a team, the total number of birds recorded on the island is 219, which means that there are many more for me to find. So far in 2013, I have 74, so I am off to a good start… and now I am going to make today a special one by going out to look!

Gadwall – Anas strepera
American Wigeon – Anas americana
American Black Duck – Anas rubripes
Mottled Duck – Anas fulvigula
Blue-winged Teal – Anas discors
Northern Shoveler – Anas clypeata
Green-winged Teal – Anas crecca
Lesser Scaup – Aythya affinis
Greater/Lesser Scaup – Aythya marila/affinis
White-winged Scoter – Melanitta fusca
Black Scoter – Melanitta americana
Bufflehead – Bucephala albeola
Hooded Merganser – Lophodytes cucullatus
Red-breasted Merganser – Mergus serrator
Ruddy Duck – Oxyura jamaicensis
Common Loon – Gavia immer
Pied-billed Grebe – Podilymbus podiceps
Horned Grebe – Podiceps auritus
Wood Stork – Mycteria americana
Northern Gannet – Morus bassanus
Double-crested Cormorant – Phalacrocorax auritus
Anhinga – Anhinga anhinga
American White Pelican – Pelecanus erythrorhynchos
Brown Pelican – Pelecanus occidentalis
American Bittern – Botaurus lentiginosus
Least Bittern – Ixobrychus exilis
Great Blue Heron – Ardea herodias
Great Egret – Ardea alba
Snowy Egret – Egretta thula
Little Blue Heron – Egretta caerulea
Tricolored Heron – Egretta tricolor
Reddish Egret – Egretta rufescens
Green Heron – Butorides virescens
Black-crowned Night-Heron – Nycticorax nycticorax
Yellow-crowned Night-Heron – Nyctanassa violacea
White Ibis – Eudocimus albus
Glossy Ibis – Plegadis falcinellus
Roseate Spoonbill – Platalea ajaja
Black Vulture – Coragyps atratus
Turkey Vulture – Cathartes aura
Osprey – Pandion haliaetus
Northern Harrier – Circus cyaneus
Sharp-shinned Hawk – Accipiter striatus
Cooper’s Hawk – Accipiter cooperii
Accipiter sp. – Accipiter sp.
Bald Eagle – Haliaeetus leucocephalus
Red-shouldered Hawk – Buteo lineatus
Red-tailed Hawk – Buteo jamaicensis
Clapper Rail – Rallus longirostris
Common Gallinule – Gallinula galeata
American Coot – Fulica americana
Black-bellied Plover – Pluvialis squatarola
Wilson’s Plover – Charadrius wilsonia
Semipalmated Plover – Charadrius semipalmatus
Piping Plover – Charadrius melodus
Killdeer – Charadrius vociferus
American Oystercatcher – Haematopus palliatus
Black-necked Stilt – Himantopus mexicanus
Spotted Sandpiper – Actitis macularius
Greater Yellowlegs – Tringa melanoleuca
Willet – Tringa semipalmata
Lesser Yellowlegs – Tringa flavipes
Greater/Lesser Yellowlegs – Tringa melanoleuca/flavipes
Whimbrel – Numenius phaeopus
Ruddy Turnstone – Arenaria interpres
Red Knot – Calidris canutus
Sanderling – Calidris alba
Least Sandpiper – Calidris minutilla
Dunlin – Calidris alpina
Short-billed Dowitcher – Limnodromus griseus
Long-billed Dowitcher – Limnodromus scolopaceus
Short-billed/Long-billed Dowitcher – Limnodromus griseus/scolopaceus
Bonaparte’s Gull – Chroicocephalus philadelphia
Laughing Gull – Leucophaeus atricilla
Ring-billed Gull – Larus delawarensis
Herring Gull – Larus argentatus
Great Black-backed Gull – Larus marinus
Least Tern – Sternula antillarum
Gull-billed Tern – Gelochelidon nilotica
Caspian Tern – Hydroprogne caspia
Common Tern – Sterna hirundo
Forster’s Tern – Sterna forsteri
Royal Tern – Thalasseus maximus
Sandwich Tern – Thalasseus sandvicensis
Black Skimmer – Rynchops niger
Rock Pigeon – Columba livia
Mourning Dove – Zenaida macroura
Common Ground-Dove – Columbina passerina
Yellow-billed Cuckoo – Coccyzus americanus
Great Horned Owl – Bubo virginianus
Common Nighthawk – Chordeiles minor
Chuck-will’s-widow – Antrostomus carolinensis
Chimney Swift – Chaetura pelagica
Ruby-throated Hummingbird – Archilochus colubris
Belted Kingfisher – Megaceryle alcyon
Red-bellied Woodpecker – Melanerpes carolinus
Yellow-bellied Sapsucker – Sphyrapicus varius
Downy Woodpecker – Picoides pubescens
Hairy Woodpecker – Picoides villosus
Northern Flicker – Colaptes auratus
American Kestrel – Falco sparverius
Merlin – Falco columbarius
Empidonax sp. – Empidonax sp.
Eastern Phoebe – Sayornis phoebe
Great Crested Flycatcher – Myiarchus crinitus
Eastern Kingbird – Tyrannus tyrannus
Loggerhead Shrike – Lanius ludovicianus
Blue-headed Vireo – Vireo solitarius
Blue Jay – Cyanocitta cristata
American Crow – Corvus brachyrhynchos
Fish Crow – Corvus ossifragus
Purple Martin – Progne subis
Tree Swallow – Tachycineta bicolor
Barn Swallow – Hirundo rustica
Carolina Chickadee – Poecile carolinensis
Tufted Titmouse – Baeolophus bicolor
Red-breasted Nuthatch – Sitta canadensis
White-breasted Nuthatch – Sitta carolinensis
House Wren – Troglodytes aedon
Sedge Wren – Cistothorus platensis
Marsh Wren – Cistothorus palustris
Carolina Wren – Thryothorus ludovicianus
Blue-gray Gnatcatcher – Polioptila caerulea
Golden-crowned Kinglet – Regulus satrapa
Ruby-crowned Kinglet – Regulus calendula
Hermit Thrush – Catharus guttatus
American Robin – Turdus migratorius
Gray Catbird – Dumetella carolinensis
Northern Mockingbird – Mimus polyglottos
Brown Thrasher – Toxostoma rufum
European Starling – Sturnus vulgaris
Cedar Waxwing – Bombycilla cedrorum
Prothonotary Warbler – Protonotaria citrea
Swainson’s Warbler – Limnothlypis swainsonii
Orange-crowned Warbler – Oreothlypis celata
Common Yellowthroat – Geothlypis trichas
Cape May Warbler – Setophaga tigrina
Northern Parula – Setophaga americana
Yellow Warbler – Setophaga petechia
Black-throated Blue Warbler – Setophaga caerulescens
Palm Warbler – Setophaga palmarum
Pine Warbler – Setophaga pinus
Yellow-rumped Warbler – Setophaga coronata
Yellow-throated Warbler – Setophaga dominica
Prairie Warbler – Setophaga discolor
Eastern Towhee – Pipilo erythrophthalmus
Chipping Sparrow – Spizella passerina
Savannah Sparrow – Passerculus sandwichensis
Nelson’s Sparrow – Ammodramus nelsoni
Saltmarsh Sparrow – Ammodramus caudacutus
Seaside Sparrow – Ammodramus maritimus
Song Sparrow – Melospiza melodia
White-throated Sparrow – Zonotrichia albicollis
Summer Tanager – Piranga rubra
Northern Cardinal – Cardinalis cardinalis
Indigo Bunting – Passerina cyanea
Painted Bunting – Passerina ciris
Red-winged Blackbird – Agelaius phoeniceus
Eastern Meadowlark – Sturnella magna
Common Grackle – Quiscalus quiscula
Boat-tailed Grackle – Quiscalus major
Brown-headed Cowbird – Molothrus ater
Orchard Oriole – Icterus spurius
House Finch – Haemorhous mexicanus

This Post Has 4 Comments

  1. Carey Sullivan

    I will echo all your sentiments and say that the time my children have spent with their grandparents “out there”….looking, listening, searching….they have gained more than a few bird sightings. They have gained an appreciation for the need to be quiet, an understanding that nature is sneaky in wonderfully creative ways, and most importantly, that they have so much to gain by time spent with their grandparents! Yeah for birding! Thank you Judy, for getting us all out there!

  2. Reggie Fairchild

    My favorite moment was when Mary Kay Sullivan walked into a party at the Huyler House and held of 4 fingers in Judy’s direction. The code: I just scored 4 more birds, moving me from 2 behind you to 2 in front of you. Who knew birding could be so competitive and yet still so much fun.

  3. Frieda Worrall

    Enjoyed your piece about birding. I’ve loved watching them for 50+ years. I took friends to Whitewater Draw this week to see the 10-15000 sandhill cranes that come to AZ very year along with some snow geese, etc. Good luck with your count this year. Maybe more friends will join in this year.

  4. Susan Troutman

    Super late comment. My husband and I are investigating living on the SC coast. Your bird list tells me a lot about the habitat in a more specific way. Thanks for taking the time to post your list of birds.

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