321 Birding Year: Luck and Lifers

“Science is not only a disciple of reason but, also, one of romance and passion.” ~ Stephen Hawking

Our love affair birds came about gradually, really. I’ve always had my eyes to the skies or in the trees since I can remember, but once I became a parent, indoor voyeurism of the tiny ‘water sprinklers’ at the bird bath or watching babies get fed was a natural for sharing with eager children. I would actively look for these opportunities just to watch my children’s eyes light up with joy. But they do grow up. It was their love of birds that helped my hobby bloom into a full-on family obsession.

It’s difficult to believe our first counting year was only four years ago.

Adorned with bright feathers and spunky personalities, birds are easy to love. I’ve only met one person in my whole life that didn’t love birds, and hers was more of a flying animals phobia than it was a dislike for feathers. Birds pollinate flowers. They eat insects that bother us. They propagate plant seeds.  With the varied plumage — some changing within the seasons — they sure are nice to look at. What’s not to love?

As bipeds, their life in the skies and in the trees is but a dream for us. They whoosh up and off when they feel like it, getting out of town whenever the mood strikes them. Only a major exploitation of Earth’s resources or lots and lots of time on foot would allow us the same luxury. While we’re busy inventing new and astounding ways to destroy our planet, they serve as delightful trinkets to be adored and collected.

Birds remind us of our place within nature; every tiny feathered life added brings yet another piece to an increasingly complex puzzle. Like many birders, we finally joined the ranks of citizen scientists and started using birding ‘hot spots’ for hikes with and without kids. To non-birders, it may all seem like a juggle — managing the kids, spotting, ticking, shooting — but, thankfully, there’s an app for that. Each species viewed in our lenses heightens a realization that their spaces are disappearing. As go their homes and stopovers, so too go they.

Home is where most of our bird ‘action’ is. Last day of 2017, we enjoyed the aerial acrobatics of a pair of Bald Eagles fighting over food above our yard, neighbors unaware. They were all hustling to get ready for parties indoors or fireworks outdoors. Thankfully, we had been looking up with nothing better to do.

This year’s 321 bird species can be summed up in two words: luck and lifers. We hope you enjoy the stories and photos as much as we did getting those birds!

~ Shannon @ DirtNKids Blog

In winter, Scott and I take frequent walks or bike rides around our neighborhood, field lenses around our necks. One particular day, we spotted an unknown bird in the drainage ditch, raced home to get the camera, and hoped to find him again when we returned. He was there, a Solitary Sandpiper — solitary, as his name suggests — and a rare visitor for our area. We were able to identify our first Cave Swallow in much the same manner, ID’d with field guides once we returned home and viewed zoomed-in images on the computer screen. Pictures aren’t just worth 1,000 words; they’re really helpful in proper identification over beer and pretzels.

Solitary Sandpiper

Solitary Sandpiper Lifer!

Birding away from home is a sure-fire way to see new species; Colorado Springs, Colorado is a favorite away-place to go birding. Time constraints kept me from blogging about the incredible outdoor adventure, so I threw together a short photo post instead. (Sorry. Hope to better this year.)

We prepare lists weeks before hitting the road that we might narrow down what could be at our destination that time of year. It was the Clark’s Nutcracker we were looking for at Mueller State Park, in addition to some fantastic hikes in the snow among mountain views.  But Williamson’s Sapsucker was not one of those birds we expected to see. A small flock had shown up early enough to their summer homes to overlap our two days there, and we knew enough to ID him quickly. We also added the elusive and blendy Brown Creeper to our Life List, as well as a Northern Shrike, Golden-crowned Kinglet, American Tree Sparrow, Juniper Titmouse and California Gull within that same week.

Williamson's Sapsucker

Williamson Sapsucker Lifer! Luck!

Once spring migration is underway, any time off of work (skipping work?) gets spent outdoors birding. The first outing to Boy Scout Woods in High Island ended in disappointment; blustery days before had pushed all the migrating warblers as far north as Kansas. They missed us completely! Still sulking over the missed Cerulean Warblers, we headed to Anahuac NWR to look for waterfowl. Not only were we tipped off to the Least Bittern we’d been looking for all these years, the King Rail, Stilt Sandpiper, White-rumped Sandpiper, Buff-breasted Sandpiper, and Whimbrel were added to our Life List as well. If it weren’t for the kindness and sharing nature of fellow birders, we might not have seen these birds at all, much less having been able to identify them if we had.

It was not the best spring for photographs, and to know me, I’m all about collecting my little gems for viewing later. Nothing was as painful as the missed Bobolink — he was found by another birder an hour after we had left. Birding is mostly about being at the right place at the right time and ‘ya get what ya get.’ Bi-polar highs and lows, all I had to blog about was the booty, tushy love we got for all the time put in. We may have gotten the Black-whiskered Vireo, Warbling Vireo, and Praire Warbler, but we missed the Wood Thrush, Black-billed Cuckoo, Canada Warbler, Swainson’s Warbler, and Inca Dove.

Oh well. There’s always next spring.

Fulvous Whistling Duck

Fulvous Whistling Duck Luck!
‘Hey, lady, quit griping and look up already!’

A casual glance of a black bird flying across the path might have you thinking ‘Blackbird’ or ‘Crow’ as a first guess. Experience told me otherwise: the long tail and thick bill suggested an Groove-billed Ani. So we chased. And we chased. My husband wanted to give up, but my tenacity paid off. A manual focus ring is a welcomed tool for photographing a rare sighting in dense foliage.

Groove-billed Ani (Lifer!)

Groove-billed Ani Luck!

On the Upper Texas Gulf Coast, Bolivar Flats Shorebird Sanctuary is a great place for one-stop bird shopping. Occasionally a raucous 4-wheeler must be stopped and averted in this protected space. Nothing lowers tension from fellow apes than an unknown bird in the distance. We never expected to see a Long-tailed Duck down this far south; she’s an Arctic bird! However it is, we’re glad she stayed — even happier to send off the 4-wheeler that would’ve wrecked her nap.

Long-tailed Duck (Lifer!)

Long-tailed Duck Lifer! Luck!

Some birds aren’t found in the air — they tend to blend in quite well on the ground. Wilson’s Snipe was right there laying low right in front of our car as we parked. Got him!

Wilson's Snipe

Wilson’s Snipe Luck!

Two times this beautiful hawk swooped down in front of my vehicle as I drove around my neighborhood, and two times I didn’t have my camera equipment with me. With this migratory Swainson’s Hawk, there would not be a third time missed.

Swainson's Hawk

Swainson’s Hawk Luck!
Maybe a tinge of planning

Don’t forget to check the trees in your own backyard. Ours was full of babies, in case you don’t remember know. These Red-shouldered Hawk chicks look like little aliens ascended upon our property. All three made it and are now hunting our backyard squirrels with voracity. Hopefully they too will raise their families where we can watch again next year.

Red-shouldered Hawk Chicks Luck! Privilege!

Camping affords crepuscular hours with the birds while the kids stay back, sleeping in. No need to shower, no need to drive. Just grab the camera and field lens and get to walking. Cassin’s Finches were seen daily at DeMott’s Campground at the North Rim of Grand Canyon National Park along with Virginia’s Warbler (at the overlook) and Western Wood-Pewee on the trail, fluffing her nest.

Cassin's Finch

Cassin’s Finch Lifer!

Ruby-crowned Kinglet

Golden-crowned Kinglet Luck!
Finally, some red crown

It pays to keep your eyes peeled for hawks and flocks of birds while whizzing along at 85 mph. I made Scott stop turn the van around for this Golden Eagle, which he thought to be just another Red-tailed hawk. It wasn’t.

Golden Eagle

Golden Eagler Lifer!

We had no idea that Sandhill Cranes turned orange with their diet foraging in Grand Tetons National Park. Turns out these two had a little one with them! We logged a Brewer’s Sparrow and our 300th Bird, a Red Crossbill, soon after. Both were Life Birds.

Sandhill Cranes (family)

Sandhill Crane Family Luck!

In Yellowstone National Park, it seems that every golden-eyed duck is a common one. Thanks to Scott’s keen long distance vision — and my 600mm camera lens — we could get all the necessary field markings and ID him for what he is: Barrow’s Goldeneye.

Barrow's Goldeneye

Barrow’s Goldeneye Lifer!

Needing to see sparrows like Nelson’s and Seaside before the year’s end, we instead found this beautiful and close-up Long-billed Curlew. Like kids and candid shots, I prefer to capture birds in portraits just doing what they do, oblivious to me and my camera.

Long-billed Curlew

Long-billed Curlew Luck!

Our last National Park tour of 2017 put us at Rattlesnake Springs in the Carlsbad National Forest. It was a high point in the day to see a flock of wild turkeys and mule deer foraging just off the path. We had hunted wild turkey several times throughout the year, so it was a relief to finally tick them off our list. While camping in the sleet, rain, and snow, we also added the Canyon Towhee and Rufous-crowned Sparrow.

Wild Turkey

Wild Turkey Luck!
Please don’t eat them — shoot them with a camera instead.

Some days, it’s just nice to get outside for a walk, without the kids, without the camera, without all the brain cells that ID’ing and counting consume. When a rare species showed we did what we could:  digi-scoped an image using the phone and field lens together. We were right; it was a Harris’ Hawk, a bird we’d only seen once before at a wildlife sanctuary and we were able to report to iBird. It pays to be flexible and knowledgeable.

Harris Hawk

Harris’ Hawk Wild Lifer!

The Complete 2017 Bird List with Links

23 thoughts on “321 Birding Year: Luck and Lifers

  1. Congratulations, Shannon. What fun. Luck, yes, but also persistence, and preparation. You have to put yourself out there, and you kind of have to know what you are looking for. I hate to imagine what I have missed due to my ignorance.
    Continued happy birding!


  2. Oh Shannon, this was such a pleasure to read, thank you for taking the time to share this marvelous year of luck and lifers. I love your birder spirit, and can see it will carry both you and your husband into a lifetime of joy and lifers. Athena and I have been birding for 28 years, so it is with experience that I can say this. Though there is not time to touch on every photo and every bird, I will say I loved each one. The ruby-crowned kinglet with the ruby showing is spectacular. King rail, long-tailed duck, and red crossbill are all birds I have not seen, great scores! I love the photos of the elegant Swainson’s hawk, the snipe, and the long-billed curlew. I could just go on, but will end with my congratulations on a year of great finds, great attitudes, and great tenacity (mighty cold camping!) and my warmest wishes for a lifetime of joyous birding.


    1. So, so many stories … I even left some out. Your words never fail to brighten my day, and as for that lifetime of joyous birding, I can assure you YES. We will! We are all hopelessly hooked on birds here. Cheers, Jet. A happy year of healing and birding to you both.


  3. We moved into new offices in October and the birds out my new window haven’t been plentiful, but I did hear (and then spot) a red-shouldered hawk awhile back. Lately, the little birds are waking up and flitting about.


    1. It’s crucial for me to have a window where I work, if not the whole outdoors. I would slowly go insane without the trees and birds helping me through the days! Have you counted all the species you ever seen? Tally something of a ‘Life List?’ Seeing new ones often starts with that exercise. Hope your babies are all well by now!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I’ve found myself a window where ever my work has been. Sometimes at my desk and sometimes by claiming an errant corner and sitting there instead.
        I am not much of a list person or a collector. I enjoy old friends and new discoveries alike.
        Babies are back to their spirited selves 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

  4. Wow!!! what a year! oooh those Sandhill Cranes! I’m still waiting for my luck to see some. I have to say there is something so awesome about luckily stumbling upon new birds.

    I can’t believe the long-tailed Duck was so far south…wow. I hope she made it on track okay.

    Hope you have another lucky amazing year of birding, Shannon! 🙂


    1. I wondered if she was ill or injured as she hung around for several other birders to view. The Gulf Coast is an oasis for many migratory birds; we are always scanning for weirdos while we tally up the regulars. Super fun, Hazel. I hope you’re having a fabulous time of birding as well!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. That explains why I think ‘Hazel’ when I see your Gravatar. I’m surprised more people don’t call Green Anoles ‘Shannon’ out of habit.

        You’re Erin now, from here on out!

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Yes, I apologize for confusion its fully my fault. 🙂 At first I wanted to be anonymous but then it just became confusing!

        Ha that is funny.. maybe I will start calling them Shannons! 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

  5. WOW! A Golden Eagle! I too look at the sky and trees, though mine is but an admiration with little knowledge of the species. But to see a Golden Eagle or any eagle for that matter, I would treasure. And to date, I have no treasure in that store.

    Thanks for sharing!


    1. A Goldie has been on my must-have since we started traveling out west 5 years ago. Glad I was looking out for raptors on that otherwise boring drive! He was oblivious to me as I shot him out the window from the passenger seat.

      The tidbit of useful information that comes from learning about eagles is that they are sensitive to lead poisoning, not from being shot but from ingesting it. Lobby your state officials to keep lead shot illegal, even if you don’t hunt. Thanks, Peter, for your wonderful comments.

      Liked by 1 person

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