One birder’s journey to his 700th species in North America

Bluethroat
No. 694: The author saw his first Bluethroat (actually several) north of Nome, Alaska. Photo by joesayhello/shutterstock

Sometime long ago when I started birding, when I was 7, I read that the ultimate lifetime goal for birders in the United States was to see 700 species in North America. For birders, “North America” was defined by the American Birding Association (ABA), and it meant North America north of Mexico. About 650 species occur regularly here, but others stop by occasionally. The official ABA tally for the region, including all the rare vagrants ever documented, is about 1,000 species.

But 700 is the standard lifetime goal. When I was a kid, very few had achieved it. Now, thanks to the widespread popularity of birding, cheap air travel, and Internet rare-bird alerts, the ABA reports 410 people in the “700 club,” and there may be thousands more. Amazingly, 56 people are over 800, and three have seen more than 900. In first place is Macklin Smith, an English professor at the University of Michigan, with 928. If you’re thinking that he must be one frenetic individual, I can assure you he is one of the nicest people I’ve ever met.

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Even beginning birders, with enough time and money, can get to 700 in a few years. Add an unhealthy dose of obsession, and serious frequent fliers can reach 700 in a single Big Year. This has been done at least 20 times. It has taken me 45 years — and counting; I’m at 699. The ABA recently added Hawaii to the region, but for me, my goal remains the same: 700 species in the continental U.S. and Canada.

It all started when my mom took me to the local library. I loved wildlife, nature, and simply being outdoors. I devoured Ranger Rick magazine each month. I needed a simple bird book to help me identify the birds coming to our backyard feeder in southern California. I found Birds: A Guide to the Most Familiar American Birds, the pale blue one with the robins on the cover. Though I checked it out seven times, for a total of 14 weeks, there wasn’t much in there that looked familiar. I quickly discovered its eastern bias; it featured illustrations of Blue Jay, Northern Cardinal, and Tufted Titmouse and only made passing reference to western counterparts deep in the text.

My only option was to move up to an “adult” field guide. I acquired the Golden Field Guide, Birds of North America, the old olive-beige one with the three buntings on the cover and the sonograms next to the maps. It featured illustrations of just about every bird possible. Some were even described as “casual” or “accidental,” which I figured out meant really, really rare in North America. But, most significantly, the book featured, in the index in the back, little empty check boxes next to the bird names. You could check off the ones you had seen!

If being in the wild appealed to the Cherokee side in me, perhaps it was my English blood that got excited about this sporting aspect. And I was really into sports trivia as a kid. I followed USC Trojans football, L.A. Dodgers baseball, and A.J. Foyt, the Indy car driver. I knew lots of stats. I even knew that Georgia Tech once won a football game 222-0. I immediately went through the index, checking off birds for my list: Mallard, Red-tailed Hawk, Mourning Dove, Scrub Jay, House Finch, White-crowned Sparrow, Brown Towhee. I got up to about 30. Desperate for more, I went to our garage freezer. My dad was a duck hunter, and I knew there were paper-wrapped birds in there with labels. I found one with “Canvasback” scrawled on the white package. My nagging suspicions were later confirmed — you should only count free-flying wild birds; I walked that one back. I hit 222 fair-and-square with a group of Buffleheads on the Lincoln Memorial’s Reflecting Pool. I was 10. I passed Georgia Tech a few months later camping in the Sierra with my family: Green-tailed Towhee.

California Condor
HIS BEST BIRD: In 1979, eight years before the last wild California Condors were taken into captivity, the author saw eight of the huge bare-legged scavengers at Mt. Pinos, in southern California. Photo by Kiril Kirkov/Shutterstock

My mom connected me to the Los Angeles Audubon Society. I wrote a letter to Kimball Garrett at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County, informing him of my observations of communal nesting among House Sparrows at my swing set. He penned an encouraging reply. Another birder, Mark Detwiler, took me on a field trip to the Salton Sea. Perhaps my “best bird” came in the summer of 1979. I was with my mom and the Audubon group atop Mt. Pinos. We counted seven soaring California Condors and gasped as an eighth appeared behind us, flapping low over the treetops. There were only a few dozen condors left in the wild then. They were all brought into captivity eight years later, when I was in college.

Forty-five years is a delightfully slow climb, allowing me to savor each life bird. I’ve graduated from the check boxes in the back of the Golden guide to an Excel spreadsheet, but my favorite list is the one I keep in chronological order. I can remember the habitat, lighting, and smell in the air for almost each “lifer,” like having a mental photograph seared onto the desktop in my mind. Number 387 was a Wandering Tattler in the summer of 1994. It was way out on the Ocean Shores jetty. As the wind picked up and the horizontal drizzle intensified, the slick rocks became treacherous. I picked my way out past the turnstones, toward the end of the jetty, colder and wetter with each step. Sometimes you really have to work for your lifers.

My path to 700 has paralleled a few other journeys. I’m happily married to a non-birding spouse. I raised three boys and coached soccer for 20 years. I’ve also been a full-time student or employee the entire time. With all these domestic obligations, I haven’t been chasing birds all over the country, although I did convert every family trip into a secret birding expedition. Number 515, Purple Gallinule, came from the Anhinga Trail boardwalk at the Everglades, while my oldest child ogled over a nest of baby alligators.

Rather than chase rarities, I preferred to find birds on my own in remote and unvisited places. This added an adventurous flair. On my first trip to southeast Arizona, with birder Michael Perrone and my then-9-year-old son, I found many of my specialty Arizona “lifers” on the west side of the Huachucas. We camped while poorwills and trogons serenaded us. We looked out over a hundred miles of grasslands and canyons, but we never saw another person. The bird I remember most was a Buff-breasted Flycatcher in Scotia Canyon, number 551. I may be the only birder in the nation to get their life Buff-breasted Flycatcher in Scotia Canyon.

When I ran out of lifers around my home in Davis, California, I developed alternative passions: first gulls and now Fox Sparrows. I learned to identify the various ages, forms, and subspecies so well that I passed from confused to confident to skeptical.

Nevertheless, I managed to hit the road some, and my list continued to grow, providing some of the best memories of my life. Number 694 was a Bluethroat, actually quite a few of them, singing all around my tent on the edge of a stream along the Kougarok Road, 40 miles north of Nome. I was camping with that same son from the Arizona trip. He was now a college graduate — not a birder but also not one to turn down a trip to remote Alaska. For me, there’s nothing like a lifer on territory with vast virgin wilderness as far as the eye can see. The brilliant songster from Asia had trouble competing with another noise — the sound from the ice breaking up and streaming past our campsite like 10,000 tinkling chandeliers. Number 695 was the next day — a Red-necked Stint along the shore of Safety Lagoon. The bird was banded with an orange flag. I later learned it was tagged in southern Australia, 8,000 miles away.

Nazca Booby
No. 699: Nazca Booby, a seabird typically found along the coast from central Mexico to Peru, turned up in small numbers in the winter of 2017-18 along the shores of San Diego Bay. Photo by Chris Watson/Shutterstock

Number 696 was a spectacular Swallow-tailed Gull from the Galapagos Islands, which turned up only a few miles from where I was helping another son move into the University of Washington. Number 697 was back home in California — a Red-footed Booby at Half Moon Bay. This bird was subject to my chasing rule. I don’t chase rarities unless my birding time at least equals my travel time. In this case, the booby was a two-hour drive away, so that’s four hours round-trip driving. According to my rule, I spent at least four hours birding before returning home. I confess, I broke this rule once, in 2010, for number 644, the Ivory Gull at Pismo Beach.

Number 698 was 20 minutes from my house, North America’s third record of Citrine Wagtail. I would have loved to have found this bird myself, but the re-find was nothing short of miraculous. The bird was reported a day late with limited specifics on location. All we local birders knew was that it was somewhere along the 6.4-km auto-tour route at the vast Yolo Bypass Wildlife Area. The wind was blowing 60 mph. Despite that, I managed to find and photograph the bird. (One of my photos was published on page 10 of the March/April 2018 issue of BirdWatching.) I’m thinking my wagtail sighting was karma for the Taiga Flycatcher I missed years earlier, also 20 minutes away, because I was coaching a soccer practice. The Sulid theme continued with number 699, a Nazca Booby I picked up after a work meeting in San Diego.

And so here I am, like at the end of a good novel, a little sad that it’s about to be over. Number 700 could come in several different ways: a rarity I find myself (that would be the ultimate), a rarity I chase (probably more likely), an expected bird I travel to find (there are a few of these left), or a split (say it ain’t so). I’m off to Nome in a few months, as much for the beauty as for the birds, where Rock Ptarmigan still awaits me. But if there’s one rule that holds true about birding, it’s that when you go looking for one species, you find something else.

Editor’s note: While we were editing this article, Steve finally found No. 700. As part of his work with the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, he did a ride-along on a supertanker where he saw several Cook’s Petrels about 60 miles off the California coast.

A version of this article appeared in the September/October 2018 issue of BirdWatching.

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Steve Hampton

Steve Hampton

Steve Hampton holds a PhD in resource economics and works as an administrator at the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, Office of Spill Prevention and Response. He has spent 20 years involved in oil-spill damage assessments and seabird restoration. He writes a monthly bird-sightings column for his local Audubon newsletter, and he has written academic articles about birds for the Central Valley Bird Club Bulletin and other publications. Hampton also maintains a gull-identification website at www.tertial.us/gulls/gulls.htm.

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