By Denny AFMJ Van Horn
Birders are a strange lot. As the year closes and another begins, they perform birder rituals. They finalize the year’s listings of birds, tallying number of species seen in the state, in the county, in their backyard or elsewhere. And they smile. But they also shake their heads at birds chased and missed. This ritual marks the closing of a year’s birding. The tallies are tucked away; notebooks are closed and the year is reflected upon.
But with the closing of a year comes the expectation of a new one. And for many birders, this is a day of anticipation, a day of design, a day of magnificent theater. It is the day that last year’s lists no longer hold significance because another year makes all lists new.
Now, it’s all about what bird will be seen that moment you wake, look out the window from bathroom, kitchen, living room and grasp that first bird. Or step out the door onto a porch gazing across the road into the trees or at the seeder-feeders for the year bird.
But for some this simple inauguration of taking whatever bird appears to eyes or reaches ears first just doesn’t cut it. These are the fanatical, the zealots, those not wanting a house sparrow or a junco. They plan their outings, their first birds, the moment when they hear or see that bird of consequence and it becomes the bird that marks the year ahead as the Year of the …
So! With that being said, what kind of a birder is it who does this? Who plans, schemes, manipulates and programs his environment, the habitat, his methods, just to have that bird demarcating the next 365 days not be a house sparrow? Well, to tell the truth, I think you probably already know the answer, so let me tell you a couple tales as he told them to me, about his manipulative labors for the Year of the …
On New Year’s eve years ago, about 11:40 p.m., we drove out a dirt road, crossed the dunes, drove down to the beach, and headed north. Ahead in the glare of headlights there were gulls and a few flocks of shorebirds.
Greg looked over at me and asked (again), “… Sanderling? Right?”
Staring out the windshield, binoculars pressed to my eyes, I said, “… yeah, keep going.”
We kept going. Slowly.
“There!” A small horde of Sanderling, Dunlin and black-bellied plovers were at the edge of headlights standing along the brink of incoming waves. I looked at the clock, 11:48 p.m. “Let’s stop here. Moss, where’s the ear plugs?”
Moss reached over across the seat, handing me a packet and then the hearing protectors. She looked at me quizzically. “Gulls! They talk. Can’t hear a gull!” Time — 11:54 p.m. Greg turned the lights on again.
“OK, they’re moving down the beach, they’re bunched together. Over there are four. No Dunnys or plovers,” he said.
“Moss, hand me those tubes, would you, please?”
She handed the two paper towel tubes taped together over the seat to me. “Time?” I asked. Greg whispered, “11:58.” I don’t know why he was whispering. Ears plugged and covered, I placed the tubes up to my eyes, leaned forward so the tubes were against the Land Cruiser’s windshield.
“You ready?” Greg asked.
Midnight. Lights on. No Sanderlings, they’d moved.
“Shift right!” I did.
“SANDERLINGS!” I shouted, as if I didn’t expect them. And the game was on.
It was the Year of the Sanderling.
I looked over at her, she just sat there looking back at me. I knew that look. It said, “You know, you’re really bonkers!” She wasn’t a birder. She was an artist. A painter of landscapes. But she understood.
She liked the bird I told her I wanted for the Year Bird; she’d always liked them. We’d raised them as kids when we were neighbors growing up in the Yakima Valley. Stole the chicks from nests and raised them.
Holstein pheasants, Grandpa called them. To me, they were magpies.
“Just tell me one more time how we’re gonna do this, so I really know you’re nutty?”
So I told her: “We’re up before dawn, you’re gonna drive, I’ll do shotgun, we’ll take the pickup down through the vineyard to the canal. Then you’ll go up over the cattle-guard where the spillway starts. At the next cattle-guard stop. Then we wait. They roost down in that hollow in the willows; they’ll be up and talking just as it gets light. OK?” I watched her.
She stood there, asked, “How you going to stop from not seeing or hearing other birds waking up?”
“And when I hear them talking, I get to hit you and you’ll take all that stuff off so you can hear them, right?” she asked.
That was the plan; a good one too, I thought.
Again, she stood there smiling and then we laughed so hard our sides hurt.
That night we celebrated a long day of birding; a good day of birding; the first day of birding in the Year of the Black-billed Magpie.
In closing, I’ll ask: What was your first bird of the year? How did you see it, hear it? What are your tales? I’m curious.