In 2019, I participated in two, year-long bird-listing challenges. One was to see as many species in a 5 mile radius from my home address, and the other was to see 200 species in my home county of Newport, in Rhode Island.
The 5 Mile Radius challenge I took part in (aka 5MR) was organized by Oregon birder and blogger, Jen Sanford. Last January, she inspired a bunch of birders around the USA (and a few internationally) to bird closer to home, and, therefore, drive less. And that’s exactly what I did. Of the 406 checklists I submitted to eBird in 2019, 335 of those were in my 5MR, and I logged 189 species. I barely drove, which gave me more time to bird. And while I didn’t win any monthly or yearly challenges (the competition was stiff!), I had a lot of fun following everyone else’s progress.
The challenge to see 200 species in Newport County 200 was strictly a personal one. The idea for it was put in my head sometime in May, by a fellow birder. We were talking about my 5MR progress, and how I’d just reached the 150 species mark, when he said something like “At the rate you’re going, you could probably hit the 200 mark for your Newport county year list, if you keep at it.”
It seemed doable, what with only 50 species to go, and 7 months left.
But when I went home that day and really looked at what it would take, I wondered if it was even possible. The birding would soon slow, with spring migration coming to an end. And sure, there was the fall migration to look forward to, but it would be most of the same birds I’d just ticked off on their journey north. So I had summer shorebirds, the occasional rarity, and some early winter waterfowl left to work with. And a 9-5 job to work around.
In short, the reality was this: the remaining 50 species would be tougher to get than the first 150, even with 7 months left in the year.
I also realized that only a handful of people before me had reached the 200 year mark (on eBird anyhow) in Newport County. As a relative newbie, these things should have made me reconsider, but they only galvanized my desire to get to 200.
Throughout the year, I was often asked by the non-birders in my life if there was a “prize” for winning “first place” in these “contests.” When I said no, and explained that these listing challenges were usually just friendly competitions based on the honor system and some agreed upon birding and listing ethics, I got a few of perplexed reactions.
This explanation did not satisfy my friend Brian.
Towards the end of the year, he texted me a few times to find out what my “stats” were. I honestly thought he was ribbing me. But he wasn’t. You know how I know this?
HE HAD A TROPHY MADE FOR ME because he couldn’t bear the thought of me not having something to commemorate my achievement.
In the end, of all my friends who were rooting for me, Brian was my biggest cheerleader, even if he didn’t understand what the heck a 5MR or a “county year list” was.
I will forever treasure that trophy, but really, I took on these challenges mostly because I wanted to learn more about birds. Prior to 2019, if I saw a bird that was really tough to ID, I would give up. ID’ing birds correctly, it turns out, isn’t easy.
But in 2019, with so much at stake, I knew it would force me to really hone my ID skills, because I would need to count as many species as possible. So I would bird by day, and study by night – pouring over the photos I’d taken, and often falling asleep with field guides scattered on the bed.
Each night I learned a little more, like why some species can look so different, season to season, year to year. (Gulls, man.) Or about the minor details that might set two different species apart. (Sparrows, man.) I immersed myself in it all, and was stunned by how much I’d missed before. And so charmed by all the little details.
I also did these challenges because I knew that focusing intently on something I love would help me survive the year. It was a turbulent one, starting with a few storms that combined into a large front that knocked out the lights, and left me feeling unmoored. Metaphor-free translation: intense work stress paired with the hormonal shifts of menopause resulted in an episodic depression that lasted for the bulk of the year.
Birding kept me anchored in 2019 though, even on my worst days. And since I’m back to the metaphors: my non-birding, trophy-buying friends were my life raft, and I owe them big time for keeping me afloat. One month out from 2020, and the lights are coming back on, and I’m ready for another year of birds.
eBird Checklists 406
5MR 2019 Totals
eBird Checklists 335
Newport County 2019 Totals
eBird Checklists 370
All photos are mine. Cover photo is a Barred Owl, from January 2019.