Posted by: Dan | February 23, 2010

Beyond the List

Of the books about birding that I’ve read, my favorite by far is Scott Weidensaul’s Of A Feather: A Brief History of American Birding. It doesn’t matter that I now live in Europe and might be considered an Old World birder now, the United States is where I became a birder.

Of A Feather tells a richly detailed history of birding in the United States, ranging from the early days of exploration to today’s close relationship between professional ornithology and citizen observers: the birth of citizen science. It also aptly describes my perspective on birding in the final chapter, “Beyond the List,” while re-telling a trip to the Aleutian islands with famed birder David Sibley to find Whiskered Auklets.

And we found them — at first hundreds, then thousands of whiskered auklets, sliding up and down the steep-sided waves in flocks so tightly packed they looked like black carpets thrown on the water. “I’ve seen a few parakeet auklets, and some crested auklets a little while ago, but otherwise, it’s just been thousands and thousands of whiskereds,” David said. “Maybe tens of thousands. I’ve never seen anything quite like this.”

Exciting as all this ways, that stormy evening on the Tiglax wasn’t actually the first time Sibley found his long-sought auklet. A few days earlier, during our forced layover in Dutch Harbor, we’d managed to hire a boat to take us out to the Baby Islands, just north of Dutch Harbor. There we found a few small flocks at the eastern-most edge of the species’ range.

Months after we got home, I was telling the story of Sibley’s auklet hunt to an acquaintance of mine who’s a fairly enthusiastic lister. He heard me out, cocked his head, and asked, “Why?”

Not, why would someone travel to a remote and frozen part of the world to find a single small gray bird; he understood that part perfectly well and would do it himself in a heartbeat if he had the chance. No; he meant, why go looking for a bird we’d already found, instead of focusing on finding something new? “I mean, getting that Far Eastern curlew was great, but that was the only new bird you had there. If you’d spent your time on Adak instead of out on the boat looking for auklets, I’m sure you could have scraped up a few more species. There had to be a couple more Asian strays left on the island.”

Here, in a nutshell, are the twin polarities of modern birding. At one extreme you have birds as a source of inspiration and awe, as objects of curiosity, whether intensely scientific or at the layman’s more general level. At the other extreme, you have birds as tick marks on a list, as inventory, treasures in a scavenger hunt that may encompass one’s backyard or the planet, a single day or a lifetime.

Somehow Whiskered Auklets held special significance for Sibley, simply because they can only be found in such a remote corner of the globe. They were more than a “tick” to him; they were almost mythical.

Birding can be many things to many people, and we attach special meaning to different birds for all kinds of reasons.



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