Resolution time: Every January I break out The Sibley Guide to Birds and go about selecting four to five "target" species for the new year. While limiting myself to five or less may seem like the most causal of birding for some big listers, these lists tend to serve me as a nice guideline as to what my goals and priorities will be for birding that year. Am I going for pelagics? Rare boreal species? Nemesis birds? Or am I going to want to break out a new book and set my sights on a trip outside the ABA area?
Now, sometimes these lists are a wash. 2016 had me looking for American Woodcock (I somehow spaced on all my breeding season plans, and on my one outing, dipped on the bird at a "guaranteed" spot) and Atlantic Puffin (you need to get on a boat for those, I did not get on said boat) so I spotted neither. Which is painful to admit.
I did manage to find Fish Crow and Burrowing Owl on a March trip to Florida, though! So, maybe half isn't bad?
Nah. When you're going for four species in 365 days, half is pretty bad.
This year's list reflects two goals: one is to get out west of the Rockies, and the other more important goal is to go deeper in my own "backyard" by studying and searching around for some of the less common species in Southern Maine. Puffins and Woodcocks are out for me this year, and these five feathered fellows have taken their rightful place:
1. Yellow-billed Magpie (Pica nutalli)
I intend on visiting California in 2017, otherwise this would be a rather ridiculous bird to top off my 2017 list with. (Though not entirely ridiculous, as some other western vagrants have shown up recently in Maine.) I think Corvids (including, ravens, jays, magpies, treepies, etc.) are the damnedest things, and it was a toss up between a Yellow-billed Magpie and a Clark’s Nutcracker* for this top spot. The magpie—being the snappier dresser—won out.
Oh, hey! Did you know that a common nickname for the Yellow-billed Magpie is a “yellow-billed sweetie-pie”? I didn't! I also wish I could go back and prevent myself from learning that. Who would call them that? Are they actually very sweet? Is this just some sun-addled 49er's attempt at a joke?
Guess I'll find out.
2. Bicknell’s Thrush (Catharus bicknelli)
If I’m going to be spending time hiking in California in the fall, I should start practicing and get this Bicknell’s off my list. This vulnerable species of thrush is only found in a few high elevation montane forests in the Northeast, so a hike or two in the White Mountains will be in order this summer. I’m also two species away from getting all of the Catharus genus present in the U.S. which is some kind of a weird birding benchmark, I guess.**
3. Horned Lark (Eremophila alpestris)
Welcome to one of my many, many, embarrassing nemesis birds. Though relatively common in Maine, my search for the Horned Lark has only turned up flocks of their seed-foraging Snow Bunting pals. Needless to say, I will be staring at a lot of parking lots, fields, and runways in 2017.
4. Blue-gray Gnatcatcher (Polioptila caerulea)
Sure I’ve heard a Blue-gray Gnatcatcher twice before. I just haven’t actually seen one. Hopefully this just involves me getting up early and staking out a few spots at the River Point Conservation Area for a few days in May/June. Plus, just look at that little fuzzball! Who wouldn't want to spot him?
5. Saltmarsh Sparrow (Ammodramus caudactus)
While I’ve seen a few Catharus before, I haven’t laid eyes on any of the rapidly diminishing Ammodramus genus of sparrows. With such great habitat for them in my home county of Cumberland, I figured I’d just pick one and start there. As with the Blue-gray Gnatcatcher and the Horned Lark, these are relatively easy birds to find with a little dedication and luck. Aside from the big trip bird up top, 2017 for me will focus on getting to know my home territory a little deeper and sharpening my skills a little more.
And, well, there are other reasons to try to find this elusive little sparrow, too.
*First brought to my attention in The Thing With Feathers by Noah Strycker, which you should pick up if you like birds, or books about birds.
**Don’t you dare talk to me about those two records of an Orange-billed Nightingale-thrush in Texas.