Starting the list out right

By Kate Crowley
You will probably not be surprised to see that I am writing the first column of 2016 about starting a new list for the year.  I can’t help it.  It’s an exciting time of the year – truly starting with a clean slate (so to speak).  I think anyone who keeps annual lists of the birds they see feels this way.  I’ve said before, that this ‘hobby’ is most like going on a treasure hunt – all year round – and I don’t think that’s something any of us outgrow.  But instead of looking for a pile of gold (or cash if you go to casinos), we are searching for beauty and surprising discoveries. 
So on January first, we were at my mom’s house in Iowa City and as soon as it was light enough outside to see the birds, I spotted a gorgeous bright red male cardinal.  For many people this is not such a big deal, but we just don’t see cardinal in our neighborhood and there is nothing more stunning then one of these striking birds surrounded by a snowy landscape.  Mike had put out sunflower seeds on the deck of her house and almost immediately the birds came in. So I started off my New Bird Year with a spark of color.
Next as we drove on the freeway we spotted a red-tail hawk perched on a branch of a tree next to the freeway.  This seems to be fairly common on all our trips to Iowa.  The hawks can be found on either side of the road, keeping their keen eyes on the ground for any unwary rodent.  What was surprising, however, was seeing a mature bald eagle flying over a cornfield.  Then we saw two more in the same area and finally one sitting in a snow covered field of corn stubble.  This is just not where we expect to find our national bird hanging out.  The rivers and creeks are still open and maybe they are finding fish in them and bringing them back to the fields to eat.  There could have been a road killed deer in the area too, which is popular with these birds.
Later we spotted a rough-legged hawk in a tree alongside the road.  They are the same size as the red-tailed, but have a dark band across their chest.  Along some of the backroads, on the power lines the smallest of our falcons – the American kestrel- perched, and like their larger raptor cousins, they too are looking for voles, shrews or mice in the grassy ditches. 
We will likely see all these species again in the coming 12 months, but seeing them on this first day of the year is the best.  Other ‘birders’ will understand, those not yet captured by this part of birdwatching may not. 
At home we got our checklist that we keep for the birds that we see on our property each year.  The total for 2015 was a disappointing 58 species.  Our 8th lowest – we average 65 species per year.  But we were gone from home at critical times last spring when the warblers normally migrate through and we were also absent for a lot of weeks in the summer.  This year may not be much better in terms of our presence, but we will still duly note each new bird as it appears in our yard, field or forest.  If nothing else, these kinds of checklists can potentially be of value in the future when people are trying to figure out when certain bird species were common or rare.  We will have 30 years of these records at the end of 2016.  If nothing else, it is of interest to us to look back and see changes or similarities. We record the day and month that each species was first seen.  Mike has plotted some of these dates and has noticed a definite trend of earlier arrival in the spring of some of the migratory species. The same sort of data that scientists are seeing all over North America as our climate has been warming and shifting.  How this is going to affect populations in the long term is of great interest and concern to many of us. 
Winter, for a birdwatcher in northern Minnesota can be lacking in exciting sightings, but when you have a list that you’re trying to keep, you pay more attention to your surroundings on a daily basis. The challenge is to maintain that degree of observation and record keeping through all twelve months.

If you haven’t yet tried this sort of record keeping or list making, I recommend you try it this year; an easy New Year’s Resolution.  


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