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Adventures in County Listing

Orchards in Hood River CountyWhen my friends Jay and Tim and I decided to try a county big day in late June, we picked low-hanging fruit. Hood River County, along the Columbia River east of Portland, leads the world in Anjou pear production. It’s also tied three ways among Oregon’s 36 counties for the fewest number of birders reporting a life list of at least 100 species and has the fourth lowest all-time species list, the sixth lowest top life list, and the seventh lowest reported big year. Geographically, it is Oregon’s second smallest county, and it is covered with trees as dense as a thick hide of fur—the Forest Service owns 64% of it, what isn’t occupied by commercial orchards. Compared to most other counties in Oregon, Hood River is rarely visited by birders.

Despite the increasing popularity of county big days—the ultimate test of local knowledge and strategy—nobody had ever, to our knowledge, tried one in Hood River County, so we’d be setting our own standard. Aiming low, we figured on a goal of 100 species in a day, which would turn out to be a serious challenge.

More and more birders are getting into county listing and the possibilities are endless. There are 3,131 counties in the 50 states—that’s not counting D.C. or territories, and includes the boroughs in Alaska, the parishes in Louisiana, and a few separated cities in other states. Texas has 254 counties, the most of any state, and Georgia is second with 159 tiny counties. California ranks 27th overall with 58. Delaware is last, divided into only three.

Some state birding organizations report county listing totals on a regular basis. In Oregon, these are published once each year. The most recent results filled eight pages of fine print in our journal, Oregon Birds, ranking life and year lists by each of Oregon’s counties—a phone-book-like list of names and numbers with all the interest of a gossip column. Did you know, for instance, that 14 birders have now reached 100 species in all 36 of Oregon’s counties? And that one man, John Gatchet, recently announced that he’d also reached 100 in each of Washington’s 39 counties? Wow.

Jay, Noah, and Tim after a long day in Hood River CountyOf course, many birders don’t bother. County listing requires a certain level of dedication, if nothing else than to a more complex system of record-keeping (eBird, I might add, does this automatically). Listers may be obsessive, competitive, and driven by their lists—not necessarily good traits in a birder—and county listers can be most compulsive of all. This image occasionally invites flak from the other end of the spectrum; I was surprised to read a birder’s recent argument that listing results should be abolished because, he said, they waste publication space.

But county listing does not require the rarity-chasing so often associated with twitchers, especially in out-of-the-way counties like Hood River. At its heart, the pursuit involves searching for birds in appropriate habitat and season, often in obscure corners dictated by county lines. It gives you an excuse to ramble through small towns and along back roads instead of visiting the same, well-tracked hotspots day after day with dozens of other birders. Rather than stamp collecting, it turns birding into an adventure. And never is this more true than on a county big day.

Jay, Tim and I set our alarms for 2:45 a.m. and were birding by dawn on some road we’d discovered by scrutinizing an atlas. Since we hadn’t much experience in the area, our bird-all-day strategy was partly inspired by Google Earth: Hit the river early, work through a section of dry oak forest, then head for several remote reservoirs in the evergreen mountains.

Unfortunately, Google Earth couldn’t tell us that both the river and those reservoirs would be barren of waterfowl, or that our planned stop for woodpeckers would be inaccessible under a lingering snowpack. For that kind of knowledge, we would have had to do some scouting, as any serious big day team should. So, when afternoon merged into evening, we were stuck at 96 species with few remaining possibilities; after some desperate discussion, we decided to troll the pine woods along a deserted forest road, stopping every mile or two until we hit the invisible county line and had to turn back.

Several stops without new birds, and—finally—we hopped out of the car to a quick Williamson’s Sapsucker and Cassin’s Finch, two hoped-for bonuses; our pine forest strategy was paying off. That put our total up to 98! High fives all around, and we jumped back in Tim’s Jeep. A minute later, Jay mumbled something from the back seat.

“Guys,” he said, “I don’t think we’re in the right county anymore.”

Somehow, even though we’d been using two different atlases and my iPhone’s GPS, we’d crossed the county line by more than a mile. A big U turn, and our list was reset to 96.

We scraped up a Mountain Bluebird and managed to find another sapsucker and finch on a parallel gravel logging road, this time less than a mile inside Hood River County, to bounce us up to 99. As a dark cloud closed in toward dusk, we wondered about our total. Could we get one more bird?

Townsend's Solitare, species #100The gravel road meandered cruelly toward the county line again, and we jumped out to listen at one last stop. Jay and Tim shouted, “Townsend’s Solitaire!” It took a minute before I heard it, too: That drawn-out, flute-like melody, working its way onto our day list as species #100. High fives all around.

A minute later, Jay mumbled something from the back seat.

“Good thing it was on the left side of the road,” he grinned. “The right side was in Wasco County.”

As darkness fell, we tallied a Lincoln’s Sparrow singing from an alpine bog near a deserted ski resort on Mount Hood for our last bird of the day. 101 species in Hood River County, in 24 hours, ain’t bad—in fact, we figured it was a record.

A few days later, though, we got an email from John Gatchet, the same guy who has seen 100 species in all 75 counties in Oregon and Washington. Two years earlier, he had apparently done a Hood River big day with another birder and recorded 110 species in 24 hours, beating our total by nine.

Oh well. We’ll get ‘em next time…

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Noah Strycker

Noah Strycker

Noah Strycker, Associate Editor of Birding magazine, is author of Among Penguins: A Bird Man in Antarctica (2011) and The Thing with Feathers: The Surprising Lives of Birds and What They Reveal About Being Human (2014). In 2015, Noah completed the ultimate big year, traveling through 41 countries to see 6,042 species of birds between January and December.
Noah Strycker

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  • Ted Floyd

    Here’s a summary of a recent and zany county big day:

    And check this out: Next year, we’re doing it entirely on foot. It will be a marathon (almost…) from the “plains” of eastern Boulder County up into the steep foothills. We’ll start with Orchard Orioles, Bobolinks, and Dickcissels; we’ll wind down the day with Hammond’s Flycatchers, Canyon Wrens, and small mountain owls. It’s the best of birding: an ecotone green big day. Join us the day after the summer solstice next year, as we attempt to break the all-time all-pedestrian all-green non-coastal single-county big day record!

  • Great adventure and great write-up of it! I really am thinking seriously about a county big something (hour? day? month? year?)next year. I have done big days on January 1st before in a single county (Tarrant in Texas) and non-area limited big days in the Rockport area of Texas.

  • I have always loved county birding. My California County birding goals are to hit 100 species in every county in the next two years and get all the counties surrounding my home county to 200. The long term goal for California County Listing is 200 species in every county. So far 4 birders have done it and a good friend of mine is likely to be the 5th. There is even a great website where you can see everyone’s maps of their counties.

  • Great account, Noah.
    Nebraska has 93 counties, some of them pretty big, and it’s the last place I would ever have expected county listing to catch on. And yet: .

  • I started a county listing website for Florida, let it languish, and then Bob Carroll made it successful:

  • Hi Ted,

    A note about “walking” big day records (entirely on foot, that is). I’ve done a couple worth mentioning:

    (1) Fern Ridge Reservoir area, Oregon, 10 May 2011. I hiked 26.0 miles, alone, and found 123 species of birds between sunrise and sunset. This is more than 40 miles from the ocean, with no coastal specialties. (I actually did another walking big day on the outer coast the previous day, in training for hiking the PCT that summer, and found only 108 species).

    (2) Tiputini Biodiversity Station, Ecuador, 18 Feb 2012. Abby Darrah and I walked through the jungle from 3am to 7pm, covering a 10-mile loop, and detected 233 species by dinnertime.

    For each of these efforts, I started and ended in the same place at the beginning and end of the day. To my mind, this is a more “pure” approach than hiking a transect – not to mention, easier to plan.

    I’d be interested to know if anyone else has done a serious big day entirely on foot. Anyway, the gauntlet is thrown… I imagine many places in the U.S. could beat my 123 species in Oregon, and, as for the Ecuador one, has anyone ever found more than 233 birds in one day without using a boat or any kind of vehicle?

    Cheers 😉


  • Hi Lynn, Go for it! County listing is addictive…

  • To think, I’m less than half way from 100 in each of Oregon’s 36 counties… you Californians are hard core. Respect!

  • That’s very cool, Rick (and crazy?). I wonder how many states have some official county-listing system in place. Quite a few, but definitely not all…

  • Interesting. Again, I wonder how many states have something like this…

  • I believe South Carolina and Georgia have websites devoted to county listing. They’re a bit hard to find with a google search, so I’m not sure if either one is still online. Also, I recall the South Carolina site, and possibly the Georgia site too, took a more “birdercentric” approach rather than a “countycentric” one. What I mean is that totals were reported by birder rather than county.

    But I’m working from memory. Correct me if I’m wrong.

    Also from memory, the journal Pennsylvania Birds had/has a yearly county listing report.

  • Adrian

    Congrats Tim, Noah and Jay! One rarely-attempted “big __ ” that is (somewhat) practical and sufficiently crazy for us crazy birders is a big minute. I got 30 at Malheur NWR in E. Oregon last month.

  • I wrote a little piece about my introduction to county listing, with a couple of Illinois’ most fanatical (Andy now has well over 15,000 ticks … the state has 102 counties):

  • Jake McCumber

    Texas has the Texas Century Club (, an initiative of the Texas Ornithological Society, where the overall individual goal is to get at least 100 counties (out of the 254) over 100 birds. So far, it looks like only two people have acheived that goal, but there are many others well on their way. I’m barely over 10% of the way. It’s been a great initiative to get birders in under-visited areas of the state. That results in a lot of data in eBird and a lot of people getting out around the state.

    The “standings” page of the website tracks various other metrics (big county years, individuals’ county totals over 300). Some of those numbers are pretty amazing.

    An interesting tidbit on this is that recently the folks who do all the labor of upkeep on the website had the idea for eBirders to add a “, cc” to their name in eBird for easier updating of county totals. I can’t tell if it’s caught on much, but it seems like a good idea to me.

  • I still have 13 counties to go on my journey to 100 species in every county. The top California County lister (John Luther) actually has 231 species or more in every County. I doubt anyone will ever catch up to him.

  • Steve Holzman

    Never much bothered with county lists until Ebird. Ebird makes it so much easier and you can see your competition right there. You can set alerts for your county needs. Pretty awesome….AND the data does get used for science. So it’s all good. I encourage every birder to start using Ebird. I was a late convert, but started with my life list, and after entering that focused on my yard and home county. It’s great fun. I also think county listers help us better understand within state distribution. If it takes competition to get people to bird remote under-visited counties so be it. I’d especially like to encourage folks to enter birds they’ve seen on National Wildlife Refuges. We (I work for USFWS) are looking at ways to use Ebird to better understand use of refuges by birds and changes over time. Thanks.

  • Rob

    I’ve loved county listing since growing up in Oregon in the 80s–miss those annual county listing reports! I got away from it for awhile in PA, but after moving last year I am taking my new county list seriously and am currently eBird ranked #2 in the county for the year. It’s a great way to learn local bird distribution and get to know your local environment! I just wish I had kept better location and date records for my Oregon county lists back in the day so I could enter all that into eBird now 🙁

  • Rob

    Oh, and John Gatchet totally rocks, BTW. Back in 1985 he took three of us teenage birders on a long road trip down to SoCal to see the last of the California Condors before they were taken into captivity. I’ll owe him forever for that one!

  • Noah,

    Maryland publishes an annual county lists (and more) document.

  • Max

    I think the long term goal for California County birders is 300+ in each county.

  • 300 species in Alpine, Trinity, Sutter, and Kings? Not going to happen. That is a reachable number in coastal counties and in the desert but there a lot of counties that 300 isn’t a possibility. The 4 counties I mention have total county lists under 300 and Alpine is just over 250 species.

  • Ted Floyd

    What’s the top list now for Alpine County?

  • Max

    Based on the link given above, John Luther has 236 out of 264 shown in the CA county Excel sheet. So to get 300, a birder would need to find 34 vagrants in Alpine county!

  • The Kansas County Listing page is at Various links including the latest scores can be found there. Kansas has 105 counties, some of which are quite small. Especially in western Kansas the habitat diversity can appear at first glance to be non existent. Yet a number of birders have exceeded 10,000 ticks with a few now nearing 14,000. Oregon has a wide diversity of altitudinal life zones and a few hundred miles of oceanic coast, not to mention lots offshore chances. It is also a large state and yet is divided into only 36 counties. To the average Kansas county lister, nurtured in a truly Spartan regime of small barren counties, invading these rich lands would seem on the face of it to inspire metaphorical comparisons to lambs being led to the slaughter or the Sack of Rome. All BS aside, thanks to Chuck Otte’s efforts a great deal of knowledge has come out of these quixotic efforts in the way of new county records. Check out some of the dot maps linked to the same page. We still aren’t quite as crazed as Mark Brogie and the Nebraskans but we are getting close. On the other hand, it just has never caught in Oklahoma at all.

  • Proto-Kansas County Lister Scott Seltman famously named Wichita County, KS in western Kansas (not to be confused with the city of Wichita) as “Birding Hell” and despite some amazing uber-zooties over the years it is one of only 4 KS counties with less than 200 species on its all-time list and it will for sure be the only one left in a year or so. I highly recommend this county as perhaps one of the most daunting challenges for birding in the Great Plains!

  • Love love love county listing for all of the reasons listed in this post. Rarity chasing doesn’t necessarily allow for the planning, and for all of the exploring of back roads. I gave my Washington State county list a big lift by trying to see 39 species in each of the 39 counties last year. ( Totally doable goal, and maybe the kind of thing others would think of doing – it was kind of a big year, kind of not! And yes… eBird is very friendly to county listing!

  • Noah Strycker

    Nice work in the 39 counties! Sounds like a fun adventure.

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