When 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.
Of 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?
The 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…