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Taking a Sort of Break from Bird-Centeredness

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What is missing from the above picture? If you are a birder, you might say “birds”. This picture shows the next-to-last version of a painting that I did this year and this is how it looked before I finally added the birds that I had planned all along to put in the picture, but just could not bring myself to add them for months (see bottom of this post). My thoughts about whether I would ever add the birds to the painting started me thinking about the non-bird things that I often don’t pay much attention to.

It sometimes comes as a shock to birders that there is more to nature than just birds, and in fact, there is more to birdwatching or being a birder than just birds. I know that I have periodically become so enthralled and obsessed with birding that I have ignored all else that is around me, like the astoundingly beautiful Alaska mountains, the sounds of a brook gurgling past the dipper, the Christmas-tree beauty of the woodlands, the need to preserve the environment so that the birds will not be endangered. Of course when doing a big year, bird-centeredness is not only likely, but it is almost the norm. Even when planning a big year, it is easy to get wrapped up in the bird-seeking details and to actually forget to go outside. Recently I decided that I needed to just wander the Alaska outdoors without bird-goals, to take some time off from birding and just get out.

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Many birders, including me at times, take our walks and our trips to places where the bird possibilities are greatest, especially during our big years. One of the places near our house that I don’t often go to is the Campbell Tract managed by the Bureau of Land Management, 730 acres of spruce and birch trees through which some 12 miles of trails and a creek wander. It is a popular place for walking, cross-country skiing, dog walking and mushing. The bird density and bird diversity there is much less than in other areas where I more often go, but when I manage to look around me and really see it, this tract is beautiful, particularly in winter, and there actually are birds there. Birds are just a smaller part of the picture than in the more bird-crowded areas. It is one place that I have periodically found American Dippers, and last winter it was full of White-winged Crossbills (as was much of Anchorage).

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At this time of the year, when it is cold and most of the birds have migrated south, the bird density is low everywhere around Anchorage, and the Campbell tract is not so different from the other parks and natural areas in Anchorage. On November 20, I went there not just for the birds, because I did not expect there to be many birds. Snow was on everything and it was gorgeous, so much so that I almost did not notice that there were no birds heard or seen for about 20 minutes. Finally I heard a little scratching sound at the base of a nearby tree and found a silent Brown Creeper. Shortly after, there were the distant calls of Black-capped Chickadees and I was soon in a swarm of some 15 of them, and then heard a distant call of a Raven. Three species. I guess even when I don’t consider myself to be birding, I am birding. After about an hour I approached the Tract’s Science Center and doubled the number of species by adding a flock of about 10 Pine Grosbeaks, a couple of Boreal Chickadees and a fly-over Bald Eagle. No White-winged Crossbills, a species that was common last winter but which I have not yet seen this winter. It was a good trip, beautiful plus a few bird species.

Ten days later I went back to do a comparison. Between these trips we had a major warm spell with much rain, and almost all of the snow in Anchorage melted, except for icy areas under the thicker trees and on the well-trod paths in the Tract. It was very slippery on the trails but I had my trekkers (ice cleats) on my boots and was able to walk slowly with the aid of a ski pole. There were fewer species even though the day was quite mild (about 26 degrees): Common Ravens flying by (8), and Pine Grosbeaks (9), Black-capped Chickadees (5) and Boreal Chickadees (2) around the buildings. On my walk back to my car, I was contemplating the lack of birds, when my eyes caught a sudden movement and a grouse-sized bird shot past me, followed quite closely by a larger, goshawk-sized bird, and both were immediately hidden by the surrounding tree-trunks. Maybe that’s what they were, maybe not. So much for knowing the Tract very well. Again, no White-winged Crossbills.

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Even though White-winged Crossbills are apparently not as typical of the Campbell Tract in winter as I had thought, I expect they will be back eventually. In any case, I’ve now put them in the painting so I can remember better what it was like last year. For a die-hard birder, the birds might not always be the center, but it sure helps if they are there somewhere.

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Lynn Barber

Lynn Barber

Lynn Barber started birding at the age of 7. In 2005, she broke the Texas big year record with 522 species, and in 2008, she tallied 723 bird species in the ABA Area. An account of her ABA Big Year, entitled Extreme Birder: One Woman’s Big Year, was published in the spring of 2011. Her second book, Birds in Trouble was published in 2016. While living in North Carolina, Lynn was active in Wake County Audubon and on the board of the Carolina Bird Club. Moving to Texas in 2000, she was active in the Fort Worth Audubon Society, serving as its president for 3 years. She is a life member of the Texas Ornithological Society, and became its president in April 2009. She now lives in Anchorage, Alaska.
Lynn Barber

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