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Open Mic: On Being a Hatch Year Birder

At the Mic: Jeff Kietzmann

I am not sure how I ended up on Cottonwood Pass, at the continental divide, 12,126 feet above sea level, in the dead of winter, before sunrise, searching for a white bird in a snowy white landscape and freezing my Florida feet off at 9 degrees Fahrenheit; but there I was, with Christian Hagenlocher and Carl Bendorf, scanning a stunning frozen landscape for a White-Tailed Ptarmigan. Eight months prior, I had never heard of a Ptarmigan and didn’t know who Christian or Carl were, but it was now December 9th, 2017 and I was trying my hardest to see just a few more birds in the year.

I discovered birding in 2017, almost as an act of desperation to get myself out of a mid-life crisis. Although I had lived and traveled extensively around the world for years, had a good job and was happily married with a new baby, I was crumbling inside. At 43 years old I had had a heart attack. I was 20 pounds overweight. I had a job that kept me indoors 7 days a week, drank too much, and my mother was diagnosed with terminal cancer.

It was clear that I desperately needed a distraction and an activity where I could clear my mind and be outdoors. Without any prior knowledge or expertise in birds or birding, I set a goal of seeing 365 birds in 2017. One per day could not be that hard, right?

On January 1st I woke up early and walked around my south Florida suburban neighborhood for two hours with a pair of ancient heavy 16×50 binoculars and an old DSLR camera body with an off the shelf lens. I could not have told you the difference between a grackle, a bunting, and a scoter. I did not have a single life bird on a list. Heck, I did not even know what a “Iife bird” or a “rarity” was and I certainly did not know how to pish!

After I returned from my neighborhood birding adventure, it took me the rest of the day looking online and through an ancient birding book I had on a dusty shelf to figure out that I had seen eight species. I was so excited! I even noted them down on the notes app of my mobile phone. I was theoretically listing and I thought to myself “Man, you are awesome! Already a week ahead of the goal!”

Yes, eight birds.

Clearly, I had no clue about birds or birding. I was not an ABA or Audubon member and I certainly did not have an eBird account. I did not know where to go to bird or anything about migration, habitats or behaviors. I had no experience, ability or knowledge. Not surprisingly, by April I had only seen 83 quite common birds. I was deplorably behind schedule on my goal and looked to the internet for help.

I signed up for a South Florida Audubon Society weekend birding tour led by a wonderful educator, Paddy Cunningham. That tour changed my life. Over the next eight months, between my full-time job and my family, I would bird throughout the state of Florida like a fiend. I attended festivals and lectures in New Jersey, Maine, Arizona and Texas (where I proudly voted in my first ABA election). I birded solo with newfound friends and guides in California, Illinois, Oregon, Washington, Colorado, Virginia and Delaware and hopped aboard six pelagic trips between Florida, Maine, California and North Carolina. I joined two Christmas Bird Counts and used over 350,000 air miles to fund most of my travel. In the end, I saw 557 ABA species of bird in 2017. I was also able to photograph 80% of those birds, lose 20lbs, and saw over 150 sunrises in 14 states in some of the wildest and most beautiful places across our country.

Inclusive of the amazing community of birders I encountered, I met birding icon’s like Pete Dunne, Greg Miller, Debbie Shearwater, Neil Hayward, Noah Stryker, Brian Patteson, and the majority of the 2017 Big Year Birders in this endeavor. My year ended on a crazy chase with Yve Morrell and the Stoll Brothers transitioning from Great Skua off the coast of North Carolina to a spectacular year-ending Code 5 Loggerhead Kingbird in Miami. Talk about birding role models!

Of course, I made plenty of mistakes and missed plenty of birds due to my ignorance and lack of experience. Robin Diaz, a local birding legend and eBird volunteer here in Florida, called me a “Hatch Year Birder”(HYB). We met through my mistakes on eBird, and she could have just crushed my spirit with “you are wrong” emails, but instead she took the time to not just correct me, but invite me to a banding station to help educate me. The Hatch Year Birder name became more than a moniker to me. It was a way of seeing the world anew like a child; learning, growing and exploring again; remembering who I was and understanding more about who I want to be, how I want to live and where I want to go.

I definitely know I want to go back to Colorado. Christian, Carl, and I never did see a ptarmigan, but we heard them briefly echoing across a staggering cathedral of pink sunlit mountains. I would not put the bird on my life list or my year list, but would chalk it up as an incredible experience and one I hope to repeat someday with better luck. I have come to find that sometimes it is the “dips” that are the most memorable moments in birding. They keep you coming back for more.

The birding community and sub-culture has lifted me up and transformed my life. I have been set on a new path of not just birding, but hopefully influencing others to change their work habits, use their air miles, get outside, drink less, walk more, lose some weight, teach themselves and others about nature and habitats and conservation and, of course, to enjoy more sunrises. Birding also helped me mourn my mother’s death. Even at 43, there is always a nest to return to when you have parents. I am now on my own, building my own nest with my own family and raising what I hope is the next generation of Hatch Year Birder.

–=====–

Jeff Kietzmann is a Florida resident who started birding in 2017. As a telecommunications executive, Jeff has visited over 100 countries on all seven continents and now kicks himself for not birding all of them! When not birding, he enjoys international travel and family time with his wife Lisa and his son Pierce. 
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