American Birding Podcast



2010 Top 40: The Birding Year in Review. Part 1 of 4

Remember Casey Kasem’s Top 40 countdowns? Now don’t worry—I’m not about to subject you to my own 2010 pop music countdown. (Trust me—I wouldn’t even know where to start, and I’d get nowhere close to the finish line.) But how about an avian Top 40 for the past year? I think I can handle that.

Without further ado:


1-01 (40) 340 L 40. Where: Reserva Yanacocha, Pichincha, Ecuador. When: April 9, 2010. Who: participants in an expedition with The Partnership for International Birding.

I think the case can be made that Ecuador is the ultimate destination for the birder. Smaller than the state of Colorado, Ecuador is home to 1,800+ bird species—a great many of which can be found within a morning’s drive of Quito. How do you narrow it down to a favorite bird? For me, start with the hummingbirds. More than anything else, they epitomize the insane diversity of the Ecuadorian avifauna. Then go for a species that is entirely over the top in some regard or another. One such species, for me, has to be the astonishing Swordbill. On a misty morning near a Polylepis grove not far from Quito, our little group of birders saw at least half a dozen of these impossibly long-billed creatures. (Above: Swordbill. Photo by © Joseph Tobias.) 


39. Where: Race Point, Barnstable County, Massachusetts. When: March 7, 2010. Who: Wayne Petersen.

Going to church with the pope…playing baseball with Barry Bonds…birding in Massachusetts with Wayne Petersen. Since my teen years, I’ve been aware of the inextricable link between Petersen and New England field ornithology. Imagine the thrill, then, of spending a day on Cape Cod with the dean of Massachusetts birding. Even the weather cooperated. Ridiculously, given the date and location, it was sunny and warm with no wind at all. We saw great birds at every stop. My favorite was a Dovekie swimming just offshore.


38. Where: Wilck’s Lake, Prince Edward County, Virginia. When: April 24, 2010. Who: participants in a “Bare-naked Birding” workshop with The Virginia Society of Ornithology.

Our plan was simple—and radical. Go birding without binoculars. No, this wasn’t an exercise in “ear birding” (which I greatly enjoy, by the way). Rather, the idea was to behold the full-on glory of spring migration in all its visual splendor—unencumbered by the flat, pinhole views we obtain with high-power binoculars. The morning was cool, overcast, and rather dreary—until a refulgent Prothonotary Warbler blazed across the path, paused on a nearby stump, and moved on. The bare-naked, 3D, 360° experience was overwhelming.


1-04 (37) 340 R 37. Where: Castro Verde, Beja, Portugal. When: September 29, 2010. Who: participants in a tour sponsored by the Associação Turismo do Algarve.

The arid uplands of southern Portugal are austere—in a beautiful way. Here one finds rolling, rocky expanses of gorse and grassland, dotted with old oaks and scattered pine plantations. And here one finds the bizarre and wonderful Great Bustard. The field guide says a distant flock can be mistaken for sheep, and I don’t disagree with that assessment. (Right: Great Bustard. Photo by © Menno van Duijn.)


36. Where: Carson Lake, Churchill County, Nevada. When: May 15, 2010. Who: participants in a Spring Wings Bird Festival field trip.

Sprawling Carson Lake—more a complex of wetlands, really, than an actual lake—is little known outside the Great Basin. Yet it has to rank among the absolute greatest birding hotspots anywhere in North America. Carson Lake is a land of avian plenty, teeming with unimaginable numbers of breeding and migratory birds. At our first stop on the auto tour, we saw at least 15 Long-billed Curlews, several of them displaying wildly above a wet meadow.


1-06 (35) 500 L 35. Where: Jamnagar Marine National Park, Gujarat, India. When: November 27, 2010. Who: delegates to the 2010 Global Bird Watcher’s Conference.

You can tell just from looking at a field guide that the Crab Plover is striking: gleaming white with black highlights, with gangly legs and a thick black bill. And I’m here to tell you something you can’t really get from a field guide: This bird has a strange personality! Crab plovers, I have found, are clannish, aloof, and pouty. (Above: Looking at Crab Plovers. Photo by © Steve Newman.)


34. Where: Teal Ridge Wetland, Payne County, Oklahoma. When: October 17, 2010. Who: attendees at an Oklahoma Ornithological Society conference.

Would we or wouldn’t we? The species is pretty scarce after mid-month in north-central Oklahoma. As it turns out, we were not to be denied. Indeed, we were scarcely out of the parking lot when there was a sighting of an adult Scissor-tailed Flycatcher—on a wire (needless to say), supremely elegant (of course), and a bit haughty (understandably so, we allowed).


1-08 (33) 475 R 33. Where: Monterey Bay, Monterey County, California. When: July 12, 2010. Who: Andrew Floyd.

Aboard the Monterey Princess, my son—three years old at the time—and I were on a quest. We were in search of the great bird of the bay. After an hour at sea we saw it, but the view was distant and dissatisfying. An hour later, the captain announced we would be heading back to port—at which time, and as if by cue, a Black-footed Albatross crossed into view, cut a series of three-dimensional figure-eights (a manner of flight referred to as “dynamic soaring”), then disappeared. (Above: Black-footed Albatross. Photo by © Bill Schmoker.)


32. Where: Tuizipel, Chimaltenango, Guatemala. When: February 10, 2010. Who: participants in a tour sponsored by the Instituto Guatemalteco de Turismo.

The highlands of northern Central America and southern Mexico are lovely and fascinating—home to birds which are characteristic of both boreal pine forests and tropical woodlands. And in this region one can find a few bird species which occur nowhere else on the planet. One such species is the implausibly attired Pink-headed Warbler. We saw at least four of these lively sprites, pirouetting and somersaulting in the tall pines, jabbing at insects and flirting with sunspecks.


1-10 (31) 460 L 31. Where: The Piney Tract, Clarion County, Pennsylvania. When: June 12, 2010. Who: Chip Clouse.

My companion “needed” Henslow’s Sparrow. I “needed” to lay eyes on the legendary Piney Tract, which I had known about since my teen years. In all my years in Pennsylvania, I’d never visited the place. Now, on a complete lark, we were heading south from Jamestown, New York, in the pre-dawn darkness. We reached our destination as the sun was rising, and the place was alive with the sights, sounds, and smells of the prairie—yet in Pennsylvania! And, yes, Chip got his bird—22 of them, no less. (Above: The Piney Tract. Photo by © Mike Fialkovich.)


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Alright, at this point, many of you might justifiably be saying that this Avian Top 40 appears to be just a random hodgepodge of bird sightings from the past year. But I’m going somewhere with all of this—honest! If you’ll be so kind as to check out Part 2 (Birds 30–21 in the countdown), I think you’ll start to see where we’re headed. Thanks!