Well, we did it again.
Two weeks ago three individuals and I set out from my house in north Fargo on a 24-hour birding blitz, attempting to break the state record for the number of bird species seen or heard in one day. Called a Big Day by birders, this is typically a sleep-deprived caffeine-charged sprint over hundreds of miles of roads and trails. And indeed it was.
Ron Martin of Minot, Torre Hovick, and Chris Merkord (both from Moorhead) filled out our foursome.
Departing at 11 p.m., May 19, we set ourselves in the Sheyenne National Grasslands at midnight and began the process of counting birds calling from the darkness. It was during this time I became disappointingly aware of my shortcoming.
In my younger days I was a somewhat competitive runner. I had run track in high school and college and took part in many local road races and marathons. Once in my 30s I noticed I could no longer perform at levels I was familiar with from my youth. Age, the inexorable equalizer, was beginning to show in my finishing times.
It took me some years to become at ease with the idea of not being a regular award winner, not seeing my name near the top of race finishers. But I slowly came to accept my fate and realized that those fast race times were never going to return. In a way, it made running more relaxing and enjoyable.
Another age-related setback hit me that night in the woods. My three partners all announced they were hearing a distant eastern screech owl calling. I did not. Age and perhaps a life of work-related noise exposure had laid bare the fact that my hearing was not what it once was.
What makes this significant in this particular regard is one of the counting rules for a Big Day. Only 5 percent of the total bird species can be ones not seen or heard by everyone. For example, if a group counts 200 birds for the day, only 10 can be non-team birds. Any more than that and they are not included in the team total.
By the time we left Cass County around noon we had about 150 birds. Later, Ron and Chris would admit that they both had low expectations of achieving our record goal. We got as far west as Bismarck, hitting wetland and prairie locations along the way, slowing checking off species.
From there we headed south then back east; the birds kept coming. Sprague’s pipit, chestnut-collared longspur, black-headed grosbeak, piping plover … and so it went.
As twilight approached we stopped at a low lush swale west of Ellendale and stepped out of the car. It happened again. The other team members all heard distant singing LeConte’s sparrows and Nelson’s sparrows. I didn’t.
We ended up back in western Cass County at midnight, listening for any last bird we may have missed before arriving at my place about 1 a.m.. We had done it. 190 species now stands as the state record Big Day.
Planning and executing such an event takes a lot of effort. In addition, timing is everything. This was a wet and cold spring with migration delayed for many species. Things like willow flycatcher and blue grosbeak were not even here yet. Plus high water nearly everywhere we went prevented us from getting a few more species of shorebirds due to lack of suitable habitat.
Yet we did very well overall. Torre said, “I think our route was much better than last year. We were able to bird a lot more instead of spending all that time in the car.”
Out of 190 species only 7 were “non-team” birds. All of them counted, falling below the five percent threshold. Still, groggily waking up after several hours of sleep the next day, I couldn’t help but self-assess and wonder just how much longer I can contribute to such an effort. Hardcore birding demands concentration, sharp vision, and acute hearing.
Oh, I won’t quit entirely, this is a passion too embedded in my psyche to do that. But I guess I have to come to a sort of peace with getting older. Just like I did with running.