In any relationship there is an evolution as we are informed by experiences gathered, lessons learned and perspectives gained. When I began this 50 state birding adventure, I saw it as a framework for an activity that would take me on paths familiar and not, but always following my passion for birds and the birders that observe them. There was no certainty that the objective of finding 50 species on single days in each of the 50 states would be met but I was certain that the rewards from the effort would be great and more than justify the cost in time, effort and expense that would be involved. I knew there would be many interesting experiences and many interesting people along the way. I knew there would be many wonderful birds. What I did not know was the depth of the feelings that would grow within me as I traveled around the country and intersected with so many incredible people who make up a very special community. These intersections have brought me much happiness and have taught me much about the generosity of others and about my own being. My last stop was in Arkansas and again I was rewarded far beyond expectation.
The most important part of my 50/50/50 undertaking has been the requirement not just to see 50 species in a day but to do so while connecting with members of the birding communities in each locale. And that, too, evolved as I continued my adventure and experienced and appreciated the diversity of the people who make up the world of birders. It was always important to me that in visiting different areas I would explore and hopefully gain understanding of other viewpoints, perspectives, backgrounds and cultures something particularly meaningful in this time of polarization and tribalism in our country. Noting and appreciating differences while sharing and appreciating commonalities has been a recurring theme and a recurring benefit. Nowhere was this more true than in Arkansas – a very fitting close to my travels.
On October 2nd, following one of the networking paths that had succeeded in previous visits, I sent an email that began as follows: “I hope I have the email address correct and this is reaching Vivek Kumar in the Fayetteville, Arkansas area. I got your name and email address from Ebird and the Arkansas ABA Listserv.” I did not know this person and had never communicated with him or with anyone that knew of him. It was quite simply a digital plea for help using two of the main social media resources of the birding world as it exists in this second decade of the 21st Century so entirely different from the time more than 45 years when I began my own birding life. BUT…while technology has so significantly changed much of the game, what has not changed is that this wonderful community is and always will be about interesting people – and the connection between us remains our passion for birds. BUT (again) there has been another change in those passing years – made possible and aided in part because of the expanded networking and communication possibilities from a very different world of technology – a change in the demographic makeup of the birding world.
In the 1960’s birders were more likely to be called birdwatchers and were most often conceived of as “little old ladies in tennis shoes” like Miss Jane Hathaway in the Beverly Hillbillies or possibly academics in tweeds. That would change as the American Birding Association was born in 1969 and took flight in the early 1970’s as outlined in my earlier blog about my birding with Floyd Murdoch in Oklahoma [See https://wordpress.com/post/blairbirding.com/22978]. Birdwatchers became birders and birding was now also a sport and many especially younger men were participants. Nonetheless, for the most part, birders were men and generally white men, often well educated and often well off. There is still a long way to go, but I am happy to say that this is no longer fully the case, and birding with people of many ages, races, genders, cultures and backgrounds has been an enriching part of my 50/50/50 experience, broadening and deepening my views and appreciations of the complex world we travel in together. Vivek Govind Kumar is but one case in point. First and foremost an extraordinarily good birder and fine and generous person, he is also a person of a very interesting background greatly adding to the richness of our time together. Much more on that later, but let’s start with the enthusiasm with which he, like Zach Poland in Oklahoma and Tom Ewert in Kansas on this trip, and so many others in prior trips, joined in my quest. And this included scouting trips and research in advance of my visit which Vivek shared with me.
With Vivek Govind Kumar
The plan was to meet Vivek on the night of November 8th in Fayetteville, Arkansas at his residence just off the University of Arkansas campus where he is working on his doctorate. We would have dinner that night and then bird the next day. Fayetteville was just over 110 miles from Tulsa with about one third of that being in Arkansas. So like I had done on other travel dates, I did some birding in Arkansas on the way mostly on an arbitrary basis in and around Siloam Springs and then visiting Hobbs State Park and Beaver Lake Nursery Pond, two areas that Vivek had included on his proposed itinerary. The topography in Arkansas was very different from areas I had birded in Kansas and Oklahoma. Much more deciduous forest with rolling hills and the foothills of the Ozark Mountains. Temperatures were pleasant. There was little wind and some trees were still showing fall color.
My first good stop was along Robinson Road in Siloam Springs, where I found an adult Yellow Bellied Sapsucker, Northern Mockingbirds, Eastern Bluebirds, and both Carolina Wren and Carolina Chickadee. The latter two are closely related to the Bewick’s Wrens and Black Capped Chickadees so common in my Washington birding and I include comparative photos of both together. They are very similar but fortunately have very different songs and calls.
Yellow Bellied Sapsucker
Carolina Wren and Bewick’s Wren
Carolina Chickadee and Black Capped Chickadee
Hobbs State Park is one of those places I would love to revisit with more time. It has extensive hiking trails in beautiful forest and a very fine visitor center which is where I got a chance to do a little birding mostly watching the feeders there. There was not much diversity at this time but I could definitely fantasize about numerous passerines in Spring migration and maybe even get a much desired photo of a Cerulean Warbler. I had no warblers on this visit but got fun photos of a White Breasted Nuthatch, Tufted Titmouse and White Throated Sparrow.
White Breasted Nuthatch
White Throated Sparrow
Backtracking a bit, I then visited the Beaver Lake Nursery Pond. I was disappointed to find only a few birds on the lake and the pond, but there were many birds on the road down to the Pond. Species included a Red Shouldered Hawk, Red Headed Woodpecker, a Hermit Thrush and to my surprise Pine Warbler.
Red Headed Woodpecker (Juvenile)
I added a Pied Billed Grebe at a roadside pond on the way into Fayetteville for my 34th species of the day. Not bad considering that I had not made an effort to add species and had but a single species of waterfowl for the day and no shorebirds. I was confident we would succeed the next day so was not worried. Unfortunately it was dark as I picked up Vivek for dinner as the town of Fayetteville seemed very interesting with a very vibrant downtown and campus scene with lots of restaurants. We had excellent Thai food at one and I wondered how long ago restaurants such as this one had arrived in this very southern city. I asked Vivek to try to explain to me the nature of his research and dissertation. I had the most superficial understanding of the work in biochemistry but seemed much more about physics and definitely required enormous data processing capacity.
Of more interest and easier to understand was his personal history having grown up in Dubai with some family still in India and having begun birding at a young age following his birder father to many locations. As had been the case with the world travels of companions Bob Holbrook and Floyd Murdoch in Oklahoma, I was envious of his international experience and the many birds he had seen. We did share an awe for the Taj Mahal and tigers in the wild, two of my all time favorite life experiences on a birding trip to Northern India in 2011. Vivek outlined the plans for the following day which included being joined by two of his friends to start in the morning and then hooking up with an Audubon group at Lake Fayetteville a bit later. I was excited and looked forward to state number 50 and many memories ahead.
On Saturday we started at 6:45 a.m. at Woolsey Wet Prairie where we were met by Barry Bennett and Todd Ballinger. Todd was a teacher who had just started birding a couple of years ago. Barry had been birding a bit longer and was keen to bird with us – which I think meant mostly to bird with Vivek who in his short time in Fayetteville has developed quite a reputation for his prowess and knowledge. Many of the birders I have met along the way on my 50 state journey have overcome a variety of health challenges to be able to spend time in the field and in many cases a love for birding has played an important part in their recovery or dealing with some limitations. As I wrote previously [https://wordpress.com/post/blairbirding.com/22948] this had been the case for Tom Ewert in Kansas after his brain surgery. Birding has played an important role for Barry as he has managed a long battle with Multiple Sclerosis.
It was soon apparent why this was called a “wet” prairie as we trudged through water underfoot in many areas including on the trail. I did not have high boots but fortunately my boots were waterproof and I could manage in about 9 inches of water. It was necessary as among our main targets here were Sedge Wrens and sparrows including specifically LeConte’s Sparrows. I don’t think Vivek would have let me leave until we found and had good looks at both. The Wrens were easy but the LeConte’s Sparrows were another story altogether – and fortunately one with a happy ending. Indeed there were lots of sparrows – only six species but many individuals. I probably heard and saw more Swamp Sparrows there than I have seen or heard in the rest of my life – over 60. There were almost as many Song Sparrows. Other species were White Crowned and White Throated Sparrow, Field Sparrow and yes, LeConte’s Sparrow, with at least 5 seen and at least two of them seen well and one captured in many photos.
White Crowned Sparrow
It was a spectacular morning with only a bit of wind but beautiful and photo friendly sunshine which was mostly behind us as we chased after the LeConte’s Sparrows in the grasses. They really are secretive and challenging little buggers, coming into the open at most for a split second and then disappearing by diving onto the ground beneath the grass and often running like mice between the reeds. As I had written before, we missed them entirely in Kansas and had fleeting views without photos in Oklahoma. Vivek was persistent in his pursuit and maybe 30 yards into the grasses we had our first good looks and then some brief poses in the open allowed for the photos. This was a great way to start the day.
Earlier on this adventure I had worked very hard to get my life photos of a Sedge Wren. The first one, very poor was at Dauphin Island in Alabama. Better ones were at the Chatham County Wetlands Preserve in Georgia and with later sightings in Minnesota, South Dakota, Nebraska, Iowa and Oklahoma just recently. On all of those trips combined, I had seen 18 Sedge Wrens. This was the exact number we had here at Woolsey Wet Prairie. And they were pretty photo friendly – again in good light.
We also had 2 Marsh Wrens and 5 Carolina Wrens. House Wrens are found here earlier in the year as well. I recalled how when I first started birding Marsh Wrens were called Long Billed Marsh Wrens and Sedge Wrens were Short Billed Marsh Wrens. I had only seen one of the latter at Anahuac NWR in South Texas back in 1978 and 40 years had passed until I had another one.
The wrens and sparrows were the highlights but we ended with 39 species for the three hours we spent there covering 2.4 miles. It was as pleasant a morning of birding as anyone could want and when Vivek had a call from Joe Neal who was leading the trip at Lake Fayetteville and he learned that “the waterfowl were in”, we were pretty certain 50 species would soon be on the record book. On the way to the Lake we added Rock Pigeon to the day list and more importantly I caught a glimpse of two small accipiters, Sharp Shinned Hawks, birds that are often present but not seen. At the park on the way to the lake we passed by an area where Chipping Sparrows were “guaranteed” as often dozens are present. Not a one. “We’ll get them later”.
At the lake itself we went straight to the blind where ten species of ducks had been reported in the phone call to Vivek earlier. Lots of friendly people on the field trip and lots of birds on the lake, but by far the largest number were the American Coots – maybe 700. Many of the birds were quite distant and even with a scope it took some work to pull out the 9 duck species – all new except the Mallards. Nonetheless we did find them and despite again missing Chipping Sparrows later, we added a few passerines and with 14 new species we were over 50 species for the day. I had done it. I had now crossed the finish line in my quest having seen 50 species in a single day in all 50 states. There was definitely a feeling of accomplishment and joy but the day was young and we were having fun which was really the point of each day’s birding in any event.
Todd had to leave us, so Barry, Vivek and I carried on. We found a half dozen Eurasian Collared Doves and added the species to the day list. These doves have become abundant in Washington and appear to be replacing Mourning Doves in some areas in Eastern Washington. Not so in these Midwestern states where they are definitely present but not taking over. At our next stop I had a special treat – an excellent burrito at one of maybe a dozen food trucks off the highway. There was quite an offering of food choices: Thai, Chinese, Mexican, Italian and standard American fare. More than 100 people had chosen this spot for lunch while we were there. A Turkey Vulture flew right over us – but I did not take that as a sign to worry about the food we ate.
We visited the Chesney Natural Prairie and in addition to adding a few more species, we had the surprise of the day. Walking one of the grass lined trails, we flushed a bird that could not have been more than a few feet from us. I yelled “Bobwhite“. Vivek changed the call to “Snipe” then to the astonishing “Woodcock“. Unfortunately the bird flew off fast and away from us for a long distance. I reacted as quickly as I could and actually found the flying object in the viewfinder of my camera. I captured some images but focus was impossible. I have only seen one other American Woodcock in my life – in 1975 on Assateague Island in Maryland. Definitely no photo and it is high on my list of birds seen without photos that I hoped to photograph. Certainly not the image I want (and which someday I will get) but I include it here as it was a cool part of the story of the day. It is also proof that I am a pretty poor photographer – except when I am lucky or circumstances are so good that it is almost impossible not to succeed.
American Woodcock – Clearly (or perhaps unclearly) Atop My Worst Photo List
We had spent more time at some of our earlier stops than Vivek had planned but certainly no complaint by me as we had great and at times somewhat surprising birds and were well past the goal of 50 species. There was time to head to the places I had visited the previous day – Hobbs State Park and the Beaver Lake Nursery Pond, but first there was a very strange addition to our route as we took the road through the “Wild Wilderness Drive-Through Safari”. We did not see any of them but the website for this park lists lions and tigers and bears – oh my – and a lot of other exotic animals. We did see Wildebeests and Camels and Prairie Dogs and two species of birds – one definitely not countable and one that surprisingly is. Uncountable were the Ostriches which somehow looked even larger than when I saw them in the wild in Kenya. What we saw that is countable in Arkansas is an Egyptian Goose. I saw and counted them in Florida but had no idea that they were countable anywhere else. But I rarely refuse gifts especially when birds are involved.
Prairie Dog (along the road next to a fence that clearly was not working)
Camel – Don’t See These Everyday
We were in a race for time as sundown was approaching as we arrived at the Nursery Pond. Sadly and surprisingly unlike my experience the previous day, we neither heard nor saw any Red Headed Woodpeckers and we saw only a single Pine Warbler. Nor did we find the Pileated Woodpecker that Vivek expected. But we did add some Wood Ducks, Horned Grebe, and Hairy Woodpecker. In the same area I had the Red Headed Woodpeckers the day before there was only a noisy Red Bellied Woodpecker. We got to the visitor center just as it was closing and added White Breasted Nuthatch.
Red Bellied Woodpecker
There had been some notable misses during the day and some species that Vivek had seen or heard that I had not. These included Fox Sparrow, Red Headed Woodpecker and somehow House Sparrow. How had I missed House Sparrow? Vivek asked if this was important because he thought there was a place we could try although it was now pitch dark. My first thought was that it was unimportant and not worth any effort. My second thought was that House Sparrows, like European Starlings and Rock Doves are disparaged, unvalued and almost universally regarded as “junk birds” – a terrible species to be the last seen on my marathon birding adventure. But upon reflection my third thought was that it would be a fitting and perfect end.
There was no need for glamour and in fact the whole point of this countrywide endeavor was to recognize the beauty and meaning of all birds and birders – anywhere and at any time. We can find a difference on some value scale for a LeConte’s Sparrow or a lifer photo of a Winter Wren, or an American Woodcock as poor as those pictures might be. We can appreciate the special beauty of a very white Krider’s Red Tail or the special conservation success story of a California Condor or a Kirtland’s Warbler or a Whooping Crane or the rarity of a Nazca Booby or a Red Throated Pipit or a Bananaquit. These are all parts of my 50/50/50 Adventure and are very special memories, but when we found a small group of House Sparrows roosting in a tree, completely in the dark but chirping their good night song at a McDonald’s in Benton County, Arkansas, it was special, too.
Every moment, every bird, every person has been special on this personal voyage. “Unspecial” can be “special” as well. That is the message for all of us. We all have much that is special within us. We just need to live a bit to find it and let it free. I will write another blog summing up this 50 state undertaking and have thoughts for a book that may get written some day, but I want time to digest and think before that is even started. This three state trip with Tom and Floyd and Bob and Zach and Vivek and Barry and Todd was beyond fun and beyond satisfying. Many moments and memories that are now a part of me. Thankful for them all.