A Project Is Born
In these past few years our nation has often seemed to be made up of states that are more Dis-united than United. Rather than read about it in the news or hear about it on the radio or television or take it in through social media, I wanted to see for myself – to get out of my own bubble and with a mind that I hoped I could open further, expand my horizons and get real time, real life input. Maybe I would understand better. Maybe I could appreciate differences but still hopefully find common ground. Maybe I could make sense of it all or find peace in the process.
I had often thought about a long road trip just getting in the car and without much planning heading off to enjoy whatever followed. I have tried to become more spontaneous but I do better with some structure and I also do better when I have set goals and put my energy into meeting them. Birding has often helped me get out of the doldrums when things seemed bleak personally – a soothing and restorative distraction. In addition to the political landscape there had been some personal downers as well, so a plan came together fairly quickly: a road trip that would use my passion for birds to explore the diversity of our country and experience both the differences and the commonality and also to sustain me in these crazy, confusing and chaotic times. It needed some structure and being a compulsive lister and liking round numbers and patterns, I came up with the idea of birding in every state with a goal of finding 50 species on single days in each of them. I liked the symmetry of 50 states, 50 days and 50 species – an affirmation of something shared in and by each state no matter the differences in geography, habitat, weather, or cultural and ethnic diversity. Finding 50 species on a single day is not necessarily a difficult thing to do – certainly not so when weather cooperates and it is not in the dead of winter. It is certainly easy to do in the month of May almost anywhere as migration is in full swing, but there is only one month of May each year and I was somewhat concerned whether I could plan visits to be in each state when there would be sufficient species around to make reaching the goal likely.
That objective would get me to the diverse places I wanted to experience, but there was one more critical need. Birds? Yes, I could find them. Places? Yes, many great places to visit. What was missing were people, local people who shared the connection with birds but also had the special history, knowledge and perspective of all of these places I would experience, many for the first time in my now over 70 years. They would add immeasurably to my birding experiences but far more importantly would add immeasurably to my personal experiences. Finding and coordinating with the right people was at times a complicating factor, another challenge to logistics and planning, but it was by far the most rewarding part of the adventure.
What an adventure it has been – far beyond anything I dreamed of when I started out. It has been barely a month since my last trip that concluded in Arkansas – the last of the 50 states where in the company of new friends, I have been able to find the 50 species in a single day. I am still digesting all of the experiences and planning some next steps that I hope will be meaningful to me and to others. Blog posts have been completed for all of the visits – more than 400 pages with about the same number of photos. I expect there will be more as I slice and dice the experiences, but here I wanted to share a mostly statistical summary and overview leaving out the personal intersections and the details of each visit. Lots of numbers. Here goes.
I first came up with the specific goal of 50 birds in each state on individual days in late August 2018. At that time there was no time line in mind for completing the project. It was not intended to be a form of a Big Year. Certainly too late to start one for 2018 and I wanted to get going not wait. First though, I looked back on some birding trips earlier in 2018 that had been spectacular – especially for target birds. These were trips to California and Texas in March and April respectively. I found that I had seen 50 or more species on singular days in each state and the birding was with others. I elected to include these trips in my saga retroactively as the plan was not driven by a need to do them all in one year or for that matter in any particular time frame.
So I want to be clear from the start that this adventure was not completed in a single calendar year. Yet, although there was no planning to do so, as it turns out, each of the 50 official 50 species days was completed on a unique day of the calendar. The visits were not all in the same calendar year but if one looked at the days of the month only, they could have been. (More on that later.) The map below shows for each state the day of the year that the 50 species were seen color coded by month.
One state was done each in January, February and March. Three were done in April and 16 in that migration rich month of May. Another 6 were done in June and none were done in July. A single state was done in August and then 5 in September, 6 in October, 8 in November and 2 in December. My general approach was to schedule trips to multiple adjoining states allowing on average two days for each state to cover travel time between states and to provide a potential insurance day in case 50 species were missed on any one day. I generally started with a travel day to get to the target area then rented a car and birded the next day, traveled a day to the next state, birding the following day, continuing for as many states as made sense and then flying home the following day.
Fourteen states were done on a one off basis (including the ones added retroactively). I had two 5-state trips, a single 4-state trip, two 3-state trips and one 2-state trip. My longest trip was a nearly month-long visit to 14 states in May 2019. While the simplistic look at calendar dates indicates 50 states done on 50 different days of the year, as I said, they were not in the same calendar year and a deeper look shows that the 50 states could not have been visited on those same days in just the one year. Take for example the states completed in the Month of November. The last states in the Adventure were Kansas on November 5th, Oklahoma on November 7th and Arkansas on November 9th – all in 2019. In 2018, I had visited states adjacent to those three – Louisiana on November 2nd, Alabama on November 4th and Alabama on November 6th. While it would not have been possible to be in each of those states on those days between November 2nd and 9th in a single year, I am sure that by changing the order and stretching it out by another few days, it would have been doable.
The next map shows the years in which each state was done. I chose to include several states retroactively both as a logistical benefit and also because I wanted to share some of the specific experiences, people, places and birds. This map, too, is color coded – this time by year – a unique color for each of the 7 years included. Two states, Maryland and Wisconsin went way back to my first years of birding – included for reasons very meaningful to me. Maine was the single state for 2015 since I really wanted to include that experience. Alaska, Colorado and Washington were in 2016. Colorado was a very special trip chasing (and finding) many gallinaceous birds. The Alaska trip was a magnificent trip – my only serious birding there – too good to leave out. Finally there is my home state of Washington. There have been well over 100 days where I have had 50 species or more in a single day in Washington maybe several times that many. I could have selected a terrific day in either 2018 or 2019 but a day in 2016 was most meaningful to me because of place, birds and especially the person I birded with and a story I wanted to tell, so I went retroactive.
I chose visits to Florida and Arizona in 2017 again because of place, birds and people but could have included a different visit to Arizona in 2018. The remainder of the visits were in 2018 (16 states) and 2019 (26 states). Again with the adjustments suggested above, I am sure that it would have been possible to have kept the dates and do them in a single year BUT Alaska would have been tight AND more importantly it simply was not what I wanted to do – committing so much time energy and money to a single year doing it. That said, it is definitely possible and I hope someone else may do so in a single year someday. Might that be me?…well…
Quantity and Quality – Numbers and Favorites
In each state that I visited the critical objective was to find the 50 species in the single day and only after that maybe to include some species that were either new ABA Life birds or ABA Life photos when possible. It was also essential to be birding with others and that coupled with logistics favoring areas of one state proximate to specific areas in another further coupled with choosing what may have been less than optimal times (e.g. October as opposed to May) meant that there was not an emphasis on doing a Big Day in each state maximizing the numbers seen on that day. In most of the states, choosing a different time or place would have increased the species counts – perhaps substantially.
The following two maps shows the number of species seen in each of the 50 states ranging from a “we barely made it” 51 species in Hawaii to 110 species seen in Maryland. The second map gives a further slice color coding the number of species as in 50 to 60, 60 to 70 etc.
Half of the states were in the 50’s and 60’s species range, 14 were in the 70’s, 7 in the 80’s, 2 in the 90’s and 2 over 100. Altogether on the Official 50 Species days only I observed a total of 491 species in the 50 states – excluding Hawaii the number in the ABA Area drops to 462. Many of the days I used were parts of longer trips some with a week or more of birding. Including all species seen on the full trips, 660 species were found – 629 if Hawaii is excluded. I do not have a full list of ABA Life Birds seen or new ABA Life Photos on either the official days or during the longer trips, but it would be difficult to know in any event since I have included the trips to Maryland and Wisconsin from my early days and many of the species from those trips were ABA Lifers. As for ABA Life photos, definitely over 100 and maybe 150.
I also have not kept track of miles traveled. Certainly more than 12,000 by car and three times that much by plane. Another important number is that all told I birded with more than 500 other birders along the way – every age, color, skill level, religion, gender and many nations of origin. That has been the best part of the adventure without question.
I will probably do a longer post about favorite species with photos. For this post and summary I have chosen my all time favorite as the featured image on top – the Swallow Tailed Kite seen in Florida with Paul Bithorn. I am closing with my favorite 12 species seen and photographed after that one. Some were rare and/or Lifers, others just loved even more than the others. In no particular order.
Flammulated Owl – Utah with Tim Avery
Prothonotary Warbler – West Virginia with Beth Poole
Whooping Crane – Texas with Carlos Sanchez, Barry Zimmer and Victor Emanuel
LeConte’s Sparrow – Arkansas with Vivek Govind Kumar
Connecticut Warbler – Ohio with Danno Gesualdo, Laura Keene and David and Tammy McQuade
Kirtland’s Warbler – Michigan with Sam Burckhardt and Cindy Bailey
Nazca Booby – California with Doug Schurman
Rufous Capped Warbler – Arizona with Jon Dunn and Dorian Anderson
Bananaquit – Florida with Paul Bithorn and Frank Caruso
Willow Ptarmigan – Alaska with John Puschock
Greater Sage Grouse – Colorado with Frank Caruso and Stephan Lorenz
Piping Plover – Connecticut with Mike Resch
Final Words – (For Now…)
More than anything else this experience has been how my passion for birds energized me to get off my butt and have an incredible adventure full of memories and stories. It has also been about community – a birding community that is readily found in every state. Similar experiences and similar communities are available to all who follow their passions – whatever they may be. Go for it!!