I spent a week in Florida recently with two serious bird-watching friends who are pursuing “Big Years” – ambitious goals for seeing the greatest variety of bird species in a calendar year. I’m a lifelong goal-setter and strategic planner and am drawn to bold and audacious goals. However, I emerged from the week of intense birdwatching with wonderful memories of birds seen and experiences shared, but even more committed to birding just for the joy of it.
I have been birdwatching since my single digits. Beyond red birds and blue birds, my first “aha” bird was an Eastern Towhee, which I saw in the forest near my house. I made mental notes as I observed and then ran home to look it up in Mom’s field guide. Birdwatching has stuck with me ever since.
Through the pandemic birdwatching became wildly popular. Some say that is because birds represent freedom, while others say people needed a safe distraction. Birding technology has similarly advanced with many new field guide apps and “E-Bird,” a real time global inventory of sightings. A really fun app is “Merlin” which identifies birds using your smart phone photos or sound recordings. Just turn the app on and hold your phone up and Merlin tells you which species is singing.
While birdwatchers are going up, actual bird numbers are going way down. According to research in the Journal Science, wild bird populations in the continental US and Canada have declined by about 30% since 1970 – a loss of almost 3 billion breeding adult birds – just since I saw my first Eastern Towhee! In this area we’ve seen great rebounds among Bald Eagles and Ospreys, but many of our tidal marsh species including Saltmarsh Sparrows and several Rail species are vanishing before our eyes due to sea level rise.
What to do? Get an app or a field guide and go birding and have fun. Enter your sightings in E-Bird and they will help monitor bird populations. Find your “aha” bird. Get outside and appreciate not just the birds but all of our natural wonders. Support habitat conservation/restoration and nonprofits which pursue those goals. Support candidates for elected office who support conservation.
Reflecting on my friends’ ambitious birding goals I looked back at my own retirement plan. There it was as goal number one – birdwatching with friends – on it!
Rob Etgen retired in 2021 after a 40-year career in conservation – the last 31 years as President of Eastern Shore Land Conservancy. In retirement Rob is enjoying family and working on global and local sustainability issues with Council Fire consulting out of Annapolis.