I just got my "List Supplements" for 1986-87 from the American Birding Association. This is the list of the listers, a record of the names and achievements of all the birders who keep careful accounts of every species they see--and then send those accounts to the American Birding Association for publication. The supplement requires 32 pages, two columns to a page, 93 names to the column, to list the names, total numbers of birds sighted, and home states (or countries) of the listers.
The lists are divided into two broad categories: annual lists (here for 1986 and 1987) and life lists. Each of these categories is broken down geographically. A birder can publish a life list or annual list or both for any of several divisions, among them the entire world, North America, Asia, Mexico, or the tropical west Pacific (the Philippines, New Guinea, and various other islands). There are separate lists for every state and Canadian province and for two Canadian territories as well. New geographic divisions can be created anytime enough birders show an interest in entering their lists. In each geographic division, a list must top a stated minimum to qualify for publication.
This list of listers is by no means complete. Most birders do not belong to the ABA, and even among ABA members, only a small minority send in lists for publication. Nonetheless, the supplement gives us 1,459 of the most active birders in North America and a few other continents. And their achievements do reveal something about the sport of birding and about North American bird life.
One of the things we notice is that there are more listers than there used to be. Birding has been gaining in popularity for some time, of course; but the growth of the listers does not so much show an increase in the sport as a whole as an increase in an elite, a group of highly skilled, experienced birders. These people bird in all seasons. They bird where they live and when they travel; they take birding vacations.
They know the annual cycle of bird life in their home area and on the rest of the continent. They know when to go to Capistrano to see the swallows, and they also know when to go to Duluth to see the goshawks, when to find sandhill cranes on the Platte River, and when to look for shearwaters in the Pacific off Monterey.
If you were a Chicago-area lister, December would mean monitoring the lakefront from Zion to Michigan City and checking Lake Calumet for unusual waterfowl and winter gulls. Inland, youd be looking for conifers, where winter finches might be hiding. You might find barred owls along the Des Plaines River in Lake County, and rough-legged hawks could turn up in almost any field away from the city.
As spring approaches, in late February or early March, you'd check the Illinois River near Channahon, Lake Renwick in Plainfield, and McGinnis Slough south of the Palos hills for migrating ducks and geese and--with some luck--bald eagles. Later in the spring, you might be looking for warblers at Montrose Harbor or buff-breasted sandpipers at a Du Page County sod farm. In summer, you could find nesting prothonotauy warblers at the Indiana Dunes or Henslow's sparrows at Markham Prairie.
The game that engages the most listers is the list for the ABA area. The ABA area includes the 49 continental states, Canada, various offshore islands, and the open sea to a distance of 200 miles. Nine hundred and thirteen birders submitted ABA area lists at or above the cutoff point of 500 species (seen in a lifetime). Sixty-three reported that they had seen 700 species or more in the ABA area, and Larry Balch, president of the ABA, told me he knew of at least 40 birders who had topped 700 species but not reported their lists. It has been only 15 years since the first lister reached 700; now over 100 have done it.
Five hundred and thirteen birders reported seeing 600 or more species in the ABA area. In the early days of birding--say, from the beginning of time to about 1972--600 species was the goal of all the most serious North American birders. They expected to spend a lifetime gaining that level. When I first started birding, we held in awe anyone who could claim 600 species. We would point them out to strangers as proof of the exalted stature of Chicago-area birding.
But in the 70s, the jet airliner and the interstate highway system did for birding what the forward pass had done for football: they opened up the game. No longer did birders need to hope that they could live long enough to reach 600 at the three-yards-and-a-cloud-of-dust pace that travel conditions allowed. Now you could reach 600 in a year, as a man named Ted Parker did in 1971.
His achievement set off a scramble for 700. Benton Basham, an anesthetist from Tennessee, reached 711 in 1983, and a Californian named Steven Perry matched that total in 1987.
The jet opened up Alaska, making it accessible to people of moderate means, and Alaska brought Indian tree pipits, bristle-thighed curlews, and other exotica that could not be found in the lower 48.
The jet also made it possible to chase birds. With an informal telephone network connecting the most serious listers in the United States and Canada, birders from Chicago and Austin could be on the scene within hours of the sighting of a terek sandpiper on the California coast. To top 700, you need about 40 extremely rare species whose appearance is completely unpredictable. Birds like the wandering albatross, the white-winged tern, and the Aztec thrush may be seen once in ten years. Every time one is reported, the serious lister will be on a jet or pounding down the interstate, going after it.
Birding has always been a game played mostly by the well-to-do, but the jet plane has made that tendency even more pronounced. You need money to play the game at the most rarefied level, and you can't be making it at a job that demands 60 or 70 hours a week of your time.
Some retired people have the necessary combination of time and money to really pursue birding. The current number-one lister in the ABA area is Theodore Koundakjian of Albany, California, who has seen 764 different species. His wife, Christine, is number six on the list, with 753. Ted Koundakjian is an engineering professor, now retired, whose new leisure has allowed him to move from 79th place in 1984 to the number-one spot today.
There is another retired couple among the top listers. Red and Louise Gambill lived in Ohio until he retired. Then they moved to the Rio Grande Valley of Texas, because that's where the most interesting birds are. They travel a lot--their annual lists may exceed 500 species--and they both have run their life lists to 737.
For what it is worth, only 16 of the top 100 listers in the ABA area are women.
The pages of international lists are, to an even greater extent, the creations of the jet. Anyone with a few thousand dollars and two weeks' vacation can take off for the Amazon, where expert guides will lead him to lists undreamed of in the ornithological bleakness of North America. The top South American list is 2,309 species, and the lowest total (worth publishing) is 903. Of the 39 birders on the South American list, one is from Scotland, another from "Great Britain," a third from Grenada. Five Canadians made the list, and everyone else is from the United States. No nation is immune to birding fever, but plainly this is a game that has descended from England to the empire. The United States, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand are major centers, and all the Africans on the African list have British names.
The state and provincial lists are the most democratic of these compilations. Anybody who can get out regularly for a year or two can collect enough species to make the state list. You could qualify for publication on the Illinois list with only 195 species.
Each state or province has a list of possible sightings compiled as a matter of record by local birders through private organizations, such as Audubon societies, or through state government agencies. A man named Tony White, who sells a birding software package called Bird Commander, monitors state lists and provides his software customers with quarterly updates. According to his numbers, Illinois has 398 possibles. The man at the top of our state list is H. David Bohlen, who works for the Illinois State Museum in Springfield and who compiled the standard checklist of Illinois birds. He has seen 365, 91.7 percent of the possibles on his list.
The state lists show very plainly where the birds are and where the birders are. Texas tops the state lists with 573 species. California is close behind, with 565. It is no mystery why these states are on top. They are big places with lots of different habitats, and they both have long coastlines.
They are also where the birders are, so unusual species are more likely to be seen. From Texas, 322 birders sent in lists. California produced 283. Florida took third place with only 130, and the numbers dropped off sharply from there. Not only do birders move to where they can find birds, but good birding year-round probably helps to produce more homegrown birders.
The absolute worst places for birding are states like West Virginia, Vermont, and Kentucky, where there is no coastline and the habitat is fairly uniform.
Illinois' 398 species put it 18th on the list of states. We get good numbers because of the lake and because we have some habitat change, from the cypress swamps of the Ohio Valley to the pine groves at Illinois Beach State Park.
Larry Balch told me that Ted Koundakjian's 764 species is no longer the top North American list. Benton Basham, the first man to see 700 in a year, is now up around 790 with his life list. It seems 800 is inevitable. Twenty years ago this would have been thought impossible.