The Big Yard: Birdwatching in a Time of Quarantine

Or: The Evolution of a Lister

It didn’t start with the pandemic. 

Before the hand washing and social distancing, before the supermarket shelves emptied of Charmin and Uncle Ben’s, there was the failure and loss of my online bird list for my yard:

“HTTP 500 error…the website can’t display this page.” 

Ten years of birds I’ve seen from my window—including some once-in-a-lifetime species like that single appearance of an elegant trogon and later a female yellow grosbeak calling from the juniper.  Twelve species of hummingbirds like the extraordinary light-bearer with the long curl of a beak.  Four kinds of wrens.  Three different tanagers and those eye-candy orioles.  The clown-faced woodpeckers and quail.  Every. Record. Gone.

I have an astounding three-acre yard of sky-touching oaks and juniper rising above tawny grasslands, tucked into a boulder-choked canyon in the Mule Mountains near Bisbee in that birdwatcher’s paradise of southeastern Arizona.  People from all over the world come here, often to get a glimpse of only one bird, a “rarity” that suddenly appears along a roadside hackberry thicket or someone’s chain-linked backyard.  In 2009, the blue mockingbird at Slaughter Ranch, twenty minutes from my home and 600 feet from Mexico, was only the third one ever seen in Arizona.  Over the three months it visited the normally quiet borderland ranch, three thousand visitors threw money at the caretaker for the chance to mark a check next to it on their “life list.” 

Such is the obsession of the so-called “listers.”  Always waiting for the next Sinaloa wren or Aztec thrush to make itself known when somebody posts a report to the listserv and the rare bird alerts land in your inbox. 

I admit that I’ve chased a few, like that roseate spoonbill that showed up looking out of place in a farmer’s bullfrog pond.  And there was that chickenlike “Jesus Bird,” a long-toed, lily-pad-walking northern jacana that caused a stir at a golf course water hazard.  But mostly, I just kept track of the new birds that came to my home.  One hundred and forty-two species over ten years at last count, if I remember correctly.

            So, I turned to eBird. 

            I’d been resisting the online database of bird observations of everyone from ornithologists to citizen scientists to enthusiasts for the feathered denizens. No reason, I guess.  It just seemed like too much effort for a simple yard list.  The crowdsourcing website, a project of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and Audubon, allows users to track their bird sightings while others watch in real time, and it has tools for organizing lists by place, date, location, and species.  Data administrators, volunteers who are expert local birdwatchers, review your postings for accuracy.  Like the email I got after listing a common moorhen instead of a common gallinule, not because I misidentified the bird but because its name had changed a decade ago.

            The thing sucked me right in. 

            My yard list (at 20 species since I had to start over) led to other lists.  Lists in an old, outdated Peterson’s guide.  Lists of dated bird photos on my computer.  Lists tucked into journals.  Lists written into journals—journals going back 25 years.  Two months and 17 fat, rubber-banded journals later, I had submitted 88 checklists with 47 photos.  My life list, all the birds I’d identified since 1995, stood at 402 species.

            It gets worse.  I get daily email alerts of birds the program now knows I “need” (or need) and conveniently maps out where I can find them.

I’ve started visiting all the birding hotspots in my area, adding to my “county list” to go with my “yard list,” carrying my binoculars, camera, and guidebooks.  Three times to Whitewater Draw for sandhill cranes, snow geese, greater yellowlegs, and least sandpipers.  Four times to the San Pedro House and trails for Chihuahua ravens, common ground doves, and Mexican ducks.  Twice to Murray Springs, and I still haven’t gotten a Crissal thrasher, so I’ll return.  Soon, elegant trogons will be arriving at Scotia Canyon…

I spend more time looking out my window than at my computer screen—is that a painted redstart?  Yes!  Yard bird number 44 for the year.

I had been considering doing an Arizona Big Year when the coronavirus spiked.  Then, I thought maybe I should accept a limited self-quarantine and see how many birds I can see this year in just the county, which is the size of Connecticut.  My wife (who wrote a pandemic plan for Tucson in 2007 and knows this stuff) and I started practicing social isolation (but not with each other—yet), shrinking our lives down to minimum public exposure.  I’m lowering my expectations to a Big Yard—how many birds can I see from my windows and porch.  My goal: 100 species.

I’m setting out seed and suet feeders, mixing sugar nectar, and slicing oranges.  For the two humans, the quarantine garden pushes up leafy stalks of kale and cabbages under a blanket of wire mesh—no veggies for the hooved wildlife.  The chickens are fine as long as their blue-green eggs keep materializing in the straw boxes.  Six inches of rain have topped off the wells. It wasn’t part of some plan for the end times, but the freezer is heavy with last summer’s tomatoes, peaches, and the brown trout I caught while fly fishing Arizona’s mountain streams. If we get desperate, four whitetail bucks visit the yard every day.  I don’t own a gun, so as a last resort I might have to Rambo one of the six-points with a kitchen knife.  Messy, but doable.

For entertainment we have the library with its hundreds of books—I’m devouring the apocalyptic plague titles of Jane Austen and Charlotte Bronte (currently, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies and Jane Slayer).  No cable TV, but scores of DVDs, including the complete Marvel universe and My Life as a Turkey

And, of course, there are the birds. So many birds…