Mission Statement

There are 969 species of birds listed in taxonomical order on the ABA Checklist, v. 7.2.
My goal is to write a blog post about each species starting at the top and working my way down.

Monday, February 28, 2011

Pondering Phoebe

Phoebe Snetsinger

For the last couple of months I’ve been wanting to start writing again. I didn’t know quite where to begin, though. Then I saw the movie, Julie & Julia, and it gave me an idea. If I could find some interesting goal oriented activity, it would give me something to practice writing about, and I could write it in a blog. So here it is. I’m going to write about my favorite topic: Birds and birding.  But first I want to tell you a little something about Phoebe Snetsinger.

Phoebe Snetsinger was an extraordinary woman. I’ll start her story in May of 1965 when she was 34. At the time she had three young children and was a stay at home mother craving intellectual stimulation. One day, her neighbor Elisabeth, handed her a pair of binoculars and pointed out a brilliant, male Blackburnian Warbler. One glimpse and Phoebe’s whole world changed. Shortly afterward, she acquired a pair of binoculars and a field guide, and over the next two years Elisabeth taught her about the world of birds.

In 1967, Phoebe’s husband took a job in Missouri, and they moved to Webster Groves, a suburb of St. Louis. She joined the Webster Groves Nature Study Society and began to take birding very seriously. Over the next few years, she became quite a respected birder in the St. Louis area and held the local area record list of 275 birds in 1978.

At the age of 49 Phoebe’s life list in North America below Alaska had surpassed 600 and her youngest child was on the verge of fledging. She had just returned from Panama in February and had signed up for a trip to Alaska for that summer. She was beginning to plan a future of birding the world. That’s when she discovered a lump under her arm and was diagnosed with metastatic melanoma. The cancer had spread to her lymphatic system. The prognosis was three months of good health, a rapid decline, further metastasis, and death within a year.

Phoebe was devastated. Her first thought was, “Oh no – there are all those things I haven’t done yet, and now will never have the chance to do.” Since she only had three months of good health left, Phoebe decided not to waste a moment of it. She chose to go on the trip to Alaska. She figured if she got sick and had to leave, then that’s what she would do. If she died there, so be it. But she didn’t. In fact the blow never came.

After this episode in her life, Phoebe studied and traveled and pursued birds at a fevered pace. She became a super lister. She recorded seeing 8400+ species by the time she died in 1999. She held the record for the highest number of species recorded, and until recently was only one of two people in the world to have seen over 8000 species.*

Not only was Phoebe a super lister, but she was also a super birder. Phoebe had her own set of rules when it came to her list. While most birders will count heard birds, Phoebe would not. She also did not like to count birds that she was unable to identify on her own. This dedication is what set her apart from the majority of other competitive birders.

Although I have been interested in birds all of my life, I didn’t start really learning anything about them until the spring of 1997. I was 31 years old with three young children and starving for intellectual stimulation. One afternoon, my infant son, Galen, pulled himself upright using the low kitchen window sill and looked out upon the moist, sun lit world beyond. The new green of the grass was poking through the mud in patches interspersed with bits of gray-brown snow that still lingered in the shade. A flock of shiny black birds with a glossy brown heads landed in the middle of the yard. They were bowing and strutting and seemed to be bickering among themselves.  Galen began to bounce in the way that excited babies bounce. His tiny body was electrified beyond his control, his eyes shining with awe and wonderment. He pointed and told me, “buh, buh, Buh, BUH!” We stayed by that window together for a long time watching them. We watched them until they flew out of sight. He doesn’t remember it, but I do. Of course, the next step was to look up those birds, to find out what it was that had so excited my son. I found an Audubon’s Field Guide to the Birds amongst our collection of books and searched through it until I found something to call them – Brown-headed Cowbirds -- and so it began.

We hung feeders and suet cages. We put out a bird bath. We accumulated bird books. We pored over them together. Over the next 11 years Galen and I became avid backyard birders. We kept yearly species lists for our yard and watched birds where ever we happened to be. But… we had never been birding. Then in December of 2008 I purchased The Big Year by Mark Obmascik. ** On New Year’s Eve, at the age of 12, Galen announced, “Mom, tomorrow I am going to start a Big Year.”  That was another beginning

So what does that have to do with my writing and my blog?

In the fourth chapter of her autobiography, Birding on Borrowed Time, Phoebe goes into great detail about her preparation for her birding trips; her meticulous record keeping; her world list and her back up lists. She had a card catalog of all of her sightings -- a card for every bird she saw, and each card color coded with felt-tipped markers -- a color for every geographical region. She created charts by photocopying the pages from Monroe and Sibley 1993 checklist on 11x17” paper and meticulously drawing in the horizontal lines to create grids.

A typical birding trip would start with signing up for the trip months, and sometimes a year or more, in advance. She would gather field guides and checklists for the region that she was planning to visit. Beginning at the top of the checklist, she would study the birds on it in taxonomic order. She wrote a paragraph in her own words about each bird on the checklist including distinguishing field marks, habitat, distinguishing behavior, and their Latin names. She was often able to identify most of the birds on the list on her own, and by their Latin names, before she ever started out for her destination. Did I mention that she was extraordinary?

OK… I have a list, and listing is fun, but it's not why I bird. I have been out on day long listing competitions, and while they're fun, I'm always left dissatisfied at the end of the day. There is no time to get to know the birds I am listing. I bird because I am fascinated by them, because I want to get to know them. I want to be a good birder - a very good birder. I want to be a super birder! And being able to identify birds is what it takes to be a super birder.

I read field guides all the time. I have one in the car, one in my pack, three by my bed, a whole bookshelf full. A day doesn’t go by that I don’t crack one and try to transplant the information on the page into my brain. However, when I get out in the field, all of that information seems to have slipped into a dark corner to hide. While I was reading Phoebe’s memoirs, I was struck by her method of learning to ID birds. She wrote a paragraph about each bird starting at the top of the checklist and worked her way down. That’s it. I learn things best if I write them down. And it would be a brilliant goal oriented topic for a blog! So that’s what I’m going to do.

My goal is to write a paragraph about each bird starting at the top of the ABA Checklist and work my way down, including the process of learning to identify each species and a sprinkling of stories about our birding experiences. We’ll see how this goes.

*There are only seventeen people who have seen 8000 species of birds. Tom Gullick currently holds the record for world lister at 8811 species out of an approximate total number of 9500.

** A Big Year is an attempt to see as many bird species in one year as possible. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Big_year#Recent_notable_attempts

1 comment:

  1. Amazing you must write more! i have to say i was as pulled into this as i was Kingbird Highway. (i didn't put that down till i finished it the first time i read it)