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In the Beginning ...

Steve relaxing on the deck

It has to start somewhere

Listing birds: it has to start somewhere.

When I moved to Minnesota in 1995, the sight and sound of Northern Cardinals really made an impression.  Having lived almost all of my life in California, I knew these birds mainly from Bob Gibson's baseball cap and from Christmas cards.  Neither of which did the cardinal justice.  This is a strikingly beautiful bird, both in appearance and in song.

So, mostly in hopes of attracting cardinals, and shortly after buying a house in Little Canada, Minnesota in May of 1996, I put up a couple of bird feeders. They were poorly located—too close to my living room windows and too far from trees.  They attracted House Sparrows, an occasional Black-capped Chickadee and, rarely, Northern Cardinals.  Nicole, Tamara and I enjoyed the pair of American Robins that built a nest atop our back porchlight one year.  They raised three chicks, and we saw them fledge.  But I didn't think anything about recording sightings then, and defintely didn't consider myself a birdwatcher.

Bird feeder Joann and I bought our house in Little Canada in August of 2002. It sits on a heavily-wooded lot and attracts a lot of birds.  Almost immediately I started hanging feeders.  Shortly after I hung them, we bought our first guide, Birds of Minnesota and Wisconsin (by Robert Janssen, et al.).  In the summer of 2003 we began using it as a checklist, noting the first occurance of each species in our yard.  The first few notations were no more specific than "Jul 2003."  We still didn't consider ourselves birdwatchers, however, and weren't really familiar with the term "birders."

That didn't really change until the late spring of 2006.  My parents visited us for about a week on the occasion of Nicole's graduation from Hamline University.  Every morning, Dad wanted us to take him to a "hotspot" to find some birds.  At that point, he been a serious birder for just a couple of years.  (It went nicely with another of his hobbies, backpacking.)  He was excited to find birds that he wouldn't see in California.  There were plenty right in our yard, but he knew there were more to be seen.  So we took him to a few places that I now wouldn't consider "hotspots," exactly, but that did yield a few lifers for him and for us: Gervais Millpond, Vadnais Lakes, and Central Park in Roseville.

We were subscribed to Audubon magazine at the time, and so we received the local chapter's newsletter The Cardinal.  Dad looked through a few issues and pointed out the numerous field trips available and asked why we didn't take advantage of them.  We didn't really have a good answer; we just hadn't considered ourselves birders.  We were just "yard birders."

But the "lifers" that we saw with Dad started to change our minds.  I recalled how I had travelled to Norman, Oklahoma earlier in the month and, almost without trying and without binoculars, had seen four "lifers."  Thanks only to an employee at the University of Oklahoma did I know that the pair of raptors that hung around in an old snag near my hotel room on the OU campus were Mississippi Kites.  I saw my first Baltimore Oriole in Oklahoma, though I could have easily seen many just a couple of miles from my home in Minnesota.  I never did see Scissor-tailed Flycatchers there.  This would have been a certainty had I been prepared.

So Dad had us convinced that we already were birders, just not very good ones.  As long as we limited ourselves to our yard, and missed opportunities like the work-related trip to Oklahoma, we'd never amount to much.

A little bit of retroactive listing

So the first thing we did was to start keeping accurate lists.  (We also upgraded our binoculars and bought a couple of very good field guides.)  We decided that we had started counting when we bought the Birds of Minnesota and Wisconsin book, and started checking off the birds at our feeders.  This occurred in July of 2003.  Some of the birds were checked off, but no date was recorded.  A bit of sleuthing resolved most of these.  We'd purchased a digital camera in March of 2003 and I'd taken a lot of bad photos of birds.  But they were date and time-stamped, and allowed us to establish our "official" list of first sightings.

Northern Cardinal, Nov 2003 After our sleuthing, I came up with a total of 62 "countable" species that I'd seen prior to Dad's visit in May of 2006.  (Joann's list lacked three of the four species that I'd seen in Oklahoma earlier that same month; we'd both seen a Baltimore Oriole in Roseville, MN by the end of the month.)  We had very good evidence (usually photographic) of each of these 62 (59 for Joann) species.  Nevertheless, some fudging of the order in which we'd seen the birds was inevitable.  We went with the Northern Cardinal as bird number one.  A beautiful bird for our first lifer, to be sure.  Perhaps we'd actually seen a drab House Sparrow first, but who was to say?  We'd just go with the cardinal and call it "official."

Eventually, however, the darned photographic evidence got in the way.  In June of 2003, the month prior to what we'd considered month one of our bird listing, we'd travelled to Hawaii on our honeymoon.  We were interested in birds then (the feeders at home were up), and I did dimly remember seeing some interesing birds while we were there.  But we hadn't written anything down, and had failed to try to find out what we'd seen.  Someday we would correct that, we thought.  Recently, I bought a used copy of a small "birds of Hawaii" pocket field guide, and said to Joann, "The next time we visit Hawaii, we're going to see a lot of great birds."

We forgot all about the photos we'd taken in Hawaii.  As I wrote earlier we'd purchased our first digital camera in March of 2003, and of course we took it with us to Hawaii.  I recently took a look through these photos, and behold and lo, there are three unmistakably identifiable bird species represented.

What to do about that?

After much hawing and hemming (maybe two minutes of anguished discussion), we decided to push back our listing activities less than one month: to the day we got married, on June 14, 2003.  The photos taken on our honeymoon in Hawaii, then, have resulted in the following changes to our lists:

  • Lifebird #1: House Sparrow (June 24, 2003)
    House Sparrow in Hana House Sparrow in Hana Not much we can do about this.  I suppose it was inevitable that this non-native species, a much-reviled bird in the United States (but much beloved in England) would be our first.  Two photos taken in the small town of Hana, on the Hawaiian island of Maui seal the deal.  The House Sparrow was introduced to Hawaii by a New Zealand ship in 1871, just twenty years after it was introduced to North America.
  • Lifebird #2: Zebra Dove (June 26, 2003)
    Zebra Dove on Hawaii This fluffy dove sat on the top a concrete wall just a few feet from our table at the Bubba Gump Seafood Company restaurant in Kailua-Kona on the big island of Hawaii.  It's not a native of Hawaii, but was introduced there in 1922.
  • Lifebird #3: Java Sparrow (June 26, 2003)
    Java Sparrows on Hawaii Java Sparrows on Hawaii Now if I had planned this right, this would be the first bird I photographed in Hawaii and thus my first ever life bird.  What an exotic look!  A little clownish, perhaps, but a striking bird.  And speaking of exotic, this is yet another bird that wouldn't have occured naturally (i.e. without mankind's intervention) in Hawaii.  It's a native of Indonesia (where it is said to be threatened) and was first introduced to Hawaii in 1867.  It was re-introduced in the late 1960s.

    We photographed this pair from the balcony of our hotel room in Kailua-Kona on the big island of Hawaii.

That's It

That's it.  We've "pinky sworn" to do no more retroactive listing.  It seems that the date of our marriage (and our almost simultaneous introduction to digital photography, and the purchase of our first bird guide) is the perfect demarcation line.  I won't be flipping through Polaroid photos of my tenth birthday party and saying, "Ooh, that looks like a Western Scrub Jay stealing popcorn from my brother's plate; I'm going to have to count it." Really.

      -- Steve


Steve's current lifelist
Joann's current lifelist
Birds of Hawaii Photos  (at



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