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Exploring the Western NY Wilds: Keeping an annual list of birds

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Maximize your understanding and love for our feathered friends

By Bob Confer,

Most birdwatchers are, in some way, listers.

Most keep life lists, counting all the species of birds that they’ve ever seen.

Then you have birders who tabulate both species and numbers for various special annual events like the Christmas Bird Count, Feederwatch, and the Great Backyard Bird Count.

And, there are those who take on a competitive Big Year, trying to accumulate as many birds as possible in a calendar year. The North American record is held Tiffany Kersten who saw 748 species in 48 states.

Last year, I started something I call the Little Year. By doing so, I kept count of all the species I saw in New York State.  

I wasn’t driven to accumulate as many species as possible, so I didn’t go out of my way to gather gull species in the wintry Niagara Gorge, nor did I spy upon wetlands at wildlife refuges in May to get shorebird species, and I didn’t chase down rare species whose locations were shared among birders online.

My only goal was to check off the birds I saw in my regular travels, as they happen, not as I make them happen.

Places that I frequent near home include our farm in eastern Niagara County, my workplace in the city of North Tonawanda, and the Erie Canalway Trail, all joined by a handful of hikes at the Iroquois Wildlife Refuge. Here in Allegany County, my home away from home, my birdwatching take place in our forest in Alma, the WAG Trail, Vandermark State Forest, and the Alfred University campus.

By keeping to the places I love, the places that see me often, in my quest to make this list, it brings a special sort of appreciation, wonder, and theorizing to the every day. It allowed me to see trends, consider species new to a place, and ponder what happened to birds I didn’t see.

For example, it was concerning that I didn’t see a northern harrier (marsh hawk) until October 30th, especially since I live among prime habitat of open hay and alfalfa fields.

I also went all of 2023 without a ruffed grouse sighting in Allegany County, despite seeing two mothers with babies the year before and forests around ours having lumber harvests which should, allegedly, increase numbers. Where did they go?  

The real head-scratcher to me was not seeing a single cuckoo, of either species. I had thought that the gypsy moth infestations of a few years ago would have allowed the caterpillar-eating birds to flourish and have healthy populations. It didn’t work out that way.  

On the positive side, I was able to see pairs of trumpeter swans and sandhill cranes in the summer, both species of which had only in recent years begun nesting at the Iroquois refuge. I also saw a pheasant near my home, a sighting not had in four years (a stark change from the old days when they were common). I also saw a least bittern, a bird I hadn’t seen in maybe 30 years.

Like every year that I get to spend time in the outdoors it was a good year. Over the course of 2023 I accumulated 124 species.

Many experienced birders might scoff at that number – especially from a nature columnist — as many hardcore bird chasers think 200+ is a worthy goal.  

But, my goal isn’t to get a number. It’s to get a better understanding for the birds I share my communities with. Those 124 provided enjoyment. They provided insight. They showed me how many birds are around me, birds adored and birds that maybe I took for granted.

I’m doing this list again in 2024 (and again, I’ll use this checklist from the New York State Ornithological Association: https://nybirds.org/Publications/NYSOA-FieldChecklist.pdf)

I encourage you to do the same, whether your birdwatching takes place in your backyard, in the vast state forests here in Allegany County, or the public trails of the Genesee valley. If you get 124 birds, 200, or 50, it’s something. Like it did for me, it will open your mind and heart — you’ll maximize your understanding and love for our feathered friends, no matter the final total.

Good luck.

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