Five years ago, my dad and I walked out of our front door and embarked on my first serious bird walk. As soon as we stepped outside, a House Sparrow flew from the roof of my neighbor’s house and landed in a nearby bush – #1. Throughout the next year, the two of us birded New Jersey extensively, adding to my North American life list. Luckily, New Jersey is one of the best birding states in the country. It is small enough to travel from one location to another in less than four hours to see any bird that winds up in a place like Cape May or even Stokes Forest in High Point, and located right by the coast, it has become famous for both spring and fall migrants and for seabirds on Sandy Hook and at Cape May Point. Furthermore, the hawk migration, during the fall months in the mountainous western part of the state, is certainly something to behold and has captivated my interest over the past few years. Within a year of birding in New Jersey alone, I was able to see 200 birds, my 200th being a Clapper Rail in the marshes at Edwin B. Forsythe NWR.
I have written before about my travels across North America – from Arizona to Texas to Ontario to Florida to Ohio and Michigan, and finally, to California. On my trips to Arizona, Ontario, and California, I reached important North American life list milestones. In Arizona I reached 300 and 400, in Ontario I reached 500, and four years after that first bird walk, I saw my 600th in California. Seeing every bird in North America was my ultimate goal for those four years, but my goal changed after traveling to Kenya for a class in tropical field ecology in January of this year.
Before my time in Kenya, I had traveled to many places around the world with my family, but I was not a birder then. We had traveled to places such as the Galapagos, the high Arctic, and Costa Rica, and even though I wasn’t totally focused on the birds, thankfully my dad helped me keep lists of what we were seeing. Until January of 2012, I paid very little attention to the 100+ birds on those lists. Then came January, and aware of the opportunity I had to make a larger dent in my world list, I collected my brief birding lists from previous trips and added them to my North America list. Birding in Kenya was unbelievable, and I began to appreciate how truly amazing the birds of the world are. I saw 210 birds in those two and a half weeks, my favorites being Ostrich, Secretary bird, Common Hoopoe, and Lilac-breasted Roller to name a few. At the end of my time in Africa, I was 112 birds shy of 1,000, and that mark immediately became my goal.
When Raxa Collective gave me the incredible opportunity to spend my summer here in Kerala, India, I was thankful for such a fantastic offer, and with great excitement, I especially looked forward to experiencing the bird diversity for which southern India has become so famous. As I sat at my gate at JFK Airport, I could only imagine what the birding here would be like. Upon arriving in Cochin, I saw three birds from the airplane – Great Egret (not a life bird), Indian Pond Heron, and House Crow; I was off to a fast start. Within a week of being here, I saw a little over 100 life birds in the Periyar Tiger Reserve, which put me within 10 of my goal. It was at this point that I posted my piece on the “pressures” of attempting to reach a milestone. My first reasonable shot at 1,000 would come the next morning on a nature hike through the reserve.
We entered the reserve and sat waiting at the guide meeting spot where a White-rumped Spinetail flew over my head – #992. The walk soon began, and right away we entered the jungle where there was a Great Indian Pied Hornbill calling from the top of the canopy – #993. While we were observing the hornbill, a Grey-headed Canary Flycatcher flew into the bush directly adjacent to me – #994. We continued to walk until we met a Malabar Whistling Thrush perched just above the path – #995. Throughout the next hour we encountered a few more birds, including Oriental White-eye, Indian Yellow Tit, White-bellied Blue Flycatcher, and Rufous Woodpecker – #996, #997, #998, and #999. It was at this point that we walked out of the jungle, headed back to the guide hut. I could not help but laugh. For me, the worst imaginable scenario for the day was to end up at #999, and it appeared that that was exactly what was going to happen. I silently said to myself, “I need a Grey-headed Fish Eagle now.” The Fish Eagle is a common bird around Periyar Lake, and with enough open sky, I felt this would be the bird to look for. As soon as I said that, I saw a black dot in the sky. It was a raptor, but which raptor? I noticed a white tail with a black terminal band, a white belly, and a gray chest. There was no doubt; it was a Grey-headed Fish Eagle – #1000! I was relieved, I was excited, and I could not wipe the smile from my face. The first thing I did was say thank you to my dad. I wish he could have been there with me, for this milestone would not have been possible without him. However, I knew back home he would be just as excited. Seeing my 1,000th bird was truly one of the greatest thrills of my life. I look back over the last five years of serious birding, and I have nothing but unbelievably amazing memories of the birds and the places I have seen along the way.
So, my 1,000th bird ended up being a Grey-headed Fish Eagle above the tree line in the Periyar Tiger Reserve. I have certainly come a long way from that first day and that first bird in my backyard. I look forward to continuing my journey as I attempt to see more species and desire to see more incredible places, like the Western Ghats in southern India–truly one of the most beautiful places I have ever seen. However, those adventures can wait for another day, for now I am very happy to be here in Kerala with 1,000 birds on my world list. Although I will say that on a trip to Munnar yesterday, I did see a few new birds. I am on my way to 2000!