At first glance, I was disappointed by the birds I was seeing at Toolik Lake. American Robins. White-crowned Sparrows. Seriously?! I can see those at home on any given day. With great hope, I looked at the bird list on the University of Alaska’s website for the station but frowned at the number of birds here that also live where I live in Colorado. It was the majority.
Part of my birding snobbery comes from the fact that I am in competition with my friend Todd this year. Last winter he pestered me to keep detailed accounts of the birds that I see, stating over and over again that it is important to keep track of such things. I refused for months to participate in this activity because I know myself and how competitive I am. If I was going to keep track, I was going to need lots of motivation and I was going to have to beat the pants off of him!
A couple days into the trip, I took a photograph of a bird I did not yet know. It was a small brown bird with a raspberry red tuft of feathers on its forehead. It stared me down with a steady and serious look that seemed to say, “I will take you on!” This small bird motivated me to look at everything that moved on the tundra. I was suddenly tuned-in to every sound and every bit of movement. My view of the tundra was brought down from a landscape scale to an individual organism scale. I started to notice all of the fine details of the tundra, like the differences among mushrooms, tundra plants, small animals and insects. My eyes began to constantly roam the land, water and sky for anything out of the ordinary.
This, in conjunction with picking through roots, stems and leaves of tundra plants during the pluck, changed my perspective of the tundra. It helped to develop my understanding of this ecosystem and got me thinking about the relationships happening at different scales.
I am up to 171 different species of birds this year, falling short of Todd by less than 100 now. I’m confident that I’ll catch him by December 31st. But if I don’t, I will have still won because it is what you learn along the way that means the most.
This blog is dedicated to Todd Reeves, my favorite birding mentor and companion.