With nearly all in-person birding festivals canceled and some of my favorite hotspots closed due to the pandemic, 2020 was a challenging year to find birds to photograph. Since March, I have been working from home. As a result, I’ve spent many lunch breaks and more early evening hours than normal in my backyard, and to my surprise and delight, I added 16 new species to my backyard bird list.
When I reviewed my year in birds, I discovered that I had added 18 birds to my life list during the year of the pandemic!
My first life bird of 2020 was on January 4th. I visited a central Ohio location to photograph a short-eared owl. That species winters in Ohio, but nests far to the north. The photos I shot that day were not great, but in November, they returned, and so did I. This time, I got some satisfying images of this spectacular bird.
In February, I received an invitation to visit the Carson Valley of Nevada. I added seven birds to my life list there: black-billed magpie, black phoebe, Townsend’s solitaire, barn owl, American pipit, white-faced ibis, and mountain bluebird. Western birds are such a treat!
By March, everyone was aware of the pandemic. While sheltering in place and trying to social distance, I didn’t have an opportunity to find another life bird until May 3rd. While visiting a local wildlife refuge, I photographed a Kentucky warbler. On May 16th, I captured an image of a hooded warbler at the same location. Warblers are always a thrill!
In early June, I took a quick trip to the Smoky Mountains hoping to photograph black bears, but I was frequently distracted by the birds. One was a lifer: yellow-breasted chat.
Although I didn’t add any life birds during the rest of the summer, I spotted many birds in my backyard that I had never seen there before: yellow-bellied sapsucker, rose-breasted grosbeak, indigo bunting, red-headed woodpecker, black-and-white warbler, blue-headed vireo, yellow-billed cuckoo, orchard oriole, palm warbler, bay-breasted warbler, Tennessee warbler, yellow-throated warbler, chestnut-sided warbler, common nighthawk, and black-capped chickadee—a rare bird where I live. Maybe these birds have frequented my yard for many years, but working miles away in an office, I just hadn’t had the opportunity to see them. I’ll never know, but it was a joy to see and photograph these welcome visitors in 2020.
In late August, while visiting a birding hotspot in the Ohio River’s backwaters, I found two life birds simultaneously: western sandpiper and least sandpiper—two “peeps” that are nearly identical. At this location, I also ran into a few birding friends I hadn’t seen all summer because we were all practicing social distancing. As we say at BWD, “Birding is better with friends.” It’s true. I was happy to see my birding buddies—and the sandpipers!
In September, the staff of BWD took a camping trip to Maumee Bay State Park on Lake Erie to find some fall-migrating birds. We saw many warblers and worked on our fall-warbler identification skills. It’s a fun challenge! I added one life bird on this trip, the Swainson’s thrush.
One fall night, I had a dream about sandhill cranes flying over me; it seemed so real that I could feel the wind from their wings! The dream stuck with me, and I was ready to see the real thing. My usual fall trip to see cranes takes me to Jasper-Pulaski State Fish and Wildlife Area in northwestern Indiana, but this year I decided to try something different. I’ve heard many good things about a location called Goose Pond State Fish and Wildlife Area, in southwestern Indiana. In early December, a birding friend/photographer and I rented an Airbnb house near Goose Pond and spent four days exploring the vast wetlands. It’s a beautiful area, and I added three birds to my life list: whooping crane, American tree sparrow, and greater white–fronted goose. The whooping crane had been my target bird for the trip, and we saw nine in one day. We also saw many sandhill cranes, satisfying my dream.
As 2020 was wrapping up, I visited an area on December 23rd where I had hoped to photograph short-eared owls, and while I was waiting for dusk to fall, I got my final life bird of the year, a northern shrike!
With 2020 behind us, it’s time to set targets for new birds and make plans for adventures in 2021. Among my goals for 2021 is to do a better job of eBirding and keeping a log of the birds I see and photograph. I’m always striving to become a better photographer as I record bird behavior images I observe in nature. It’s so comfortable to sleep in on the weekends, but I’m eager to get up early and spend as much time as possible out there with the birds and other wildlife. I hope to find another 18 (or more) life birds in 2021!
If you would like to do bird photography with me in 2021, here are two exciting opportunities: I will be leading two BWD Reader Rendezvous this year: first here in Marietta, Ohio, May 6–10, and then in the Great Smoky Mountains, June 7–11. Visit readerrendezvous.com for more information.
Do you have birding goals for 2021, or a target bird you would like to see?
Bruce’s 2020 Birds in Review Gallery
About the Author
Bruce Wunderlich is the production director and a contributing photographer for Bird Watcher’s Digest and Watching Backyard Birds. Bruce’s award-winning photography has also appeared in many state (Ohio) and local (Marietta) publications. Follow Bruce on Instagram @ Bruce_Wunderlich.