I don’t know how January birding goes in your state, but here in Ohio, a growing trend is to try for what we dub the “January 100.” This is an annual challenge in which the goal is to see or hear 100 bird species in Ohio in January.
I used to hear about the January 100 from friends, track their progress on email listservs and Facebook forums, and think, “I’d never do that. A bit much for me.”
Well, as they say, never say never. Especially when birds are involved.
It began innocently enough. When New Year’s Day 2014 rolled around, I joined a few of my friends on an epic Big Day, centered around our area of southeastern Ohio. We did pretty well overall.
And then I helped out with a few Christmas Bird Counts in parts of the state where I don’t normally bird in January. I joined the staff of Bird Watcher’s Digest on a snowy-owl-seeking field trip (success!). I ventured up to Cleveland to check out the gulls. (Did you know that Cleveland’s Lake Erie shoreline is one of the world’s premier winter gull hotspots? Nineteen species have been recorded there.)
By mid-January I realized my Ohio list had reached nearly 90 species, and I hadn’t even tried for “easy” birds around my hometown, such as eastern screech-owl, white-crowned sparrow, and red-winged blackbird.
That’s when I decided to try for my first January 100.
I hit my favorite local birding spots and picked up uncommon, but predictable, species like northern shrike and winter wren. I tried a little evening owling around my Marietta neighborhood and heard great horned, barred, and eastern screech-owls. Even caught a glimpse of the screech-owl in the fading daylight.
During the last week of January, we started to experience the start of what would be a phenomenal waterfowl season in the Mid-Ohio Valley, bringing an unexpected harlequin duck, a few snow geese, and a few cackling geese.
On January 30, I made my list, checked it twice, and saw that I had 99 birds with 24 hours left to add number 100. What would that last bird be? Red crossbill? A vagrant Eurasian wigeon or Barrow’s goldeneye?
Oddly, the obvious bird I was missing was red-winged blackbird. How could a 30-day, statewide list have black-legged kittiwake, snowy owl, golden eagle, and harlequin duck, but not red-winged blackbird?
Well, since I had made it this far, I wasn’t about to let an easy bird keep me from achieving my goal. I considered taking January 31st off work, but, c’mon, that’d be crazy.
I made the most of my limited daylight hours before work that morning by scouring the area for blackbirds. I checked along the Ohio and Muskingum rivers. I visited several wetland areas where blackbirds are usually common. I drove along rural roads, scanning agricultural fields for flocks of black birds that included more than starlings.
Baffled and somewhat discouraged, I showed up at work like a good assistant editor and tried to focus on commas and conjunctions for the next eight hours. Each time I came across a picture of or reference to a red-winged blackbird, I winced.
After work, about one hour of daylight remained. On a whim I decided to try one last spot: a nearby lake with a small woodland area where I don’t usually have blackbirds in winter, but have had them regularly in spring and summer.
I drove out to the lake, looked around, and listened. Daylight was quickly fading. A screech-owl called.
And then I heard it: a single, beautiful, check!
A single red-winged blackbird was calling from across the lake. I heard it several more times, though it was too dark to see anything well.
On January 31st at 5:56 p.m., I recorded my 100th bird in Ohio for January 2014. Success!
And so, kids, the moral of this story is to never utter a word about pursuing a January 100 in the presence of the birds. They love the challenge as much as you and I.
Early the next morning, on February 1st, a flock of more than 50 redwings flew overhead while I was minding my own business. They laughed at me a little. I didn’t mind; apparently one of their species had missed the memo.
Me: 1. Birds: 0.
About the Author
Kyle Carlsen is the assistant editor of Bird Watcher's Digest. Find him on Twitter @kycarlsen.