Natural Alabama:  ‘County listing’ adds new excitement for veteran birder Geoff Hill

By Geoff Hill

I’ve been birding for about 40 years, and there is very little chance that I will find a new life bird anywhere within at least two days’ drive of my home in Auburn, Ala.  (Actually, if I drove for a day and went out on a boat for a day, it could pretty easily happen, but I hate boats).  I’ve seen all of the regularly occurring birds on the Alabama state list.  My state list grows only with rarity chases these days.   My plight is the plight of all active birders — you can only see a new bird once and the list is very finite.

I craved new listing challenges. As I ran out of life birds and state birds, I searched for new outlets for my love of finding and listing birds.  I stumbled upon a solution to my birding doldrums in county listing — trying to see as many birds as possible in every county in a state.

Until about mid-way through 2016, I paid little attention to the county in which I was birding.  When I wrote down what I saw (I can be a really lazy birder and I’m now kicking myself for not creating lists for some key trips over past years), I kept day lists with key places visited noted at the top of the list.  Most of the places I birded fell in one county, but I didn’t pay much attention to what that was.  Then, in 2016, eBird came out with their profile pages (see this blog post: http://www.ornithologistsblog.com/single-post/2016/11/01/eBird-Profiles)  and suddenly I could see my birding activity in Alabama broken down by county.  The graphic was transformational for me. I suddenly wanted to fill in the blank spots on the map.  County listing gave me a reason to get out in the field every weekend, and it put to great use my intimate knowledge of the sounds and habitat associations of the birds that regularly occur in Alabama.

Alabama has 67 counties and I live pretty far off center — close to the Georgia border and about two-thirds of the way down the state.  The counties in the far northwest corner are a full four hours drive from me.  My first focus was all of the counties that surround my home county of Lee — Chambers, Tallapoosa, Macon, and Russell.  I had a great list for my home county — Lee.  I also had a lot of birds for Macon County because I had birded Tuskegee National Forest regularly since I moved to Alabama in 1993.  But I had almost no lists for Chambers, Tallapoosa, and Russell, even though I knew I had seen a fair number of birds in each of these counties.  I simply had few notes to refer to.  So I started targeting those counties on weekend trips.  I wanted to have at least 100 birds in all the counties around Lee County.  I’ve now got 100 birds in all surrounding counties and my next goal is 150 species in each of those counties.

The other goal that I quickly settled on was to get at least one eBird list for every county in the state.  This actually turned out to be even more fun than it seemed like it would be.  Driving past a sign that marked the boundary to a new county and then knowing that every bird you saw was new and countable made every thrasher and bluebird fun again.

On October 27, 2017, I recorded birds in my 67th Alabama county when I recorded an American Crow in Franklin County.  My eBird map of Alabama now has no blank, uncounted counties.

With at least 20 species of birds recorded in all 67 Alabama counties, my next goal is 67 in 67  — -at least 67 birds in all 67 counties.  Then I’ll shoot for 100 in all 67 counties.  An experienced birder has a high probability of recording 100 bird species in any county in Alabama if he or she spends a full birding day in late spring/summer and then again in winter in the county.  It gets challenging when the birder splits a single birding day among multiple counties, which is what I tend to do.  Then, achieving a total of 100 birds in only two birding trips gets more tenuous.  But plotting and planning and taking chances is part of the fun of county listing.

County listing rekindled my enthusiasm for weekend birding trips.  It gave me an outlet for my listing urges.  But county listing on eBird has a much bigger upside than just personal satisfaction at filling in a birding map.  By entering checklists from across a state, including some of the most out-of-the-way and least-commonly-birded parts of Alabama, major gaps in the eBird database are filled in. The Alabama Ornithological Society has made a commitment to increase eBird coverage across the state and county listing is a fun way to help the AOS achieve its goal of having Alabama birds thoroughly documented in eBird.

 

 

Geoff Hill, PhD, is a professor in the Department of Biological Sciences and is Curator of Birds at Auburn University. He is currently President-elect of the Alabama Ornithological Society and an avid eBirder.