This morning as I recalled my first sighting of Evening grosbeak in 2005, I felt a surge of joy.
Four of us drove straight through from Texas to Minnesota because that’s what addicted birders do (Life lister defined). It was an irruptive year, a season when birds travel further than usual due to harsh weather and lack of food (and other likely factors). Thanks to this digital age, there are several sources for reports. We’d been reading about the increased numbers of several species (mainly owls) in the Minnesota area. After several weeks of reading and talking about it, we committed to making the trip. Why we didn’t fly? One of us doesn’t do planes. So driving more than 1,100 miles? No problem.
Once we arrived in Minnesota, we chalked up new species to our life lists. We easily added Northern hawk owl (15!) and Great gray owl (150+) then quickly saw 1 sweet Northern saw-whet owl (the directions final sentence, “look above the trash can”). We spent half a day hunting the diminutive Boreal owl. We finally located the sweet thing behind a school in Two Harbors. All nine inches of him stared at us from its perch four feet above the ground and within ten feet of our binoculars.
Evening grosbeak was a target bird that we’d missed at several reported spots. We resigned ourselves to missing the colorful grosbeak. But God had a plan. While standing outside in -40 degree temps for a Boreal chickadee, we exchanged good mornings with a local birder. It’s a natural progression for birders to talk about where they are from. When Kim Risen, a professional bird guide, discovered we drove from Texas, he asked, “What birds are you missing?”
We gave him our short list and he gave us additional spots to try. When we said we’d dipped on Evening grosbeak, he responded, “They’re in my yard.”
The four Texans went silent.
Kim informed us the grosbeaks arrived early, stayed shortly and left quickly. He warned we’d have to make the drive on country roads that might have fresh snowfall or ice. The snowplows wouldn’t be out yet.
Did that deter us?
We’d driven across five states, started one morning with a dead car battery at 4 a.m. and walked through thigh-high snow in -30 temps for a Black-backed woodpecker. We’d slipped off an icy road and plowed into a snowbank looking for a Sharp-tailed grouse and laughed when we could only crawl out the driver’s side. We’d wandered the desolate country road looking for the chicken before looking for help extracting the car. Driving through more snow and ice to arrive and sit in a warm living room as we waited on a lifer? A dream come true!
The next morning before the sun was up, we checked out of the hotel. About an hour later, we enjoyed the warm hospitality of Kim and his lovely wife, Cindy.
As I sat in the warmth of a stranger’s living room, sipped a hot beverage and munched a breakfast roll, I watched for a lifer. But, instead of thinking I want my lifer, I thought “whether I see this bird or not, I’ve been blessed. ” Overcome with joy, tears formed in my eyes. The bird wasn’t the blessing, the experience was.
Adding to my life list is not the only reason I do this crazy birding thing. Who will I meet? Where will I go? What will God show me? I’ve learned the joy I receive while birding will last me a lifetime. It’s one of the reasons I track my lifers. Every trip is an adventure and the memories God creates brings me delight.
When I’m old and grey and cannot drive to my favorite birding spot or chase a rarity, I’ll have my list and memories to bring me joy. I’ll see Evening grosbeak on the list and I’ll think, “That’s where I felt joy in the cozy living area of a stranger.”
“Satisfy us in the morning with your unfailing love, that we may sing for joy and be glad all our days.” Psalm 90:14 (NIV)
Celebrating the Evening Grosbeak with the American Birding Association