One of things which I think fascinates people about birding and birds is that discovery is constant. Estimates for the number of extant bird species in the world vary, but most authorities agree that just over 10,500 species is probably a safe ballpark number. In the American Birding Association (ABA) area alone–defined as all of the North American continent North of Mexico and excluding Hawai’i–987 have been recorded and Maryland boasts records of just about half of these. Amazingly, all three of these figures continue to grow almost constantly. By the end of next year, the ABA area list will likely stand over 990.
There is always the chance of finding a record that is outstanding on some level–county, state, country etc. There is always the chance that that little park down by the grocery store that you walk through everyday will today hold something special. Maybe a new bird for the county, maybe even one that’s a lifebird; a bird which you have never seen before.
This thrill, anticipation even, of discovery, is what keeps us coming back to birds again and again. Every time I leave my dorm to go birding, I’m wondering if this time might be the time when those Tundra Swans that everyone else in the county seems to be seeing will fly over, or if maybe when I get up to the ploughed corn and soy fields a Snowy Owl, the ghostly monarch of winter will be staring back at me with unfathomable golden eyes.
But that’s only part of the fun for me. The amazing thing about birding is that, while these are the discoveries that get all the attention, the ones that often provide the greatest satisfaction are on a much smaller scale. Take the Swamp Sparrow: it’s a common bird, being one of our expected “winter birds”. In spring most of them head to the muskegs and fens of central Canada and New England, but some deign to breed in the bogs of western Maryland, or the open grassy salt meadows of the Eastern Shore, and so they can be found in some part of Maryland the whole year. They’re attractive birds, but dressed in grays and chestnut-browns, they’re not what anyone would probably call a real knockout. Yet I haven’t met a birder who doesn’t pause to appreciate them, or whose face doesn’t twitch with a bit of joy when one tosses back its head and casts its melodic trill into the still morning air.
One of birding’s–or even, of nature’s–true splendors is that a little Swamp Sparrow which I encounter daily from September till May can inspire me to stop and stare as much as a flashy, sexy, lifebird like a Harlequin Duck. I think its because we never really know these creatures that we share our world with. We can see them as often as we want, but when the Swamp Sparrow picks up and flys away, when the dragonfly darts into the shadows of a great cypress tree, when dolphins duck beneath the waves again, we can’t follow. All we can do is watch and wait and hope that we might catch another glimpse, that we might be given another chance to share, and discover, some of their world.