Speaking of Nature: A new record for October

  • In the last moments of the last day of October, I accidentally heard the call of the record-setting eastern bluebird. FOR THE gazette/BILL DANILESON

Published: 11/9/2021 4:16:21 PM

By BILL DANIELSON

I open the white three-ring binder that holds my birding observation forms. Inside the folder the forms are divided by year with colorful plastic divider tabs that have neatly printed number to indicate the different years and the OCD scientist in my head constantly has to ignore the fact that the exact sequence of colors is not the same when the tabs repeat. How could something like this happen? Okay, okay. Have a sip of coffee, breathe deeply and move on.

Anyway, when I look at the data forms for 2005 I see that the first month represented is July, which is the month I moved in to my wonderful red house on the hill. I also note that the observation forms end in the month of October. The following year I didn’t resume my birdwatching activities until April, but I ended my observations in October again. This sequence was repeated in 2007 and it wasn’t until 2008 that I finally decided to record my observations for the full 12 months.

That’s when the notion of setting records first emerged and since then I have tried to see more birds in a given month than I’ve ever managed to see before. All these years later, painful as it may be, I have to admit that I am now reaching the point at which the records that have been set may be approaching the status of “unbeatable.” This past October is a perfect example of the situation.

I started out slowly because I was away from home on the first weekend of the month, but by the second weekend of October I had managed to record a total of 32 species. The number I was shooting for was 38, which was set all the way back in 2012. It wasn’t until 2020 that I managed to tie the record, but I wanted to beat it this year so I put myself outside whenever possible. It took me another two weeks to add just five more species and on Saturday, Oct. 23, I was sitting on my deck, writing in my journals and hoping to detect species number 38.

The Oct. 23 entry in my black journal is several pages long, but contained within those pages is the following line: “At this point a bluebird or a cedar waxwing would do the trick.” I had reviewed the list, looked at all of the empty boxes and determined the “usual suspects” who were missing for some reason. Wildly unusual species weren’t required. I just needed a couple of the regulars to show up.

About half an hour later, while writing about my success growing sunflowers in my flower boxes, I heard the clear, high-pitched call note of a cedar waxwing and looked up to see a small flock of the birds perched in the uppermost branches of my beloved cottonwood tree. I had tied the record, but I wanted more.

The following Sunday didn’t yield anything and I was somewhat dejected when the workweek started. Record-breaking species might pass through my yard on a daily basis, but I wouldn’t be there to observe them. The only thing that took some of the sting out of the situation was the fact that rain had moved into the area and birding would not be fruitful. Then the weather started to break on Thursday and Friday was absolutely perfect.

So, when I got home from work on Friday I was filled with absolute certainty that all I needed to do was grab my binoculars and scan the horizon. I started in the west and slowly panned eastward, but by the time I reached my easternmost limit I had nothing. I then decided to pan back towards the west and that’s when I saw a magnificent adult red-tailed hawk that was soaring over the hayfields to the east. And just like that I had a new record. But the real magic happened on Sunday, Oct. 31.

Another warm day, it wasn’t exactly a good day for birdwatching. If I am completely honest I must also admit that my motivation on that particular day was to avoid any birdwatching activity so that I didn’t run up the score and make next year’s job more difficult. So, rather than go out with birding as my main objective I decided to work on my snow blower instead. A drive belt needed to be replaced and I was determined to do it while the weather was pleasant rather than procrastinating so long that I had to do the same work in freezing temperatures.

So there I was, lying on the garage floor and fighting with this stupid thing for over an hour. The garage doors were open, a nice breeze was blowing fallen leaves in little swirling patterns in the driveway and the expletives were flying as this stupid, inanimate object fought me at every turn. It was in the final moment of victory, when things finally popped into place with the sort of ease that suggested it should only have taken me a total of three minutes to do the entire job, that I heard the heartbreakingly beautiful churtle of an eastern bluebird.

In that moment I was particularly proud of myself because I had somehow managed to identify the record-breaking species a week before. I said that a bluebird, or a cedar waxwing would do the trick and those were the birds that I got. I just had them in the wrong order and luck threw in a red-tailed hawk for good measure. The new record for October is now 40 species and although it does leave the tiniest bit of room for more a new record next year, I think this one will stand for many years to come.

Bill Danielson has been a professional writer and nature photographer for 24 years. He has worked for the National Park Service, the US Forest Service, the Nature Conservancy and the Massachusetts State Parks and he currently teaches high school biology and physics. For more in formation visit his website at www.speakingofnature.com, or head over to Speaking of Nature on Facebook.


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