For this post, I’m limiting my “Top 10” list to life birds only. I’ve seen so many amazing birds this year, and it’s hard enough to pick the best out of the 62 brand-new species I’ve encountered since January. All of them, from Green Jay to Scripps’s Murrelet, were unforgettable additions to my list, my all-important log of where I’ve been and what I’ve seen. That being said, it’s still a lot of fun to rough out a ranking. Let’s get to it.
Top 10 Lifers
Honorable Mention: California Condor, Pinnacles National Park, CA 7/30
This bird was not strictly speaking a lifer, but it sure felt like one. I had this giant vulture on my life list mostly out of respect for Dad, who IDed the passing shadow that I barely saw well enough to remember. This endangered species is a total rockstar, and finally enjoying an extended but distant encounter with a condor soaring high above a ridge was a high point of my year.
10: Sabine’s Gull, Monterey Bay, CA 7/29
My 600th life bird deserves to make the list, and this dapper gull is a classy species. With all the excitement on the boat, I didn’t figure out that this was my milestone lifer until after the fact. Someone has to come in 10th place, but it’s not an easy call to decide who goes on the bottom of the best.
9: Upland Sandpiper, Oak Beach, NY 4/6
A long-time nemesis finally fell, and it fell hard. Years of searching were brought to an end thanks to a great find by Rob P. After a nail-biting day waiting to see if the bird would stick, I emerged victorious on a post-work chase with Brendan and Tracey. I got crushing views of this tricky species along the Ocean Parkway, and it was well-worth the wait.
8: Pink-footed Goose, Miller’s Pond, NY 1/9
This bird was my first new species of the year, but the initial encounter wasn’t honestly much to write home about. I got distant looks at a young goose across a frozen pond during an early morning stop on my way out to Montauk and continued on my way. It wasn’t until November that the Pink-foot really knocked my socks off, when Dad stumbled upon an individual at local Hendrickson Park. That bird, as of this writing, has spent two full months delighting the nature-lovers of New York and adding to the life lists of visitors from near and far. Compared to most of its kin who have come before it, “our” Pinky has been exceedingly confiding and cooperative throughout its time as our guest. I’ve grown pretty attached to the little guy.
7: Whooping Crane, Aransas Bay, TX 2/14
These majestic birds have been on my “must-see” list for a long time. The boat tour I took with Col and Lauren to look for these giants was a great investment. Encountering them as distant white dots from a viewing platform wouldn’t have been the same. The saga of the near extinction and ongoing recovery of this species captured my imagination at a young age. Finally seeing them in the flesh made for a treasured memory.
6: Crimson-collared Grosbeak, Laguna Atascosa, TX 2/16
A few of the Mexican strays roaming the Rio Grande Valley during my trip gave me some trouble, but the grosbeak threw me a bone. Col and I missed another individual at Frontera Audubon, but Bryan’s pointers helped us find his very confiding friend towards the end of a fantastic day exploring nature. We were treated to close views of a very cool bird, and one far out of it’s home range at that!
5: Swainson’s Warbler, Central Park, NY 4/28
This little brown bird is not an easy creature to track down. Getting to watch it forage and hear it sing in the heart of Manhattan was a wholly unexpected delight. When I opted not to visit Florida during migration this year, I thought for sure I’d missed the boat on this species for the time being. To think that I almost didn’t chase this rarity when it was first reported in the City! All’s well that ends well, and I got to get in on the fun with this charming one-day wonder.
4: Black-footed Albatross, Monterey Bay, CA 7/29
ALBATROOOOOOOOSS! Who doesn’t want to see one of these globetrotters? My first representative of the famous family represented well, and these birds absolutely lived up to the hype. Amazing views were had by all onboard, and we got well acquainted with the giants over the course of our pelagic tour with Debi Shearwater. I was exceedingly pleased with my experience, and it only left me wanting more albatross action. One day…
3: Long-eared Owl, Jones Beach, NY 12/4
I love owls, this bird was a nemesis, and the circumstances of my life encounter made for a twisting tale full of surprises. An incorrect report would’ve sent me on a fruitless search if I hadn’t stopped by the local patch first and found that a legitimate Long-ear had been discovered by my friends. Big thanks to Stacy and Tracey for finding the bird and telling me to come over and check it out. I also got to share this bird with a number of other people, including Brendan, Miriam, and Mike Z.
2: Black Rail, Alviso Marina County Park, CA 8/8
This species was practically a mythical creature as far as I was concerned. Even heard-only encounters are a rare treat, and I had a unique opportunity to get surprisingly up-close and personal with these scurrying shadows. Dylan and Aly also got in on this encounter: an experience many seasoned birders were jealous of. Incredibly cute countersinging and the peeping of possible hidden chicks made my evening with the rails extra special. I even got a picture!…kinda.
1: Northern Jacana, Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge, TX 2/15
This species is what Dad calls a “book bird”: a charismatic bird which you know well from field guides or reference texts. Eventually encountering such a creature in the wild makes it feel like it jumped right off the page. The specialized legs and toes, the spurs on its wings, the bold frontal shield, and the striking plumage all add up to make this shorebird a stunner. Its behavior is fascinating, from its extreme adaptations for walking across floating vegetation to its polyandrous mating lifestyle where females defend territory and males care for young. I’ve wanted to see this bird since I was very young. I even missed it once in the Dominican Republic, when our class split into two tour groups. My team ended up seeing a West Indian Whistling-Duck, though, and now the score has been settled between me and the marvelous jacana. Col, Bryan, and I had to put some work in to get this bird, but that made victory all the sweeter. This was THE bird of 2016 as far as I’m concerned, and that’s saying something given the competition!