Five Keys to Seeing 800 Birds in the ABA Area

by George Wood

May 25, 2024

1. Set a Goal

In 1968, at the age of 10, I set a goal to see 600 bird species in the U.S. by what then seemed the impossibly old age of 50. Why 600 bird species? At that time, there were about 645 identified birds in the U.S. and Canada. It seemed to me that spotting 600 bird species was akin to a Major League Baseball player hitting 500 career home runs. While Babe Ruth held the career record of 714 homers, only a handful of players had reached 500. So, seeing 600 bird species was achievable, and certainly very special.

The ABA was founded in 1969, a year after I set my personal goal. Balancing career and family slowed down my quest, but I never lost track of my ABA Area life list. I retained my original handwritten checklists until the advent of computerized lists in the 1990s. Now Cornell University’s Lab of Ornithology, through eBird, keeps individuals’ records as long as you input sightings through eBird.

By 1994, I had seen 500 species in the ABA Area. It required a pelagic trip off San Diego, but the sighting of a Black-vented Shearwater put me in a certain class of birding enthusiasts. Six hundred species seemed years away. And it was. My fourth child was born in 1995. I was now a stay-at-home dad with four kids under the age of eight. When would there be time to bird, and bird for ABA Area rarities? The answer is: There wasn’t time! Nevertheless, I always kept my life list and added a few species here and there while raising the children. A significant moment occurred in 2010.

I was playing basketball with my daughter, Karly, then 14 years old. I encouraged her to try her best, pursue her goals—the usual positive parenting remarks. Then she turned the tables on me. “Dad, whatever happened to that goal of yours? The one about seeing a bunch of birds.” I told her that the goal was to see 600 species by age 50, and, since I was now 52, I had missed my opportunity. She looked at me and flatly stated, “Well, we lived in England for six years. Subtract that and you’re only 46 years old. I think you should pursue your goal.” With that challenge—or let’s say endorsement of my addiction—I reviewed my list, which was somewhere in the 560s, and embarked on a crusade to reach 600 as fast and responsibly as I could, given family duties and budget constraints.

By tapping into the ABA network, in 2011 the author was able to link up with two birders he’d never met before to help him reach his boyhood goal of ABA 600 with this Pink-footed Goose in Nova Scotia. Relying on the ABA community was an important resource for him throughout his march to ABA 800. Photo courtesy of George Wood.

2. Tap into the Birding Community

A birding movie, The Big Year, based on Mark Obmascik’s 2004 book, was released on Oct. 14, 2011. At the end of the movie, actor Steve Martin tells actor Jack Black that the very rare Pink-footed Goose has been spotted by his “friend Jeff Shaw.” My 21-year-old son, Cary, and I looked at each other and nearly jumped out of our seats. My great friend since kindergarten at The Haverford School, my alma mater and the organization with which I have made my career as a fundraiser, is named Jeff Shaw. Jeff is a casual birder, but what are the chances? The answer to the question of what number 600 should be was obvious to the Shaws, who had seen the movie. Jeff’s clever son Max told me that #600 had to be the Pink-footed Goose. But this bird lives in Greenland and does not frequent Canada or the U.S. every year.

While sitting with Jeff and his family at the Princeton-Yale football game, I Googled “pink-footed goose, 2011, North America” and, amazingly, one of these birds had been frequenting a Nova Scotia farm with thousands of Canada Geese. I could not leave town for five days, but on Nov. 18, I flew to Halifax. Once there, two friendly, knowledgeable birders I had found and contacted through the ABA just days before helped me look for this wayward goose in very chilly weather. It was allegedly feeding on soybeans a mile from the airport in the company of . . . thousands of Canada Geese.

We divided into two cars half a mile apart with walkie-talkies. I was in one car with Dave Currie, at one time the President of the Nova Scotia Bird Society. We’d been scouring the fields for maybe 20 minutes when the walkie-talkie crackled. John Robertson, a pal of Dave’s and a top-notch birder himself, had our bird, and it was flying our way with 10 or so Canada Geese. I was able to identify it with my binoculars as it flew overhead, but, of course, I wanted a photo. I aimed my telephoto lens in the direction of the flock and clicked away. Luckily, it flew over our car, and I captured it without leaving the passenger seat. The lack of a white face patch and no black in the neck are key field marks. The color of the legs is often difficult to distinguish. Dave and John, complete strangers hours earlier, had anticipated success and brought champagne to celebrate my achievement. The birding community is very special!

Along the way to ABA 800, perseverance was key for the author. He persisted in his efforts to find and then photograph his #700, the Aleutian Tern, in difficult conditions on Alaska’s Kenai Peninsula. This Aleutian Tern was photographed in Chugach National Forest, Alaska, in May 2023. Photo by © Alan Kneidel.

3. Take Pelagic Trips

Interest in birding has increased since the 1970s. This is partly a result of improved technology, producing affordable and easy-to-use digital cameras, spotting scopes, and binoculars. There is also the ongoing development of the ecotourism industry. Remote Alaskan islands were frequented by more birders and many new species were added to the official ABA Area list. And with the advent of social media, one’s phone now has field guide apps and rare bird alerts that can be programmed on an hourly basis. For me, 700 became the new 600. Yes, inflation, so to speak, devalued my original goal of 600, and now I had my sights set on 700. If I was not serious before, I was now—maybe even obsessed.

In order to reach the goal of 700 ABA Area species, I knew that I had to endure one or two of the legendary 12-hour pelagic trips off Hatteras, North Carolina. We were guided by famed skipper Brian Patteson, with the goal of seeing the rare Black-capped Petrel and Band-rumped Storm-Petrel, birds rarely seen from shore. Thirty miles off the port of Hatteras on the Outer Banks of North Carolina, still in North American territory, the continental shelf drops off and meets the Gulf Stream. This combination of deep and warm water creates a dynamic ecosystem teeming with fish and birds that is ideal for these species, but they can still be a challenge.

Brian took out our group from the Pennsylvania Society for Ornithology on two consecutive days. Eight-foot swells and thunderstorms did not deter him. As a matter of fact, it increased our chances for not only the two target birds, but also a rarity from the south. Black-capped Petrels were in abundance, but the little Band-rumped Storm-Petrel made only a couple of fleeting appearances. However, our sighting of the rare Trindade Petrel (formerly called Herald Petrel, the Atlantic birds are now known to be a different species from this Pacific Ocean Pterodroma) caused quite a stir on the boat. Yes, even the five or six seasick birders scrambled off their berths and stumbled to the stern. This bird immediately made the North American Rare Bird Alerts.

Note: When driving from Philadelphia, consult a map—don’t rely on GPS. The trip

took 11 hours (659 miles, a new personal one-day driving record) as the GPS led me to the Ocracoke ferry. Because I did not have a reservation, I had to double back, adding an extra 100 miles to the trip. The GPS considers ferry crossings as pavement and thus uses them in its calculations for “fastest” mode. The ferry ticket taker is still laughing at my question: “Where is the bridge?”

There are many opportunities to take pelagic trips on the Pacific Ocean. And frankly, they are a “must.” I enjoyed many adventures with Shearwater Journeys (thank you, Debi!) as well as Alvaro Jaramillo’s departures from Half Moon Bay.

Any effort to build a big ABA Area list will eventually require sea legs. On a pelagic trip off Hatteras, North Carolina, with good chances for Black-capped Petrel and Band-rumped Storm-Petrel, the author scored both, plus a thrilling Trindade Petrel like this one. Incredibly, while preparing this article, the Editor of this issue of Birding, Frank Izaguirre, realized he was on the exact same pelagic trip, although he did not know the author at that time. Their guide, Kate Sutherland, has a book review in this issue, yet another reminder that part of the joy and thrill of birding is how strong and tightly knit the ABA community is. Photo by © Kate Sutherland.

4. Persevere

I was determined to see and photograph an Aleutian Tern for #700. I received a tip that these maritime feeders had recently taken up residence on Headquarters Lake in the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge. Since I had a free day before my Pribilof Islands adventure, I drove down the scenic Kenai Highway filled with optimism. Upon arriving at the tiny observation platform, I was more than disappointed to see a huge lake devoid of avians. Where were the terns? I could see distant birds flying over what turned out to be a floating bog island, but the smoke from a growing wildfire was beginning to erase the blue sky and cast a large shadow. 

I hustled back to the refuge headquarters and convinced a friendly refuge field person named Toby to bring his 60x magnification scope to the viewing area. We were able to positively identify a couple of Aleutian Terns, but what about photos? I wanted proof of #700, and Toby needed to return to his office.

A 30-minute canoe paddle later, I was positioned next to the floating bog island, clicking away in hopes of catching a decent shot. Of course, I wasn’t going to stop birding just because I had reached another milestone: ABA 700. I am not a gambler, but I imagine occasional successes, termed “partial reinforcement” in social psychology, keeps people returning to the slot machines. For me, birding is similar. We endure many disappointments when we don’t see our target bird (aka “dips”). However, the satisfaction felt when we persevere and succeed is immeasurable.

Part of the thrill of reaching the upper echelons of ABA Area listing is that birders must visit remote and fascinating corners of the ABA Area they may otherwise never have gone to, such as Gambell, Alaska. And once there, with great luck, birders may find themselves face to face with mesmerizing species like this Siberian Accentor, the author’s 800th ABA Area bird. Photo courtesy of George Wood.

5. Visit Hawaii and Alaska

Hawaii was not part of the official ABA Area until 2016. Now Hawaii birds can be counted on one’s ABA Area life list. More than 350 bird species have been recorded in the Hawaiian Islands, including 59 endemic birds found nowhere else on Earth. Sadly, due to climate change, several species will likely become extinct in my lifetime. Why? Because malaria-carrying mosquitoes are moving up the hillsides as temperatures rise, and the birds—most of which never developed an immunity to mosquito-borne diseases—are running out of room, seeking lower temperatures at higher altitudes. On the positive side, the goal of 800 ABA Area lifetime species was now in play.

The author’s father told him many years ago that if he wanted to leave a legacy, he should have kids and/or write a book. He elected to do both, but not at the same time. He recently published Bird Tales: A Lifetime Pursuit. The goal was to condense over 50 years of birding adventures into an entertaining and informative narrative for both birders and non-birders. This is a story of perseverance and adventure, punctuated with humor and personal photographs, as he describes chasing a lifetime dream. Images courtesy of George Wood.

In Mar. 2017, I visited Hawaii. My gifted guide, Mandy Talpas, created a fascinating itinerary that included time on three islands: Oahu (home of Honolulu), Hawaii (“the Big Island”), and Kauai (“the Garden Isle”). We found 16 of the 17 endemic bird species (we missed the Hawaiian Hawk) and 10 of those 16 are listed as endangered by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. I picked up 46 lifers, a feat that would not have been possible without Mandy.

Hawaii has native specialties like the Hawaiian Goose (Hawaii’s state bird, also known as the Nene). It also hosts a number of introduced species, such as the Red-crested Cardinal (from South America). Most of these birds (from Asia, Africa, South America, you name it) have been accepted by the birding authorities at the ABA, as well as by the American Ornithological Society. I totally recommend using a guide like Mandy. She saved me time, money, and many headaches, and even found time to show me an active volcano!

I had visited Nome and Gambell in May 2013 and picked up 24 lifers. As I approached the magical number of 800, the most time- and cost-efficient trip to close my gap (eight species) was a Sept. 2021 trip. Aaron Lang and Steve Heinl of Wilderness Birding Adventures were the perfect guides for the nine of us on the trip. Talented birders and cooks with a great sense of humor, they made 10 days in a crowded one-bathroom house quite pleasurable.

Why is Gambell so essential for ABA Area listing? The fatigued travelers are attracted to the unique green wormwood vegetation and insects that exist around several boneyards. These pits contain discarded whale and walrus bones that have been excavated for their ivory. The ivory is carved and sold by entrepreneurial Yupik residents.

Many of the migrants are small, indistinct, and shy. Photography is key to identifying them. Thankfully, I was able to add three members of the Phylloscopidae family (leaf warblers) to my life list, a page in the bird guides that I had previously never paid much attention to because of the unlikely chance I would see one. And I picked up Spectacled Eider and Kittlitz’s Murrelet. I had expected three lifers, hoped for five, and now had six, bringing my total to 798. And I still had half of the trip remaining.

The day after a rare Middendorff’s Grasshopper-Warbler’s appearance (#799) started like every other Gambell day. Coffee, two hours at the sea-watch, followed by a sweep of the Far and Circular boneyards. The elusive Siberian Stonechat was on our minds as several of us climbed rocky slopes looking for that specialty. Nada. After lunch, we kept to the routine of marching through the Near Boneyard when the call came: Far Boneyard, Siberian Accentor. What a cool name, I thought. I knew only a little about this Code 4. A native of northern Siberia, it’s a small, shy, sparrow-like bird with beautifully streaked patterns on its head. Aaron shuttled most of the participants via ATV while two of us power-walked the three quarters of a mile at a very brisk pace. The entire group viewed this migrant up close, and I had reached a goal my 10-year-old self wouldn’t have even dreamed of.

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A fundraiser for his high school alma mater, The Haverford School, outside of Philadelphia, George Wood is a proud father of six children and also has two grandchildren. He lives in Haverford, Pennsylvania, and plays many racquet sports when not birding.