2018 Top 10 Lifers

At the end of every year, I like to take some time to reflect on the highs and lows of the year’s birding escapades. 2018 definitely had its rough spots, with a few painful dips and shortcomings scattered throughout, but on the whole it was a fantastic year chock full of great birds. Out of 526 species observed since January 1st, 157 were all new lifers that I had never seen before. It’s a challenge to trim that list down to something as limited as a Top 10, but the chance to relive all of these special memories made the exercise worthwhile! Let’s get started, then!

10. Blue-throated Hummingbird, Cave Creek Canyon, Arizona 8/2
Southern Arizona is home to some of the most spectacular birds in the entire ABA area. The myriad hummingbirds that inhabit the sky islands are among the flashiest attractions on that star-studded list of avifauna. Blue-throats are the largest hummers found north of the Mexican border, and they are particularly striking specimens. With its dazzling, cobalt-colored gorget and the bright white highlights on its face and flared tail, this canyon-dwelling beauty is well-deserving of the moniker shared by the other members of its genus: Mountaingem. This is one case where I think a formal common name change is absolutely warranted, both for the sake of consistency in the nomenclature and recognition of the “wow” factor this stunner clearly possesses. The birds definitely left a big impression on me as I watched them whizzing around the forests of the Chiricahua Mountains earlier this year.

9. Spanish Imperial Eagle, Doñana NP, Andalucía 2/21
I saw a wide variety of incredible birds during my week-long visit to Spain this February. The Iberian Peninsula’s endemic raptor earned some bonus recognition as the marker for a major personal milestone: the 700th species on my life list. I challenged myself to reach this goal before the end of the year, and I ended up blowing past it by nearly 100 extra species thanks to some superb luck during both my winter and summer vacations. Numbers and listing objectives aside, the eagles were plenty impressive on their own. The tour I took with Discovering Doñana turned up a pair of young Imperials hunting over the fields and woodland edges. It was a real treat to observe these rare predators and the distinctive habitat they call home, just one of the many highlights of my time in Doñana National Park.

8. Buff-collared Nightjar, Buenos Aires NWR, Arizona 8/5
My desire to track down this peculiar nightbird resulted in one of the most memorable improvised adventures of my birding career thus far. When I began preparing my target list for this summer’s trip to Arizona, this species was near the top. However, my small, low-clearance rental car was not well-suited for tackling the rough roads that lead out to the desert washes that nightjars favor. I was fortunate enough to team up with some friendly fellow birders who offered to take me along on their expedition to search for the bird. Our sunset drive out to Brown Canyon was a lovely experience, despite unclear directions, border patrol checks, and even a tire change on the way home. The scene that awaited us at our destination was well-worth the effort. Hearing the bizarre song of a distant Buffjar amidst the chorus of crickets and Poorwills, with multiple planets shining in the starscape overhead and the rich smell of desert plants hanging heavy in the air, was a perfect sensory snapshot of what makes the region so special.

7. Great Bustard, Campo De Calatrava, Castilla-La Mancha 2/20
I’ve wanted to see a bustard for quite some time. One of childhood “animals of the world” books described these great big birds that strutted regally across the plains, somehow capable of flying despite their hefty, imposing frames. I finally got the chance to make that dream a reality out in the scenic countryside of La Mancha. The vast agricultural fields were home to a number of charismatic species native to the Spanish steppes, including Eurasian Stone-Curlew, Black-bellied and Pin-tailed Sandgrouse, and Little Bustard. The Great Bustards were undeniably the kings of Campo de Calatrava, parading in a large congregation among the olive groves with their heads held high. I also got to see a few of the giants in flight, beating their powerful wings laboriously as they took to the skies. These bustards were even more magnificent than I imagined.

6. Montezuma Quail, Madera Canyon, Arizona 8/1
A series of haunting whistles echoing across the slopes near the Santa Rita Lodge at dawn was my first introduction to the Montezuma Quail. The next morning, I happened upon a pair of these elusive creatures feeding nonchalantly along the shoulder up the road from the Southwestern Research Station. Even among the ranks of Arizona’s phenomenal regional specialties like Flame-colored Tanager, Rufous-capped Warbler, and Elegant Trogon, the brilliantly patterned birds were standouts. Despite the male’s gaudy plumage, these quail can be exceedingly secretive and difficult to find. The serendipity of the encounter and their surprisingly cooperative demeanor made the event that much more exciting. I was honored to enjoy extended views of a species that many visitors to the sky islands miss altogether.

5. Iberian Magpie, Doñana NP, Andalucía 2/21
This is a pretty exceptional bird. Iberian Magpies are just as bold and charming as any other corvid, with the added bonus of some seriously dapper plumage and a fascinating evolutionary history. It was formerly considered conspecific with the Azure-winged Magpie, a nearly identical-looking bird that lives half a world away in eastern Asia. Genetic studies have revealed that these two species are relict populations of a once more widely-distributed common ancestor. The magpies rove about the oak and pine woodlands of Spain and Portugal in noisy, tight-knit family groups. I followed one such flock at Doñana’s El Acebuche visitor center, admiring their antics as they prowled the fringes of the picnic area and frolicked through the gardens. It was an afternoon well spent.

4. Northern Pygmy-Owl, Hunter Canyon, Arizona 8/4
Owls have always been special to me, and I was introduced to a handful of wonderful new species this year. I met both the smallest owl in the world, the Elf Owl, and one of the largest, the Eurasian Eagle-Owl. The Whiskered Screech-Owl, a specialty of the mountainous border regions, was another welcome addition to my life list. When it came time to narrow down 2018’s Top 10, however, I had to give the nod to the formidable little Northern Pygmy-Owl. This was the owl that provided the closest, most prolonged views, much preferable to the distant observations, shadowy flybys, and noises in the night offered by the others. I was lucky enough to watch and listen to a band of recently fledged owlets moving through the treetops in the Huachuca Mountains. Pygmy-Owls are noteworthy for their disproportionately fierce attitude. Although an adult is smaller than a robin, it can take down prey three times its own size! It was a pleasure to finally get acquainted with these tiny badasses.

3. Bearded Reedling, Tablas de Daimiel NP, Castilla-La Mancha 2/20
I love weird birds. Species that are not closely related to any other, classified in their own monotypic families distinct from their nearest taxonomic kin, make for especially unique and desirable quarry. The Bearded Reedling is one such bird, an anomalous little beastie perfectly adapted to live among the swaying stalks of tall, aquatic grasses. There is nothing else on Earth quite like it. Its pinging vocalizations and energetic acrobatics make it a singularly endearing critter. The complementary blend of blue-gray and orange-brown colors in its plumage is stylishly accented by the ornamental black moustaches of the male. I had to travel a bit out of my way to catch up with these adorable oddballs during my Spanish vacation, and I’m certainly happy that I did.

2. Trindade Petrel, Hudson Canyon, New York 8/20
The only thing better than enjoying a rare bird is enjoying it in the company of others. The insane, ecstatic chaos that unfolded on the decks of the Brooklyn VI in response to shouts of “TRINDADE PETREL” was a scene that I’m unlikely to ever forget. Pelagic birding is one of my favorite types of birding, and the possibility of an unexpected discovery is one of the most tantalizing draws for these journeys far from land. The petrel was precisely the sort of seabird surprise that we hoped to find beyond the edge of the continental shelf. It also proved to be shockingly confiding, circling the boat at close range and showing off beautifully for amazing photo ops. It’s going to be tough to top this find on subsequent New York pelagic trips, but you can bet that we’ll try our best!

1. Great Black Hawk, Biddeford, Maine 8/9
This may well be the single most remarkable individual bird that I have ever had the pleasure to meet. The species is not as rare, dramatic, or unique as the others on this list, but the specific Great Black Hawk in question is truly an inspiration. When the wayward raptor first appeared at South Padre Island, Texas on April 24th, I reacted with the usual “nice, that’s cool” reaction elicited by all of the other impressive ABA vagrants that I am unable to chase. When it was rediscovered on August 6th in Maine, of all places, and turned out to be more than a one-day wonder, I didn’t think twice about making pursuit. I was able to connect with the mega-rarity on the 9th, just a few hours before it disappeared over the sea. Encountering this neotropical species on the coast of New England was a delightfully incongruous experience that immediately earned the top spot on this list. Unbelievably, the story didn’t end there. The hawk was spotted in Portland by a lone birder on October 29th, and it resurfaced yet again on the 29th of November. Since then, the bird has settled at Deering Oaks Park, where it is still delighting visitors from all over the continent.

It is mind-boggling that this creature, normally found no further north than Mexico, has survived for so long in such alien territory. This animal overcame the struggles of its long-distance dispersal and managed to successfully adjust to its new environment. It has proven resourceful enough to exploit varied food sources, switching from eggs and nestlings in the summer to the abundant, well-fed squirrels of the city park during the winter. In all likelihood, it may be the first of its kind to ever see snow. Despite the adverse conditions, it continues to thrive and subvert our expectations. This particular Great Black Hawk is an extraordinary example of life’s adaptability. I consider it a great privilege to share in astonishing stories like this one, however briefly, when we take a closer look at the lives of the birds around us. For me, this tale represents the very best of what birding has to offer.

UPDATE: In the early days of 2019, it became clear that the harsh weather and challenging conditions of the Maine winter had finally taken their toll on the Great Black Hawk. The bird was rescued and brought to rehab, but these efforts proved to come to late. With debilitating frostbite threatening to claim both of its legs, it was clear that the bird’s quality of life would never be the same even if it survived its injuries. The Great Black Hawk was euthanized on January 31st, but the story does not end there. Its remains are now housed at the Maine State Museum, and its legend will undoubtedly continue to inspire the birders who bore witness to its unfortunately short but nevertheless remarkable life.