2019 Top 10 Birding Highlights

Like many nature-based bloggers, I enjoy closing each year with a retrospective highlight reel. Ever since 2016, this personal countdown has taken the form of a Top 10 Lifers post, detailing the best new species I tallied during the preceding months. 2019, however, has been the undisputed biggest year of my life thus far. A pair of long-awaited dream trips finally became reality, and through these international adventures I racked up a year list of 753 species that includes 422 incredible lifers. That total also fails to take into account all of the wonderful people, places, and non-avian wildlife that I found along the way! To limit my celebration of 2019’s natural marvels to just 10 specific life birds seems unthinkable. As a result, I will instead detail the more general experiences that made this year so memorable. This expanded format provides a more complete picture of the events that have transpired since my last annual reflection. Let’s get to it!

Honorable Mention: Wild Cockatiels

My first encounter with Cockatiels out in the bush of Australia didn’t feel like a lifer observation so much as it did a reunion of sorts. After all, I was privileged enough to live with one of these crested charmers for 19 wonderful years. My beloved family pet, Zuzu, passed in late 2016, and I always hoped I would get to see his kind in a more natural setting some day. During my summer vacation to the Southern Hemisphere, I found flocks of Cockatiels roving through the dusty fields surrounding Lake Coolmunda, calling to one another with whistled contact notes that were all too familiar. Since most of the destinations I visited were along the coast, I had feared I might miss this interior-dwelling species altogether. That uncertainty made the eventual sighting that much more rewarding. It was certainly an emotional experience, and I was thankful for the opportunity to take this little trip down memory lane.

#10: State and County Listing

The excitement of 2019 wasn’t limited to my excursions abroad; it was a pretty decent year of birding back at home in New York! I was able to coordinate a few targeted trips in search of new state birds, most notably a February jaunt to the Adirondacks which turned up my first lifer of the year: Black-backed Woodpecker. In total, I added 12 species to my Empire State list, including Golden-crowned Sparrow, Varied Thrush, Common Greenshank, and Sage Thrasher. I also made a concerted effort to beef up the total for my home county of Nassau, finally eclipsing 300 species with a Barn Owl sighting in June. One observation that counted for both lists was a self-found rarity, a flyby Say’s Phoebe at Jones Beach spotted while participating in the October Big Day. Another personal victory of review list caliber came with the discovery of a Painted Bunting during my sector survey for the Montauk Christmas Bird Count. My friends from Suffolk returned the county bird favor by finding another bunting on the South Nassau CBC a week later, and a last-minute Townsend’s Warbler reported right before the compilation dinner brought my state list to 371 and my home county total to 305. Perhaps my New Year’s resolutions for 2020 should focus on some of my other county lists, especially now that I’m living in Queens!

#9: Filling in Families

Individual species aren’t the only taxonomic groupings I keep track of for my life list. I also document the families of birds that I meet during my travels. Recording these more general categories provides a great sense of the broader biodiversity I have observed in my lifetime. It is thrilling to find a new bird and know that it is something truly novel and unrelated to any other species I’ve encountered previously. Over the course of 2019, I added 46 families to my tally, bringing my overall count to 145. 11 of these came from my trip to Panama, including tinamous, jacamars, manakins, and Rosy Thrush-Tanager, the lone monotypic family I picked up this year. Australia provided the remaining 35, a total that highlights how wildly different the evolutionary scene is on the far side of the world. Fairywrens, pittas, lyrebirds, and pardalotes were among the most noteworthy new additions. My first exposure to iconic tribes such as toucans and bowerbirds certainly helped to make this year special!

#8: Wet Tropics Endemics Sweep

When I finalized my choice to visit the Wet Tropics in Australia, I learned that the region is home to a dozen species of endemic birds found nowhere else on Earth. I hoped that I would be able to track down at least a few of these famed specialties during the first leg of my trip, but with only a week of planning time and a week to explore I knew it would be a challenge. In the end, I managed to collect them all. Macleay’s Honeyeater, Pied Monarch, and the dazzling Victoria’s Riflebird joined my life list when I visited Cassowary House, while Bridled Honeyeater was first found along the Daintree River.  The walking tracks at the summit of Mount Lewis proved most productive. There I discovered Gray-headed Robin, Atherton Scrubwren, Mountain Thornbill, and Bower’s Shrikethrush. A Fernwren collecting nesting material along the trail and a pair of Chowchillas scratching in the undergrowth were lucky sightings, and I was also fortunate enough to find Golden and Tooth-billed Bowerbirds despite their secretive natures outside the breeding season. On several nights during my visit, I even heard the local “Lesser” subspecies of the Sooty Owl, which is regarded as a separate species by some authorities. Successfully connecting with all of these wonderfully unique birds made for a fantastic prize from my journey to Far Northern Queensland.

#7: Working on my Night Birds

It would be nearly impossible for me to create a concise shortlist of “favorite birds,” but it’s no secret that I have a particular fondness for nocturnal predators. 2019 was just plain awesome for night birds! For starters, I had the pleasure of meeting multiple new species of owls. Panama provided both Mottled and Black-and-white Owls, including incredible views of the latter. In Australia, I heard Sooty Owls and Southern Boobooks on multiple occasions, and I also saw Rufous, Barking, and Powerful Owls along with Australasian Grass-Owl. The boat guide for a Daintree River cruise pointed out a roosting White-throated Nightjar as well. What’s more, I was introduced to multiple all-new families of after-dark avians: perfectly camouflaged Great Potoos nesting along Pipeline Road, adorably fluffy Australian Owlet-nightjars in the woodlands around Brisbane, and Papuan, Tawny, and Marbled Frogmouths over the course of my exploration of Queensland. There were plenty of good owling opportunities at home, too. My year list began with Northern Saw-whet Owl on January 1st, and the night-birding fun never really slowed down for the rest of the year.

#6: The View from Canopy Tower 

Unlike my Australia trip, which saw me gallivanting around Queensland and booking one-night reservations on the fly, my visit to Panama was a much more sedentary affair. Except for a single night spent at a Gamboa bed-and-breakfast, the entire operation was based out of the Canopy Tower. This consistency afforded me the chance to get well acquainted with the local wildlife on Semaphore Hill. Each morning, before the sun rose above the horizon, I ascended to the observation deck and watched the rainforest wake up. The show never failed to inspire awe. Every day got started with a dawn chorus of howler monkeys, tinamous, and forest-falcons, and once the lights came up the treetops in every direction began to stir with aracaris, parrots, tamarins, and mixed flocks of songbirds. Lunchtime breaks back at base allowed me to scan the skies for raptors in the midday heat, and ending each day with a sweeping view of the Canal Zone was the ideal way to relax and cool down for the next adventure. That’s to say nothing of the talented and welcoming staff, and all the delicious meals! The Canopy Family manages a seriously impressive tour operation, and staying at this amazing facility was a genuine honor.

#5: A Critical Twitch Abroad

When birding in a foreign country, it’s hard not to feel like a total tourist. Even the most common species are often unfamiliar lifers, and identification of new birds can be tricky without careful study or the assistance of a local expert. I enjoyed a unique opportunity to briefly connect with the Australian birding community by sharing in the excitement of a major rarity. Shortly before I arrived in Queensland, a pair of Regent Honeyeaters was discovered in the town of Springfield Lakes just outside of Brisbane. This gorgeous black-and-yellow bird is a critically endangered species, with a dwindling population believed to number just a few hundred individuals. Habitat fragmentation is a major threat to these nectar-eating nomads, and any sighting of wild individuals is a welcome surprise. I shared this rare encounter with a number of Aussie birders, and the atmosphere of the twitch scene felt just as familiar as a vagrant chase here in the States. Our conversations about the ecology of the region, and the views of the birds themselves, made for a memory that was well-deserving of a spot on this list. 

#4: Pipeline Road Ant Swarm

Anyone who has birded the Neotropics will tell you that Army Ant swarms are a must-see phenomenon. Entire families of birds have evolved to specialize in following marauding hordes of Eciton burchellii, waiting patiently to snap up insects and other critters attempting to escape the onslaught. Large swarms can be unpredictable in terms of when and where they occur, but they are predictably spectacular when you do find them. Pipeline Road is rightfully lauded as one of the best birding sites in the Americas, due to a combination of easy access and rich biodiversity. I visited this legendary location several times during my stay in Gamboa, and the final tour turned up a large swarm of Army Ants scouring the leaf litter just off trail. I’ll never forget the sight of woodcreepers, anis, tanagers, and wrens diving into the fray to grab a meal, with the calls of the attendant antbirds ringing through the forest as they bounced dramatically from perch to perch. The scene was just as magnificently manic as promised, and undeniably worth the wait! 

#3: My 1,000th Life Bird

At the start of 2019, my life list stood at 799. Now, with 2020 right around the corner, it totals 1,220. The birding milestone of surpassing 1,000 was a long time coming, and I strategically planned my vacations this year in the hopes of marking the achievement with a suitable celebratory species. An extremely successful week in central Panama left me within easy striking distance of the magic number, and I could think of no better place than Australia to put a final flourish on the first thousand. Once I arrived in Cairns, the rest was up to fate, and fate delivered a wonderful prize. The Rainbow Bee-eater is a truly superlative bird, with flashy plumage, a rakish silhouette, and stirring aerial prowess. My baseline admiration for the species and its newfound personal significance somehow add up to something more than its simple numerical ranking on a checklist. That first encounter was the culmination of 27 years of effort and exploration, distilled into a single, special moment in the presence of an engaging, handsome creature. I suspect that I’ll harbor a soft spot for this bird for the rest of my days.

#2: Rare Rainforest Cuckoos

Two of the most sought-after birds in all of Central America are cuckoos, a family famous for being unusual in appearance and behavior. Many cuckoos are challenging to observe due to their skulking habits, but they are always a treat whenever they do show themselves. The Pheasant Cuckoo and the Rufous-vented Ground-Cuckoo are both quirky, charismatic, and notoriously stealthy. Naturally, these species were high on my target list for Panama, and though I was lucky with both of them, they offered extremely disparate experiences. The Rufous-vented Ground-Cuckoo was little more than a shadow in the rainforest understory, showing just well enough to be identified before furtively slipping away and disappearing forever. In contrast, my tour group found a Pheasant Cuckoo perched up on a prominent limb, perfectly illuminated by a sunbeam, singing enthusiastically in chorus with a second unseen individual nearby. These two encounters were complete opposites in terms of quality, but even so, I found both victories equally thrilling. A hard-won, fleeting glimpse reinforces the cryptic mystique of the quarry and highlights just how easily you could have missed it altogether. On the other hand, an unexpectedly intimate and extended introduction to a desirable “Holy Grail” species is a welcome and delightful surprise. There’s no way of knowing for sure what will happen when you’re out in the field, and that’s a large component of what makes birding so exciting and fulfilling.

#1: Cassowary Encounters

Every birder I know has a “most wanted” list of species they hope to one day observe in the wild. The Southern Cassowary has always ranked near the top of my own register of dream targets. In truth, the mere suggestion that I could one day meet this incredible creature in the flesh seemed almost impossible. The cassowary is a bird so outlandish and primeval in aspect, from the dagger-sharp claws on its feet to its imposing, horn-like casque, that it felt like a nearly unattainable goal. It genuinely resembles its dinosaurian ancestors or some sort of mythical monster more than it does any of its living relatives. As much as I longed to explore the ancient rainforests where these giants still roam, I couldn’t help but wonder if I would ever have the opportunity.

This July, I finally got a chance to visit the Land Down Under and search for the beasties myself. I had the good fortune to encounter six individuals on three different occasions, and I was left wonderstruck every single time. Twice I found myself in the presence of immature birds, freshly independent youngsters striking out to find their own way in the world. I made a special effort to seek out the iconic adults, and I eventually crossed paths with them on the idyllic shores of Etty Bay. Suddenly coming face-to-face with that formidable countenance, staring into the intense, amber eyes that have gazed back at at me from the pages of so many books, was an experience that no amount of studying or daydreaming could have prepared me for. My time in Australia was full of meetings with countless magnificent animals, from crocodiles to tree-kangaroos. With the possible exception of the equally legendary Platypus, none had quite so profound an effect on me as the Southern Cassowary did. This lifer wasn’t simply a highlight of my year, or even the past decade. This was one of the greatest wildlife encounters of my entire life, undoubtedly including the years yet to come. 

I’m not certain that 2020 can possibly top the unforgettable adventures of 2019, but quite frankly I would love to see it try! Here’s to a Happy New Year!