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Birder Doing a Big Year On The Search For the Elusive Dovekie

Searching for a Dovekie,

Usually when I write a column about searching for a specific bird the story is all about me (of course) and my efforts to locate that bird. After all, who knows more about what I do than me? (Well, me and the Russian hackers.) Things were a little different back in early December when a birder stopped into my shop. The guy, Christian (last name, Hagenlocher, but don’t ask me how to say it), asked if we knew where he could see a Dovekie. (For anyone reading this who doesn’t know, Dovekies are pudgy, little black and white seabirds that spend most of their lives far out in the ocean and thus aren’t often visible from land.) Christian had come to the Cape in hopes of seeing one of these birds. We were glad to talk to him about Dovekies, as it was a nice break from listening to endless squirrel stories. We started our conversation slowly, not wanting to overwhelm him with too much information. But two sentences into our discussion we began to realize that this was no casual birder hoping to see his first bluebird or loon. This was a big time birder and if he saw a Dovekie it would become the 750th different bird he had seen in 2016. Wait! What? Was he kidding?

No, he wasn’t kidding. Christian was doing a “big year.” (A big year is when a birder tries to see as many different species of birds as possible in a single year.) The current North America record stood at 749 and Christian needed one more bird, a Dovekie, to break that record. Oh, and one more thing. Christian is only twenty-seven years old. Wait! What? Cut it out!

When we think about breaking records, we usually think of sports and young athletes in their prime. This is not how it works in the birding world. It takes years of fieldwork and experience to distinguish the subtle differences between the vast numbers of similar-looking birds. To understand my point, flip open your bird book to the section on flycatchers (or sparrows, or gulls or shorebirds). Don’t many of those birds look identical? They sure look that way to me. Only veteran birders can sort, say, a Pacific-slope Flycatcher from a Cardilleran Flycatcher. (Yes, those are real birds and they really live in this country.) Besides experience, there is also one other thing older birders possess that younger ones typically don’t have: money. Like most twenty-somethings, Christian had limited funds. But in addition to his amazing birding skills, he had two other important items. He had ramen noodles, and ate lots and lots of them. He also had a Subaru, a car that served as transportation, hotel and workspace. In less than a year Christian had driven more than 65,000 miles in the front seat and spent hundreds of nights sleeping in the back. (Imagine spending your nights sleeping in the back of a car? I get stiff from watching TV…from the couch.)

We told Christian (although I think he already knew) that the best place to look for Dovekies was Race Point in Provincetown. Seabirds hate to fly over land, so whenever they want to go from Cape Cod Bay to the Atlantic, they have to pass around the Race. The birds typically move early in the morning; in order to be there at sunrise, Christian decided to spend the night in Provincetown…in the back of his Subaru. Upon hearing his plan I warned him that the overnight temps were expected to drop into the single digits. But he shrugged it off, saying, “Oh, I’ve slept out in colder weather than that.” Then out into the night he went. The rest of us just stared at each other, which is why none of us will ever set a birding record.

We didn’t see Christian for a few days and were pretty sure he was frozen in a sand dune. But one day he reappeared, very much alive and still looking for a Dovekie. He hung out in my shop for a while, sharing stories with us and waiting for Steve Arena. Who is Steve Arena? Steve not only is a great birder, but he has an off-road beach sticker. He could drive Christian up and down just about any beach on the Outer Cape and help him find the mythical Dovekie. As Christian climbed into Steve’s truck, I thought how amazing it would be to go birding with those two elite birders. What a great story I could write. It’s just too bad no one invited me to come along. 🙁

As the year wound down I kept an eye on Christian’s Web blog, but as far as I could tell he didn’t find a Dovekie and had left the Cape entirely. Then on New Year’s Eve, at 5:11 PM, as we were getting ready to close the big store, Christian walked in. He had spent the entire day with Steve, still looking for the elusive Dovekie. I looked up and said, “Well?” Christian shook his head, saying that Steve had seen two Dovekies but he missed them both. Everyone at work was sad, but Christian didn’t have a hint of disappointment. His big year was over and he loved every minute of it. As I went to shake his hand, he handed me a signed copy of his calendar, which featured many of the rare birds he had photographed during his big year. How cool was that? Christian Hagenlocher is one of the most pleasant and impressive birders I’ve ever met. (I just wish I knew how to say his last name.)


Addendum to the story:

Even though Christian never saw his Dovekie, he did see 750 birds and broke the old record. In between trips to Race Point, he managed to go to Idaho and saw a lost Siberian bird called a “Red-flanked Bluetail” (yeah, I never heard of it either). That bird gave him the magic number. Also, three other birders topped the 750 mark in 2016. Actually, they saw even more birds than Christian did, but since none of those birders gave me a calendar, I’m not mentioning their names. That will teach them.