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Live Life to the Fullest with Fine Feathered Friends

by Meredith Mullins on January 30, 2014

Birder with binoculars, trying to live life to the fullest with the bird a day challenge (Photo © Meredith Mullins)

Staying focused on the Bird-a-Day Challenge
© Meredith Mullins

A Bird-a-Day Makes for Challenging Play

Swampies. Rumpies. Sharpies.

Sound enticing? Well, yes, in a way. But what are we talking about?

Is it a secret code? Adventure apparel from Banana Republic? Characters in a new video game?

Welcome to the wonderful world of birding. We’re talking about Swamp Sparrows (swampies), Yellow-rumped Warblers (rumpies), and Sharp-shinned Hawks (sharpies).

And when it comes to birders, we’re talking about an international community bound by a passion for the beauty, the personalities and patterns, and the sweet songs and operatic trills of our bird friends.

A way to live life to the fullest.

The hooded merganser, a bird that inspires birders to live life to the fullest as they participate in the bird-a-day challenge (Photo © Mark Catesby)

The Hooded Merganser goes punk.
© Mark Catesby

Notorious List Makers

Birders are generous in sharing information about sightings and are notorious for making lists. Backyard lists, county lists, state lists, year lists, life lists.

For many, the ultimate goal is the Bird-a-Day Challenge—spotting a new species of bird every day of the year.

The yearly challenge was started by Massachusetts birder Tom Wetmore. Florida birder Trey Mitchell offers backbone to the program by providing a website where participants track their findings.

There is no official prize. The challenge is personal.

blue bird in a tree, the indigo bunting, a reason for birders to live life to the fullest with the bird-a-day challenge (© Mark Catesby)

The Indigo Bunting, a little touch of sky on Day #162 for Mark Catesby
© Mark Catesby

“It gets you outside every day,” said Mark Catesby, one of the four birders to complete the challenge in 2013. “And you meet really interesting people, including a new side to yourself.”

Trey Mitchell concurs. “I call birding my ‘therapy.’ It’s much cheaper to get out and bird than to see a therapist. Also, anywhere you go, if you’re a birder and see another birder out in the field, you typically have found a new birder friend. It’s like a family.”

A white ibis, with long bill, inspiring birders to live life to the fullest with the bird-a-day challenge (© Mark Catesby)

Seeing double with a White Ibis, on Day #208 for Mark Catesby
© Mark Catesby

The Honor System

There is no director, judge, or jury for this challenge. It’s self monitoring—an honor system. But there are a few guidelines.

You have to spot the bird on the day you record it. You can’t repeat the same bird or skip a day. Your bird can’t be in a cage or on television. And it can’t be a chicken. That’s about it. The rest is up to you.

Yellow bird, the American Goldfinch, inspiring birders to live life to the fullest with the bird-a-day challenge (Photo © Mark Catesby)

The American Goldfinch makes any day sunny, including Day #218 for Mark Catesby.
© Mark Catesby

Five Strategies for Bird-a-Day (and Life)

Those who have made it through all 365 days will tell you that it’s about knowledge, spotting techniques, persistence, patience, and luck. But they will also say that strategy is paramount.

Here are five strategies, which also provide a good guide for living a full life.

1. Understand the rhythms of nature.

In the bird-a-day world, that means understanding the movement of birds (e.g., when the wintering birds move north, when spring migration is coming, why certain habitats attract certain species, and how that changes with the seasons).

2. Stay in tune. Keep up with current news.

Use every possible resource to stay up-to-date on where the birds are. Take advantage of e-bird alerts, Audubon Society newsletters, and sighting websites in your community.

The violet-headed hummingbird, inspiring birders to live life to the fullest with the bird-a-day challenge (Photo © Mark Catesby)

The Violet-headed Hummingbird spotted in Costa Rica on Day #313
© Mark Catesby

3. See the world.

Traveling is always eye-opening. And when you’re searching for new bird species, different locations open up a whole new section in your bird guide.

4. Save for a rainy day.

In life, saving for a rainy day is a good idea—to provide a contingency for the unexpected.

In the bird-a-day world, the same strategy is important—having birds in your back pocket. Birders call them “safety birds” or “pocket birds.” These are birds you see every day. The trick is to save them until you really need them. Seek the rare treasures first.

A red cardinal inspires birders to live life to the fullest with the bird-a-day challenge (Photo © Mark Catesby)

A pocket bird? Maybe. Mark Catesby chose the Northern Cardinal as #365.
© Mark Catesby

5. Make your own rules when necessary.

When the going gets tough, allow yourself some interpretive freedom. For example,

“If it shows up at a bird feeder, it’s a bird.”

“Females may be considered a different species than males (for sure!)”

“Day can be defined as a 24-hour period anywhere in the world.”

These suggestions were offered by a helpful family member of Mark Catesby. It should be noted that he completed the challenge without taking advantage of these creative interpretations.

Fiery-billed aracari, with its long red beak, inspiring birders to live life to the fullest with the bird-a-day challenge (Photo © Mark Catesby)

Don’t mess with the Fiery-billed Aracari (Day #318).
© Mark Catesby


Even with technique and sound strategy, there are still a few birds that are elusive. Some people call them “jinx birds” (if your friends have seen them but you haven’t). And, in some cases, the bird is so rare, or endangered, that it’s difficult to find.

Mark Catesby (and siblings) went to Costa Rica in November to keep the momentum going in the bird-a-day challenge.

Birding group in Costa Rica, inspired to live life to the fullest with the bird-a-day challenge (© Mark Catesby)

Expanding the possibilities in Costa Rica
© Mark Catesby

Mark added several unusual species, but the Resplendent Quetzal, considered by many as one of the world’s most beautiful birds, remained a phantom.

“I can’t promise that we can find it,” said local guide Ersel Aguilar. But all held out hope.

Colorful resplendent quetzal, inspiring birders to live life to the fullest with the bird-a-day challenge (Photo © Mark Catesby)

The Resplendent Quetzal lives up to its name.
© Mark Catesby

Then, on the last day of the visit, a call came that the Quetzal had been seen 50 miles away. With mission-critical focus, the group sped to the spot.

The Quetzal was waiting . . . and was, as its name promised, resplendent.

But, then, so were the other 364 birds that Mark recorded in 2013.

Oh, I see.

Resplendence comes in many forms.

Comment on this post below, or inspire insight with your own OIC Moment here.

For more birding information, visit the Audubon Society and Cornell Lab of Ornithology.


8 thoughts on “Live Life to the Fullest with Fine Feathered Friends

  1. Great article. Mark and his sibs are cool dudes. Love it that they all wear the same hat to hide from the birds. Very clever.

    • Thank you for your comments, Maura. They are indeed cool dudes. Their hats are cool, too, but I think they say “Bird-a-Day, which might tip off the birds. Hopefully interpreted as a sign of friendship.

      All the best,


  2. So interesting, Meredith, I really enjoyed reading this. And the photos are beautiful. I too have a friend who did this last year. What a personal accomplishment!

    • Thanks for writing, Lin. I think doing anything every day for a year is a wonderful challenge. And, to come up with such interesting and beautiful new “friends” makes it worthwhile.


    • The Quetzal comes to all who wait … (well, I want to believe that metaphorically).

      Thanks for writing Lynn.


    • Thank you, Susan. I’m sure you know how difficult this challenge can be. Persistence and patience pay off.



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