April 18, 2008
White-tailed Ptarmigan
White-tailed Ptarmigan
You're fascinated by birds.  You're not really a lister, but you're into adventure and questing.  You've just gone for your annual physical and found out you have one year to live.  Here are ten North American birds you must see before you die.  The parenthetical numbers and letters refer to the difficulty of seeing each bird ("1" being the easiest, "5" the most difficult)--and the state where each may most easily be seen.

Black-footed Albatross (4CA)--because this legendary (Rhyme Of The Ancient Mariner) family of birds can fly thousands of miles without a wingbeat, gliding gracefully on long, narrow wings over updrafts from ocean waves.  You'll have to take a pelagic (ocean) trip, the most exciting birding there is because you never know what will appear over that horizon.  Monterey Bay is the best place.

California Condor (3AZ)--because this iconic relic from the Pleistocene is our largest bird and our most dramatic "brink of extinction" restoration.  Now you can stand on the brink of the Grand Canyon and expect to see one during warm weather months..

Prairie Falcon (2AZ)--because this streamlined raptor seems less common now than peregrines, flies nearly as fast (45mph on cruise), and hunts by taking birds in flight.  Look for it around the north face of Camelback Mountain.

White-tailed Ptarmigan (4CO)--because this smallest member of the grouse family is exquisitely evolved to survive in alpine zones above treeline.  Feather molt is timed to match the changing colors of its habitat, and stiff feathers covering the toes act as snowshoes.  But you must see one in winter, all white against the snow.  Try Guanella Pass, Clear Creek County, Colorado.

Ivory Gull (5AK)--because this pure white gull, the ghost of the arctic, is beautiful, rare, and declining (mercury poisoning).  It follows Inuit hunters and polar bears to scavenge their kills, and only rarely appears in the lower forty-eight in winter.  Go to Barrow, Alaska, and hope for good luck.

Great Gray Owl (4WY)--because owls are so special and this is our largest owl, denizen of the north woods south through western mountain meadows.  Yellowstone is a good place to start.

Calliope Hummingbird (3AZ)--because hummingbirds are so special and this is our smallest hummingbird, males sporting candy-striped Fu Manchu throat gorgets.  Calliopes breed at high elevations in the northern Rockies, but are not uncommon in migration in Arizona.  Check the thistle field at Becker Lake near Springerville.  Yes, you need to see the male.  Did you need to ask?

Elegant Trogon (3AZ)--because this is the most spectacular bird in North America and it breeds in the canyons of southeast Arizona.  Spend a weekend in Madera Canyon south of Tucson.

Green Kingfisher (3TX)--because this is our smallest (a petite 8 inches) member in a family of birds that dive headfirst into the water to spear fish with a bill longer than their heads.  Though they can be found in Arizona in the winter, Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge in Texas is the surest place.

Painted Bunting (2TX)--because this common breeder of the south central states is our most colorful bird, red, blue, and yellow-green on the same small palette.  But only on the males.  Catch spring migration along the Texas coast.

Best of luck.  Enjoy the quest.