Taking birding to extremes: A fine madness

Jim McCausland

For Dr. Steve Mlodinow, the annual time tally looks like this: 100 days birding, 10 days writing a birding column, more days working on a new birding book (he's already written two)—oh, and a full-time family medical practice in Everett, Washington. Somewhere along the line, the notion of birding as a hobby flew the coop.

It started when Mlodinow was a toddler—his junior high–age brothers joined a birding club, and he wanted to do what they did—and continued on and off until repeated injuries turned his interests from ultimate Frisbee back to serious birding.

Very serious birding, in fact: the kind that's taken him over most of the United States, including Alaska, to find one more rare bird, something not yet on his encyclopedic U.S. life list. (A "life list" is a record of all the birds you've ever seen in your state, country, or continent. It's theoretically possible to see about 900 species of birds in the continental United States and Canada, and Mlodinow has checked off 744 of them.)

"I'm less interested in lists these days," he told us, "because the length of your list is so much a function of money spent, your time alive, and luck. These days, I'm more focused on finding vagrant birds." It's an engaging specialty. Most birds have pretty predictable ranges: a species might breed in central Canada, for example, migrate down the East Coast, cross the Gulf, and winter in Venezuela. When you see such a bird on the Washington coast, you know that the bird's navigational system has probably gone amiss.

Mlodinow collects records of vagrants sighted by birders throughout Washington and Oregon and publishes them in a quarterly technical journal, North American Birds. But he doesn't just wait for the rare-bird reports to roll in. "Finding rare birds is way more exciting than going out to see what somebody else has spotted."

How does he do it? "It's being in the right place at the right time. I go to the dry parts of eastern Washington in May/June, then again in August/September. If you're a migrating songbird in need of rest, you look for clumps of trees, and there aren't many in the Columbia Basin. So I go to a town like Vantage and glass the trees, where I've found everything from blackpoll warbler to Harris's sparrow."

At this point, Mlodinow has images in his head of most North American birds, but he still takes the National Geographic Field Guide to the Birds of North America and The Sibley Guide to Birds with him into the field. He favors Swarovski optics (10x42 EL binoculars and a 20x–60x zoom scope) and uses a Panasonic digital video camera with 20x optical zoom. "The qualityof digital video is astounding," Mlodinow says. "Holding it up to my spotting scope, I documented a recognizable Arctic loon at three-fourths of a mile." The documentation part is important. It's as easy to claim that you spotted a rare bird as it is to brag about a fish that got away. But pictures settle any argument.

If time and politics allow, he'd like to bird in four places: South Africa; Kenya; Beidaihe, on China's Yellow Sea; and Elat, Israel. But there's another book to finish (he's co-authoring Birds of Washington, due out in fall 2004), patients to see, and the possibility of finding an oddball Eastern warbler, or perhaps even a Ross's gull, if he can just make the time, and be in the right place, and have a little luck.