A personal portfolio
photos D. Roberson & R. Carratello
text by Don Roberson
A long time ago, sometime in the 1980s, John Sterling challenged his local birding friends to meet the challenge of finding at least 100 species of birds in each of California's 58 counties. Those who took up the challenge back then were mostly students at Humboldt State University or their birding friends. The core group called themselves "the vagrants." County listing was not a new idea. Several birders in the 1970s had actively birded in all of the State's counties, including Dick Erickson, Steve Laymon, John Luther, and Rich Stallcup. But Sterling's group was the first semi-organized broadscale county listing endeavor.

In the 1990s, Sterling broadened his challenge to a wider group of California birders by providing a central hub for county listing efforts. He compiled complete county lists as best he could, he created spreadsheets of lists and listers, and he started providing colored maps to participants. One had to reach a minimum of 100 in a county to get a color the first color was a cool purple. After that, the colors changed at each 25 bird plateau: blue for 125, green for 150, yellow for 175, red for 200. After that cross-hatching replaced colors at 25/bird increments until 250 (orange-red), at which times increments grew larger (nothing between 300-400) and 400 was black. In other words, one started cool, warmer up with more species, got really hot at 200/species and beyond, and burned to a crisp over 400. [Only a handful of birders have over 400 in any county; most are in San Diego, Monterey, Marin, or Humboldt counties but almost every coastal county has at least one 400 county-lister.]. A set of maps of 8 observers, as of 15 October 2000, is below.

The maps of the 4 leaders at the time (Oct 2000) are the 4 left-hand set; the 4 on the right are various others with fewer county birders. The top two maps (upper left) show John Luther and John Sterling Luther was then nearing 200 in every county (and would be the first to break that barrier within a couple of years).

In winter 1996-1997, I spent hours digging through my field notes to create a spreadsheet of what I had seen in my California state birding since the late 1960s. I have decent notes for most birding trips, although sometimes very common birds were not mentioned. My rule was that it had to be in my notes to go on my spreadsheet, and some birds that I surely must have seen (e.g., Red-tailed Hawk in Modoc Co.) are still not on my list because I never wrote them down. My wife, Rita Carratello, first got interested when she saw the brightly colored maps. She's a teacher, and called this a "mystery motivator" [you never know what will motivate some people]. Our first birding trip aimed at this type of "county listing" was in July 1997, to El Dorado, Alpine, and Amador.

My own map from Oct 2000 is upper right (above). By the time of this map, Rita & I had done a northern California swing through Lassen, Modoc, and Siskiyou, and a fair bit of effort in some foothill counties. Mostly in shows however, that I had birded a lot in the California deserts and coast in the 1970s (searching for State birds and rarities), and that there were still ten counties in which I had not reached 100. It became a mild goal of both Rita and me to fill in our maps completely with at least 100 in each county.

Since the turn of the 21st century, interest in county birding has blossomed substantially. Many folks now play Sterling's 'county game.' Steve Rovell established a "county listers" (now "county birders") chat line to quickly spread information about good sites in obscure counties. Joe Morlan's web site provided links, statistics, and information on each county.  I recall telling Jim Lomax about the game in April 1997, while we were waiting for a Common Black-Hawk to appear near the north end of the Salton Sea (it never did), and he thought that might be an interesting thing to do when he retired in the then near-future. He has since become a maniac at the game and is about #3 in the game right now. Rita and I continued to do the occasional county listing trip, usually in mid-summer and winter, as we prefer to remain local in Monterey County during spring and fall migration (where we are both members of the Monterey 400 club).

In any event, the goal of 100 in each California county remained a small goal in my birding, much less important than seeing new State birds, or new Monterey County birds, or even new World birds. My recent focus has been on birding the world and finding representatives of each of the ~224 bird families. I also wanted to get to 5000 birds in the world half of the earth's birds and reached that goal in July 2005.

Yet the 100-in-each-county remained something else to accomplish, and it did require one to visit many new places in California. For me, that goal was reached on 21 June 2006, in this county (right) . . . .

It was at this spot (left) along Road 10 in Plumas County, heading toward Echo Lake, at about 5800' elevation in nice montane forests . . .
. . And with this bird (right): Red-breasted Sapsucker. This particular sapsucker proved to be exactly #100 in my 58th California county. [It flew a second later, so this is a lucky shot.]
So my map finally is all colored in and looks like this (left). At least 26 others had previously accomplished this goal. Many are now working toward 125 or 150 in each county [Steve Glover reached the 150 level not long ago and captioned his posting "Green, Glorious Green!"] or more. John Luther has over 200 in every county and John Sterling will soon break that barrier as well. But the game is really geared to those who live close to the many small Gold Rush counties in the Sierran foothills. Sacramento, Stockton, or east S.F. Bay are good places to live for this type of county birding. It is really difficult for someone living in southern California to work on all the counties surrounding the Sacramento Valley, while, in contrast, most birders can hit 100 in most southern California counties in a day at any season (especially the coastal ones). Indeed, coastal counties get rather little focus in this game which is partly what makes the game attractive to some birders. For years, coastal counties have gotten all the glory because they have the vast majority of vagrants. This game flips that focus. It was a bit of a struggle for those of us living in coastal Monterey county, since it is 8+ hours drive to many of the northern tier counties, and rising petrol prices don't help.

Some years back, Luke Cole did a hilarious analysis of everyone's map, finding oddities and eccentricities galore. I was credited with "the most colorful map" in that I had every possible color and cross-hatching possibility shown on my map. I rather like that title, and my goal is to maintain it. I have no desire to upgrade all the remote mountain counties to blue or green or yellow. I am happy to have a smattering of color across the State. I would like to upgrade a few things, such as reach 300 in Marin (currently 295) or 300 in Inyo (currently 289). And I'll keep county birding in the lesser known counties until Rita also colors in her map (she's just four counties away).

I prefer to continue to focus on Monterey County, and to look for rarities and pelagics, without overlooking just how much fun it is to visit new places and see new things. This silly game has provided me an opportunity to learn much about the distribution of California birds, and to enjoy many spectacular places that I would have otherwise missed. But thanks to John Sterling and the merry men and women of "county birders" chat line, I've piled up many good memories. Some of them I share photographically in my "California counties" on-line project [a gallery aimed at personally photographing several birds in every county.] Many thanks to all!

All photos & text © 2006 Don Roberson; all rights reserved.





Page created 13 July 2006