County Birding – a Niche Worth Exploring
If you are familiar with the hobby of Birding, then chances are good you may keep a “Life List,” or a list of all the species you have seen. Maybe you even keep a state-level version of the list, or even a year list. For many birders, this may be the extent of their listing at any given time, but for some birders, the listing goes further: County Listing! It’s pretty much what it sounds like. Birders keep a list of all the species they observe for each county they visit in a given region. For some, the region might be rather small, perhaps 3 counties close to home. For others, like me, County Birding plays in when I travel to another region, or chase a bird for one of my other lists. For a few, County Birding is a rewarding passion and the number one way to enjoy the hobby!
Although County Listing might appear rather niche on the surface, taking a backseat to the more popular forms of listing, I believe it plays an incredibly important, yet uncelebrated role in the birding community. I would also argue that County Birding can reignite the excitement of seeing familiar birds, when state level listing, or life listing slows down. After all, it is a game of diminishing returns!
I decided to do something different with my blog. It’s fun to recount my own personal experiences and put in my own two-cents on birding topics, but for this one (I’m likely to do something like this again), I decided to ask other Michigan Birders for their thoughts, advice and stories on County Birding. I submitted a County Birding questionnaire to the Michigan County Birding group on Facebook. I received several incredibly well-written, captivating responses from Michigan Birders. I am hoping to capture a glimpse of the excitement and fulfilment County Birding can bring to the table with these responses.
A huge thanks to Andrew Simon, Brendan Klick, Brian Beauchene, Daryl Bernard and Jeff Kunitzer for taking the time to respond. I’ve made no changes to their answers, since these words are their own, and not mine. I had such a great time reading these responses, and I hope you find them informative, humorous and chalk-filled with advice! Here goes!
What or who inspired you to begin County Birding?
Andrew: I would say that my county birding started as a combination of things. Not only was it a great way to fill in day trips during rare bird chases, but also something to do when local birding is slow. When I saw my map start to fill in, that was an added bonus as well, as I loved changing the color of my eBird maps and filling in my map.
Brendan: I have been into birding for a long time but got into county birding more in last few years, especially after seeing some of the big lists some of the great Michigan birders have compiled like Scott Jennex, Karl Overman, Doug McWhirter, and Tom and Jeff Pavlik.
Brian: It was eBird‘s fault! Since every sighting in eBird is tied to a county, it is perfectly suited to woo people to start county birding. Jeff Stacey is the one who pushed me relentlessly to use eBird, and eventually he convinced me. Now I’m on a 142 day checklist streak…thanks Jeff…lol. The funny thing is, among my hardcore birder friends, that’s not even a very high number.
Daryl: I’m not sure exactly, but eBird certainly played a major role by neatly organizing all of my Michigan county bird sightings. Looking at some of the eBird state/county maps of birders like Jerry Ziarno, Myles McNally, Scott Jennex, and others inspired me to go down the county birding rabbit hole as well.
Jeff: There were two things that got me interested in County Birding. One was me getting tired of birding at all my usual haunts in Kent County. The other was a chance meeting with Myles McNally at Caledonia WWT (back when there was free access). We got to talking about county birding and I remember him saying, “Even a Robin is a county bird.”
How do you plan your birding in a target county, and what resources do you use to target species or areas?
Andrew: I use mostly eBird when planning my county birding, but seek out local knowledge when necessary. I usually plan my trips in several ways. Every year I pick a county or two to focus on that year, with the ultimate goal of getting them to 200 species total. On weekends that other rare or state birds don’t need to be chased, I’ll travel to those selected counties to work on my lists. When there’s birds somewhere in the state that take precedence over county birding, I’ll tack on some county birding where those rarities are as a bonus to catching the rarity. On the unwanted occasions when I dip on the rarity, county birding acts as a sort of consolation prize.
Brendan: Ebird mostly with help from Facebook.
Brian: It’s always about the habitat. I hear that early morning birding is good, but I wouldn’t know since I’m not a morning person. But I like to think about what time of day I’m going to be in certain habitats. For example, on a sunny 90 degree day, you don’t want to be on the beach all day, and on a still muggy evening, you don’t want to be in a swamp…unless it’s really chilly. eBird is the tool I use to plan my trips, I can easily see what birds have been seen by others, when, where, how many…and if I’ve ever seen those birds before (as if I don’t remember).
Daryl: I use eBird to generate a list of target species for the county/month. Then I start looking at where those birds have been reported in that county. I like to bird hotspots, but many counties (northern in particular) are underbirded, so I also spend a lot of time looking at Google maps in search of potential spots that don’t have any eBird reports (sewage ponds, boat launches, rural fields, pine stands, parks, forest service roads, etc.). I use mob-rule.com to check the exact location of county lines so I know I am “in bounds” when birding. I will often contact local birders or those who have gone before me for more detailed intel. I develop a route itinerary – usually overly ambitious – but I like to have a plan!
I use eBird to generate a list of target species for the county/month
Jeff: I generally look at my target list on eBird to get a feeling for the birds I need. Then if it’s a lot of common birds I look at eBird hotspots and Google Maps to look for places with a variety of habitat and lots of places to walk. I generally don’t like hit and run birding where I spend a short time at one place and drive to the next. I generally prefer longer time/walks at a few places. I know I get fewer birds this way, but it’s a much more enjoyable experience for me. And I’m often leaving my house at 4:00am or earlier and driving several hours to get to my first location, so I’m quite ready to be out of my Jeep by then.
What are some staple items to bring while County Birding?
Andrew: My staples are often the same as regular birding trips; bins, camera, food, scope, etc. The only thing I come with that I don’t on normal birding trips is a list of target species and locations to hit.
Brendan: Camera, binoculars, food and of course lots of insect repellent
Brian: Binoculars, a spotting scope and camera are no brainers…food-wise, potato chips, trail mix, and Red Bull are always staples.
Daryl: Binoculars, of course! Scope if I think it will be useful. iPhone for eBirding and for maps. Clipboard with target species and route itinerary. Food and beverages – most of my county birding trips are full day adventures, and I don’t want to waste time at restaurants or convenience stores. Bug spray (in season). Michigan county atlas – much of northern Michigan is without reliable cell service. A range of clothing – especially in winter and the shoulder seasons. Subaru Outback – the perfect vehicle for forest service two tracks, and doubles as a place to sleep for overnight birding trips.
Be open to finding birds wherever you are.
Jeff: Binoculars, scope, tripod, camera, Muck Boots, rain gear, layers of clothing based on the season, a cooler of food, and a travel mug of coffee. And sometimes dark sunglasses, half a pack of cigarettes and a full tank of gas. Hit it!
How or what do you use to keep track of your county records and lists?
Andrew: eBird is the base of my county birding, but I also have a large spreadsheet in Excel that I track all of my county lists, month lists, state list by year, self found list and my MOO list (Michigan, Ontario and Ohio).
Brendan: Only ebird.
Brian: 100% eBird
Daryl: eBird of course – I record every bird sighting in eBird. I supplement that with a number of detailed Excel spreadsheets to keep track of all my various lists. I usually update these in the evening after returning home.
Jeff: I use eBird for all my checklists and eBird automatically keeps track of my County Birds. I also maintain a separate Excel list for every county and every month, with the target of getting 50+ birds in every county and every month.
What is your favorite bird or experience while County Birding?
Andrew: I honestly don’t know if I have a favorite bird or experience while county birding. One that stands out is November of 2017 when I chased the Fork-tailed Flycatcher in Menominee County. I took a long weekend, saw the bird on the last day it was seen, and county birded my way to Paradise. That same day, Michigan’s first Sagebrush Sparrow was seen at Whitefish Point. I was lucky to be there already and managed to see this insane record. Another highlight was in November of 2020 when my friends Cliff and Vikki Jones and I traveled all the way to Copper Harbor for a state first Cassin’s Finch and bonus Sage Thrasher and county birded our way home. We filled in a lot of new counties in the Upper Peninsula and had some great experiences in this whirlwind two day trip.
I’ve got a real appreciation for finding House Sparrow and European Starling.
Brendan: The satisfaction of reaching 200 species in some far from home counties such as Berrien and Muskegon.
Brian: Seeing a Wood Stork last year (2020) at Shiawassee NWR was something I don’t think I could ever forget. I had never seen one before, and the looks that I got of that bird were outstanding, plus there are always bonus birds at a place like that.
Daryl: Tracking down target birds – even relatively common birds – is so much fun. Puzzling out a county to find specific habitats which will then lead to specific birds is one of my favorite aspects of birding.
Jeff: My favorite experiences are the camping trips in the UP in all four seasons and seeing all the different birds that are quite uncommon or impossible to see downstate.
What is your favorite county for birding?
Andrew: My bias says Macomb, my home county is my favorite. However if I’m being realistic, my top 3 are St. Clair, Sanilac and Monroe Counties.
Brendan: I love the southern counties, Berrien in particular, as well the Saginaw Bay Region especially Bay and Arenac.
Brian: Monroe is my home away from home county. Many of the birds we don’t get in Wayne county can be found there, and it’s paradise for ducks, gulls, and shorebirds.
I love the southern counties.
Daryl: I enjoy birding all of Michigan’s 83 counties – though I prefer to avoid heavily populated areas – particularly southeast Michigan. My favorite direction to travel is north. My favorite county in which to bird is probably Leelanau – it’s beautiful, has plenty of fantastic trails, and has miles of Lake Michigan shoreline.
Jeff: I have two favorites: Kent and Chippewa. Kent because it’s my home county. Even though it’s an inland county I have a chance to chase every rarity that shows up here and it’s my highest county with 260 so far. Chippewa because there’s always a chance of finding something unusual. Two unexpected birds I got there were Lark Sparrow and Eurasian Tree Sparrow. And Chippewa is just close enough that I can make it there and back on the same day.
How has county birding enhanced your skills as a birder overall?
Andrew: How hasn’t it enhanced my skills! In many counties that are under-birded, you have to learn the habits and habitats of birds and where to find them on your own, instead of relying on others to do the dirty work for you. County Birding has made me much more aware of habitats, time of year and behavior of various species in order to help myself in finding them.
Brendan: County birding has definitely improved my birding skills. Since I travel very far to distant counties I have really needed to work hard on bird songs and calls including Empidonax calls because you may only get one opportunity to hear a distant flycatcher or warbler. Also, since many counties are only lightly birded, you got to know habitats well to know where to look.
Brian: It teaches you the connection between species and habitat. If you’re always birding in your own county, you will likely have a place you go for grassland species, shorebirds, etc…but when you strip away the familiarity of favorite places, you learn how to find birds within a habitat and ecosystem, which will help you out regardless of the county you’re birding in.
Daryl: County birding has enhanced my birding skills by forcing me to tune in to habitat and season to find specific birds. I feel like I can look at just about any county on Google maps and know what I can expect to find there. Still, there are always surprises!
Jeff: I’ve gotten a real appreciation for finding House Sparrow and European Starling.
Andrew: Have fun! Start close to home and work your way out. Start county birding in addition to other travels. If you’re chasing a rarity, county bird your way home after. On vacation? County bird. You’ll get hooked quick!
On Vacation? County bird. You’ll get hooked quick!
What tips do you have for someone new to County Birding?
Brendan: Just get out there. There lots of under-birded spots in Michigan.
Brian: The most important thing is to get lots of lifer (did I say that?)…I mean have fun. Don’t focus in too sharply on any specific places or target birds. Be ready to stop somewhere on the way to your destinations, and be open to finding birds wherever you are. Even a Rest Area can be a good place to look for birds, just be careful if people are around…not everyone goes to Rest Areas to pee or look for birds.
Daryl: Set some goals, use eBird, make a plan, and go birding! Be prepared to put a few (thousand) more miles on your car. Also – join the Michigan County Birding Facebook group!
Jeff: Have fun exploring the state!
That’s the end of the questionnaire. I chose to drop two questions, which were very fun but not as informative, for the sake keeping the reading content manageable. I use several SEO plugins that rate my blogposts before publishing, and I was getting a poor score for article length. I want this particular article to turn up frequently on search engines like Google and Firefox, and a poor score means this article would be hard to discover.
If you’ve never heard of County Birding, you’re scouring the internet learning how to be better at it or even if you’re just here to support my blog, I hope you’ve found some tidbits of wisdom and entertainment from this Q&A. County Birding opens up a door for many new possibilities! It is also an extremely important source of fresh data for ornithologists analyzing checklists from users of eBird or iNaturalist. Get out there and Happy (County) Birding!