Given a less than favorable weather forecast, Georgia birder Charlie Bostwick popped up and quickly “twitched” through Tulsa on Thursday — not unlike the birds for which he searched.
Knowledge of a bird called a Smith’s longspur, reports from local birders and help from online apps brought this naturalist-turned architect/builder from Atlanta to Tulsa to find a single bird species that now is part of a checklist of 700 he plans to “twitch off” as part of his 2020 Big Year.
A lot of lingo most people don’t understand and little birds most don’t even know exist help to boost local economies across the country, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The agency’s most recent report notes that bird watchers annually spend $14.9 billion nationally on food, lodging and transportation.
“Twitch” is a birder term — the proper use of which even birders sometimes debate — that refers particularly to traveling birders who are ticking, or twitching, birds off a list.
A Big Year is something most people know from the 2011 movie featuring Steve Martin, Jack Black and Owen Wilson in comical competition to claim bird watching fame. But it is a real goal with records and guidelines set by the American Birding Association. The all-time record for North America, including Hawaii, is 839 species, according to the ABA. The record for a worldwide effort is 6,852.
This year, Bostwick will leave his Atlanta home to look for birds from New York to Hawaii to Alaska — possibly twice to Alaska, he said.
An architect and developer who said he was an environmentalist first, Bostwick said his company focuses on environmentally friendly building and community master planning. He noted that he is purchasing carbon points to offset his travel.
His first Big Year stop outside what is his eastern U.S. home range was Tulsa on a quest to find the Smith’s longspur, a brownish-gray bird that lives in wide-open grassy areas but winters only in a small range in the central U.S. It is a bit larger than a sparrow but smaller than a robin.
There are four species of longspurs, named for a long claw on the hind toe of each foot. All four species winter in Oklahoma, but the Smith’s was of particular interest to Bostwick because in the spring it migrates farther and has a narrower range than the others. It nests in the northern reaches of Canada and Alaska.
Bostwick hoped to see the chestnut-collared and the Lapland longspurs at the Wichita Mountains National Wildlife Refuge later in the week and planned to find the McCown’s longspur as he and his wife traveled on south to visit her family in Texas.
He also planned to stop by Lake Hefner in Oklahoma City to twitch some loons, he said.
Thanks to a couple of online apps and reports from local birders, Bostwick and his wife, Marsi Bostwick, and pound-puppy Penny — named for the “Big Bang” TV show character — were in and out of Tulsa in less than two hours.
“I would have liked to have spent two days here, but with this weather and the rain in the forecast, … I’ve got what I was looking for, so it’s probably best to go,” he said.
For Bostwick, the Big Year is a personal quest — a goal to top 700 birds in one year, he said.
“I did a practice or casual Big Year last year and wondered if I could get 500, and I ended up with 607, so I thought if can do it trying but not trying hard — not really getting serious until April — I thought if I can start this year in January I can do it,” he said.
Apps like E-Bird and Birdseye Hotspot plot bird sightings on maps by time, species and GPS location. That’s how Bostwick zeroed in on Tulsa, and he hit the jackpot just a mile from Tulsa International Airport.
On the Birdseye app on his phone he selected the species name and set a location with a 5-mile radius, and up popped four dots around the field in which he stood. Each dot showed a reported sighting time and date within the past week.
“It might have been the same person reporting a few times,” he said. “It almost feels like cheating, but I make a point of studying hard and learning all the birds.”
As they walked the field, small pale brownish-gray birds popped up from the long, yellow Bermuda grass and rusty colored bunch grasses. They would flit on the wind for a few seconds and disappear in a blink into the deep grass again.
Despite carrying a Nikon camera described by birders as one of the fastest-focusing for catching birds in flight, the bird’s speed and erratic flight, along with the gray weather, made it impossible to catch even an identifying image — much less an artistic one.
“I actually would have said it was only 90% sure on the ID if I hadn’t heard them call,” he said. “They have a distinct call when they take flight. If I hadn’t heard that, it would have been really hard.”