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Minnesota woman ranks high in 'big year' birding spree

Duluth's Laura Erickson, seen here in 2011, went on a birding spree called a "big year" in 2013, criss-crossing the country to identify as many species of birds as she could. (Bob King / Duluth News Tribune)

DULUTH -- She happened onto a diamondback rattlesnake in Oklahoma while looking for a black-capped vireo. She got stuck in a snowbank in Arizona's mountains seeking a Mexican chickadee. Shortly after spying a Colima warbler in the Rio Grande Valley of Texas, she watched a mountain lion pass within 20 feet of her.

Duluth's Laura Erickson went on a birding spree called a "big year" in 2013, criss-crossing the country to identify as many species of birds as she could. She tallied 593 species, ranking her second for 2013 among birders reporting big-year totals for the American Birding Association's Lower 48 states list. The total ranks her fifth all-time on the ABA's list for most species reported in a year in the Lower 48 states.

"I just had so much fun. It was so intense," said Erickson, who hosts the popular "For the Birds" radio program. "When you're seeing so many kinds of birds over such a concentrated period, you really get quicker and better."

Erickson, 62, said she traveled to more than 23 states, took seven flights for birding trips and went birding at least 250 days last year. She called her quest a "conservation big year," emphasizing that she focused more on seeing endangered and declining species in their normal ranges rather than chasing rare birds that don't often show up in the U.S.

Erickson's big-year count is impressive, said Jim Lind of Two Harbors, who coordinates Duluth's annual Christmas Bird Count.

"... 593 is way more than I've seen in 25-plus years of birding," Lind said, "and it certainly is quite an accomplishment for a single year. She had to have done a serious amount of planning to hit most of the hot spots around the country at the right time of year."

In addition to producing her radio program, Erickson is the author of several books on birding and was science editor for Cornell University's Lab of Ornithology for two years.

According to birding protocol, a species can be counted toward a big-year total if it's seen and identified in the wild and is part of a self-sustaining -- not introduced -- population. Erickson saw a California condor during her big year, too, but it didn't count because it was a released bird.

Gratifying as the big year was, Erickson said she wouldn't do one again.

"It was exhausting," she said.

She spent many nights sleeping in her Toyota Prius and was welcomed to stay with birders she knew across the country. Twice, she joined birding tours led by Duluth's Kim Eckert.

"I couldn't have done the big year without Kim Eckert," Erickson said. "There are some birds that are hard to see without an organized group and a blind. He's just incredible as a birding guide, and his trips are very affordable."

Erickson took lots of photos during the year.

"The most impressive thing was her photography," Eckert said. "She actually spent more time photographing things than looking at them. She's a very good photographer."

One day, Erickson was doing a 12-mile hike alone in the rain and drizzle in Big Bend National Park in Texas when she encountered the mountain lion.

"He was really close, like 15 or 20 feet," Erickson said. "He raced across a path in front of me. I didn't hear a sound. Suddenly this golden cat's head drifted across the trail in front of me with this golden cat body and this long tail. I thought, 'Holy crap -- a mountain lion.' "

That's the last she saw of the cat. Earlier in the hike, she spotted the Colima warbler. Many of the species she saw are found only in one specific habitat in the country. Birders doing a big year must travel to those places and hope conditions are favorable for seeing the species.

While Erickson's total count for her Lower 48 big year are impressive, birders who travel to all of North America can see many more species. A Massachusetts birder named Neil Hayward tallied 750 species last year in North America, according to the ABA. If all of his sightings are upheld by the ABA, Hayward's total will break the previous record of 748 species in one year.

The record for a big year in the Lower 48 states is 704 species, Erickson said, and two other birders have totals in the 600s, she said.

The ABA offers no prizes or awards for birders who rank high on its big-year lists. Doing a big year was just something Erickson had wanted to do.

"One guy's doing a big year by bicycle," she said. "It all depends on what you love doing."