Natural History Quests

My first natural history “quest”, one pursued by many others as well, was to see 700 species of birds in the continental U. S. and Canada (hereafter, “North America”, even though properly that should also include Mexico through the Panama isthmus). There are about 670 bird species that breed in North America, and a few additional species (mostly oceanic) that regularly migrate through, so to see 700 species is a challenge.

When I began birding at age seven, nobody had yet reached 700, though now over 300 people have done so, and a few have even broken 900 (by pursuing almost every rarity found across the continent). I hit 700 in late 2002 with a Ruddy Ground-Dove in southeast Arizona. Eileen reached 700 on Feb. 11, in Alta, Utah, with the lovely Black Rosy Finch — a fine milestone bird for someone who likes pink so much! (When I met Eileen, each time she did laundry, she had a dark load, a light load, and a pink load – seriously!).

Black Rosy Finch, Alta UT -- ELK's 700th ABA area bird!
Black Rosy Finch, Alta, Utah, Feb. 11, 2016. Eileen’s 700th bird species in North America.

Conifers (pines, spruces, firs, etc.) have always been among our favorite plants, and after publication of Volume 2 of the Flora of North America, we undertook our second quest, to see all 98 species listed therein. We had already encountered about two-thirds of those species when we started the quest, and we finished it 14 years later, in 2007, when we located Baker Cypress in northeast California.

The next year we completed another quest, to see all 22 species of chipmunks in North America. We informally began in 2003 when we sought Palmer’s Chipmunk, our 14th species, which occurs only in the Charleston Mountains of Nevada. The quest was completed in August of 2008, when we found one new species in each of three consecutive days in southeast New Mexico. There are only two other chipmunk species in the world, one in Mexico, and one in Siberia.

Eastern Chipmunk (Tamias striatus), Lake Superior Provincial Park, ON
Eastern Chipmunk, the largest of the 24 chipmunk species in the world.

There have been additional quests in the last decade, but for brevity, I’ll just list the goals we reached: 3,000 bird species worldwide (of about 10,000); 200 North American mammals (of 445); and 3 goals related to native California vascular plants (ferns and above) – 100% of the 162 families, 95% of the 993 genera, and 50% of the 6505 species, subspecies, and varieties.

Eileen and Brian with Wislizenia, Palen Dunes, NE of Desert Center, CA
Eileen and Brian with Wislizenia, our 3253rd native vascular plant in Calif. (50.01%), in 2014.

These quests are really fun for three distinct reasons: (1) We see species we would not otherwise encounter, often as a result of targeted research. (2) Trying to track down new species takes us to areas we would otherwise never see, many of which are fascinating. (3) The searches for the various species are like solving puzzles and are challenging and very rewarding when successful. So upon retiring, it is natural for us to start a few new quests, but what should they be? I’ve had a lot of fun in the past couple months researching this question, and we’ve settled on two, described below. Although there are species I saw before Eileen and I met in 1985, which she has not yet seen, she will catch up on most of these pretty quickly as we travel in retirement. So for simplicity we are basing the quest goals on my computerized natural history records going back to 1975.

The first new project is a logical extension of the family quest we did in California: finding 95% of the 252 native families of vascular plants in North America. This will give us a very broad perspective on the plant biodiversity of the continent. I have already seen 209 of these families, so we will need to find 31 of the remaining 43 to reach 95%. This will be very challenging, because quite a few families have extremely limited occurrence in southern Florida and/or south Texas, with locations confidential and/or not publicly accessible.

The second new challenge is to see 10,000 species (animal or plant) over a lifetime, world-wide. For calibration, there are just about this many species of birds in the world, and a large selection of professionally run tours record hundreds of species in a few weeks. So given enough money and time, it is possible to build up quite a high bird list; slightly over 100 people have seen 5000 species, and 10 people have seen over 8,000. In comparison, tours typically record only tens of mammal species, reflecting both the smaller number of species (about half as many as birds) and the greater difficulty in finding and identifying the many small, nocturnal rodents, bats, etc.

There are virtually no professional tours in other areas of natural history, so to reach 10,000 species, a naturalist almost certainly will have to conduct significant field work on their own, finding and identifying thousands of species without assistance. There are about 19,500 species of native plants in North America, so they clearly provide a good opportunity, but a large percentage of these are actually quite difficult to find and/or identify without intensive research, training, and field work. Although there are a lot of invertebrates, non-vascular plants, and microscopic organisms, there are not many books available that make these groups tractable for amateurs. So I think that reaching 10,000 species is a genuine challenge and a worthwhile quest to undertake.

Once we decided to pursue this goal, the obvious question was how many species we had seen. I guessed it might be near 7500 but had no accurate number. So I’ve recently spent quite a bit of time writing software using the Perl language, to analyze our computerized records, which I’ve really enjoyed. The answer turns out to be … 8522 species! A little over 3000 of these are birds, and somewhat under 400 are mammals. The vast majority of the remainder are plants, though there are also some reptiles, amphibians, butterflies, fish, etc. So we’ll be on the lookout for about 1500 new species once we hit the road. It should be a lot of fun!

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