What To Read: Ken Lamberton is birding in pajamas

This week, we interviewed Ken Lamberton, who writes The Big Yard, a publication that documents, in words and photos, every bird species that comes to his yard.

This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

What’s your Substack about in one sentence?

The Big Yard concerns my ramblings about and photography of the birds that have been visiting my yard during the pandemic.

What makes your area, and your yard specifically, such a bird magnet?

Birdwatchers think of southeast Arizona as paradise for its nearly 500 species of resident and migrating birds. What makes this wonderland possible is our diversity of landscapes – from deserts to grasslands to coniferous forests, together with our river corridors and “sky islands” that act as a bridge between the Rocky Mountains to the north and Mexico’s Sierra Madre Occidental.

My yard sits in the middle of this, tucked into an oak-draped canyon in the Mule Mountains near Bisbee, Arizona, a few miles from Mexico. Over the years, I’ve added feeding stations and planted bird-friendly gardens. During the pandemic, I decided to do more, building nest boxes and water features, partly in competition with other birdwatchers and their yards. The water feature has proved astonishing, near-miraculous, in the way it draws birds to the yard. Birds I’ve never seen before in my life (aka “life birds”), like Hermit Warblers and Fox Sparrows and Gray Catbirds. Birds unrecorded in the Mule Mountains. With the recent addition of a gorgeous Northern Parula (life bird), the yard now stands at 164 species … and counting!

All I do is sit and watch (yes, it’s the pandemic). But I’m coming to believe in a quantum effect: that if I say the name, the bird will appear.

Headlines over the past year have declared birding a trend on the rise. What’s the appeal of birding to you? 

The biggest appeal of birdwatching for me is that it takes no special equipment or knowledge.  You can bird without binoculars! Just sit in your yard and watch and listen. Pay attention. 

I first learned the names of birds by their songs. As I wanted to know more, I borrowed binoculars from friends and checked out bird guides from my library. I downloaded the eBird and Merlin apps on my phone. I joined free local bird walks and went with friends on birding tours. The challenge of seeing birds and identifying them is both rewarding and addicting, so be warned. But there’s also a wonderful community of like-minded people out there enjoying nature.

You describe your project as “the evolution of a lister.” What’s a lister, and how are you evolving?

A lister is an extreme birdwatcher – a person who sees birding less as enjoying the natural world and more as a competitive sport. See Mark Obmascik’s book The Big Year, or the movie by the same title. Listers mostly attempt to check off as many county, state, or life birds as they can, and they chase every “rare bird alert,” sometimes traveling thousands of miles for a chance to add something rare to their life list.

I began my project as a wannabe lister, chasing reported rare birds in places like the Chiricahua Mountains (driving a hundred miles for a Crescent-chested Warbler and Eared Quetzal, where I met a man from Wisconsin and a woman who flew there three times from Boston) and the Willcox Twin Lakes (another hundred miles for a Black Tern, which wasn’t there when I arrived). But as I began to understand the environmental costs, like the carbon I added to the atmosphere simply to check off a bird, I started having misgivings. At first, I called myself an “unapologetic lister.” Then an “impenitent lister.” But finally, with the weight of all those tailpipe emissions pressing down on me, I gave up the chase and settled into the comfort of my own yard to watch birds. I now title my posts “The Evolution of a Pajama Lister.”

What’s changed about birding over the decades you’ve been doing it?

In a word, technology. When I started watching birds decades ago, we had field guides and binoculars; one friend had a spotting scope I drooled over. Then came “digi-scoping”: photographing birds with a digital camera through a spotting scope. Before smartphones and computers, birdwatchers reported rare birds by calling a phone tree. 

These days, I get rare-bird reports in my email inbox. I keep my yard list (“The Big Yard”) on eBird, an online database of bird observations that provides scientists, researchers, and amateur naturalists with real-time data about bird distribution and abundance. Created by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, eBird stores every bird I’ve ever seen (with photos I’ve taken and songs I’ve recorded) and allows me to access information about my birds and all birds reported by birdwatchers across the planet.

Recently I’ve discovered Merlin, a photo and sound ID birding app. With my phone, I can take a photo of an unfamiliar bird and Merlin will identify it for me. I can turn on the sound ID and Merlin will list every bird around me it “hears.” I don’t need binoculars! My obsession with birds has reached new heights.

I’m coming to believe in a quantum effect: that if I say the name, the bird will appear.

Is there a particular bird you’ve never seen but hope to glimpse one day?

My greatest hope – and I’m already sending out quantum vibes – is to see and photograph a Yellow Grosbeak, a very rare bird even for southeast Arizona (we have five records). I could chase one when I get the next rare-bird report about one visiting someone’s feeder. But I won’t. Because I’m expecting to see a Yellow Grosbeak in my yard.

Who’s another Substack writer you’d recommend?

I recommend checking out my friend Gregory McNamee’s World Bookcase, which is about geography, travel, food, history, anthropology, language, and more.

Subscribe to Ken’s publication, The Big Yard, and find him on Twitter and his website.