Bird Blitz - 2018

Essay by Dan O'Brien, Photos by Jill O'Brien

I didn’t know this until a week ago, but every year The Nature Conservancy organizes a bird count on the lands that they protect by either outright ownership or through conservation easements. Our ranch is protected from development or exploitation by a TNC conservation easement so we are eligible to participate in what they call the "Bird Blitz". The idea is to count as many bird species as possible in a twenty-four hour period. This year the day of the Blitz was May 18.

Wilson Phalarope

The idea of counting birds on lands with a dedication to conservation intrigued me. But, sadly, I was hampered by two issues; first, there was no way that I could dedicate anywhere near twenty-fours to such a project and second, I am not a skilled birder.

Sharp Shinned hawk

My knowledge of birds is very pedestrian. I can recognize some of the more common birds by sight but have no ability to identify birds by their songs. (Sometime in the last fifty years, identifying birds by their songs came into vogue. The young people got really good at it but my hearing was so poor by then that I was left behind.)


But still, I wanted to give it a try so I dedicated a few hours in the morning strictly to bird counting. I called into work and told them I’d be late. I set my alarm for five o’clock instead of six.

Bullock's Oriole

Turns out, I didn’t need the alarm. My senses must have been tuned to birds because, for the first time this year, I was awoken by the chattering of the female kestrel in the nest box thirty feet from my open window. She was being fed by her mate who hung on the side of the bird-box and offered her what looked like part of a mouse.


It had rained hard the night before so the world seemed extra fresh as I settled into my favorite chair with a cup of coffee and took the time to study our birdfeeder. There was a mini blizzard of goldfinches and pine siskins around the Niger seed feeder. Redwing black birds battered with common grackles for sunflower seeds. I scribbled down their names on a beat-up pocket notebook.

Gold Finches

I was outside doing my morning chores before six o’clock. Instead of rushing through bringing my horse, Winchester, in from the pasture and tossing grain to the homing pigeons, I took my time. Killdeer scurried across the bare ground in front of me and barn swallows stooped at the first raft of mosquitoes to raise up after the rain. The bird dogs were bouncing in their kennels, surprised at the early start of our morning walk.

Upland Sandpiper

Again I took my time. Instead of three miles we set off on a six mile loop that took us along the edge of the pasture where the buffalo were grazing. Brown headed cow birds (more properly called buffalo birds) rolled to stay ahead of the moving herd.

Buffalo Birds

They were watching for the insects that the buffalo hooves stirred up as they moved. Lark buntings by the dozens whirred along the fence lines and long-billed curlews drew the dogs away from their nests with mournful cat-calls and Oscar worthy impersonations of crippled, easy to catch birds. I marked them all down in the notebook.


I needed one of those sharp eared young ornithologist to help me with the raft of small sparrow-like birds that exploded from the grass. I couldn’t identify many of them, but that imaginary young ornithologist could have sorted them out of the cacophony of bird songs rising from the grass all around me. The playa was full from the night’s rain and several species of ducks chortled about in ecstasy.


The dogs and I made the entire circle of a buffalo pasture and came back to the ranch after eight-thirty. It was an hour’s drive to town and the Wild Idea office so I knew I had to go. My 2018 Bird Blitz was over but I made myself a promise. I would not wait an entire year before I would bird blitz again!

The Bird List

  1. Brown thrasher
  2. Blue-winged teal
  3. Brown-headed cowbird
  4. Brewer’s blackbird
  5. Blue jay
  6. Black-headed grosbeak
  7. Barn swallow
  8. Bullock's Oriole
  9. Burrowing owl
  10. Common grackle
  11. Cliff swallow
  12. Canada goose
  13. Common Crow
  14. Downy woodpecker
  15. Dickcissel
  16. Eurasian collared dove
  17. Eastern kingbird
  18. English sparrow
  19. Great blue heron
  20. Gold finch
  21. Harry woodpecker
  22. Kestrel
  23. Killdeer
  24. Long-billed curlew
  25. Lark bunting
  26. Lark sparrow
  27. Mourning dove
  28. Meadow lark (western)
  29. Mallard duck
  30. Pine siskin
  31. Pin tail duck
  32. Red-winged blackbird
  33. Red-tailed hawk
  34. Robin
  35. Red-headed woodpecker
  36. Shoveler duck
  37. Say’s phoebe
  38. Sharp-shinned hawk
  39. Sharp-tailed grouse
  40. Spotted towhee
  41. Tree swallow
  42. Turkey (wild)
  43. Upland sandpiper
  44. Wilson’s phalarope
  45. Western horned lark
  46. White crowned sparrow
  47. Western kingbird
  48. Yellow-headed blackbird
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  • I’ve often wondered if those birds that follow the Bison were cow birds…Now I know!! Thanks, Dan!!

  • I’m far from a great birder, but I do enjoy watching birds and identifying them. I loved your essay and marveled at your list of birds. Your essay is a beautiful description of the joys of early morning on the prairie.
    Thank you for it.

    Barbara Tabbert
  • What a wonderful way to start your day! That was quite a list and shows you don’t need to be a regular birder to “see.” I enjoy spending my early mornings on the porch watching my birds but don’t see quite as many as you did!

    Joyce Cross
  • Thank you, so much for sharing. Love the photos too.

  • Good writing. Great photos. Wonderful list.

    Lee Myers
  • Dan, that was a very good job of birding for someone who didn’t think he would measure up to the ornithologist. As an author, rancher, conservationist and a whole slew of other talents You have what it takes to be captured by anything you write. Thank you…..

  • It sounds to me Dan that there were a whole lot of pleasures experienced that morning, birds and their music being just one of them. I do love to wake at twilight to the sound of migratory birds in the spring. I probably couldn’t properly identify more than one or two unfortunately. Thanks for posting these pieces. I enjoy them a great deal and find myself pausing what I’m doing to read them. They transport me to a thoughtful place, lighten my mood, and remind of the need to preserve all of this. Good work this.

    Alan Anderson
  • Dan I love your writing! What a special place you guys preserve and care for. Great pics too. I saw a Says Phoebe here and a green tailed Towhee in the last few days. Birds, to me, are like the jewelry on the planet. I also would love to know when your next book is coming out. Thanks for caring!

    Jane Burns
  • Your writing makes it feel like the reader is there sharing in the beautiful land with you. Thank you for sharing your observations and the prairie with us all, Dan.

    Trudy Propson
  • Amazing list for ur neck of the country….there might’ve been warblers too but they’re hard to spot even when you hear em. On my mn farm I get up an hour before sunrise this time of year just to hear the singing. It’s incredible, but usually a full chorus lasts 15 mins or less. After that the soloists take over to welcome the rising sun. We’re blessed to hear God’s feathered singers welcome every new day.

  • Totally Awesome Dan,

    Be sure to do it next year too!
    I just love you guys so dearly.
    Keep up the good work!
    I would still love to come up and visit you on the ranch someday.
    Maybe my finances will come together and I will be able to do it yet!
    I put you and all your dear ones in God’s loving arms.

    May the blessings be.
    Love, Don

    Don Meyer
  • Whoa! That is quite a list! I’m pulling out my Western Bird book to check them all out. There is a black capped chickadee in my suburban back yard with which I sing-song back and forth each morning these past few weeks, and I’ve heard young hawks calling as they learn the ropes amongst the buildings in the tech center, flying to the top of one building, then realizing they’ve left Mom and Dad on the building across the way…eek… eventually they stop that… and once I awoke in a cabin on a hill in Eureka Springs to the sound of all the birds in the world thinking I was hearing the first day of creation. LOVE your tales AND photos…so many reminders to stop and listen

  • Thank you

  • Wonderful!! You made my day!

  • I never heard of the bird blitz, but like your area we are in a flyway when birds migrate. I love this time of year.. Keep up your great work!

    Scott Hosler Brownsweiger

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