August 2019

Vol. 47, No. 4

A Year List? Pshaw, That's Nothing. Try David Ludlow's Lists!

David Clapp and Marsha C. Salett

David Ludlow in 2003 at Ipswich River. Photograph courtesy of Mass Audubon.

Every January 1, many of us start a new birding year list, or yard list, or county list. It starts with the best of intentions and lots of cold-weather wandering. Some years it persists, and other years it fades with time; the summer doldrums often strike a death knell to the best of lists. Or, maybe we persist, and reach a number of species that gives us a sense of satisfaction for that year. But few, if any of us, even come close to David Ludlow's birding accomplishment—which will make you smile and shake your head with envy and admiration at the time and commitment he puts into his monthly bird lists.

That's right: monthly bird lists. Ludlow has seen 100 species a month in Massachusetts for 14 of the last 16 years—more than 168 months—and is still going strong. (The two missing years were not unsuccessful; he didn't attempt the project.) One hundred species in May or October is easy; it can be done in one long day of birding. But 100 species in December, January, February, March, and even April presents a challenge. Massachusetts offers the opportunity, but it takes birding skills and local knowledge, along with willingness and dedication, to achieve such numbers.

That's right: monthly bird lists. Ludlow has seen 100 species a month in Massachusetts for 14 of the last 16 years—more than 168 months—and is still going strong. (The two missing years were not unsuccessful; he didn't attempt the project.) One hundred species in May or October is easy; it can be done in one long day of birding. But 100 species in December, January, February, March, and even April presents a challenge. Massachusetts offers the opportunity, but it takes birding skills and local knowledge, along with willingness and dedication, to achieve such numbers.

David Ludlow is a naturalist, largely self-taught and now widely experienced. He has been a core member of Mass Audubon's statewide Herpetological and Butterfly Atlases, contributing more records to the Herp Atlas than anyone else, according to Mass Audubon's Wayne Petersen. Ludlow's expertise covers flora, especially ferns, as well as fauna, including birds, of course.

Property Manager for Mass Audubon's South Shore Sanctuaries (Daniel Webster, North River, and North Hill Marsh), Ludlow is involved in ecological management of the properties as well as building and site upkeep. Former sanctuary director David Clapp offered Ludlow a property manager's position in 1987 and he has worked for South Shore Sanctuaries ever since. "I didn't know I had a dream job until I got this one," Ludlow said. He has attended or led the Friday morning bird walk for the South Shore Sanctuaries for about 30 years, beginning with the first walk that Clapp initiated in May 1986, and continuing the tradition during current sanctuary director Sue MacCallum's tenure since 2006. That's more than thirty years of 48–51 walks per year, depending on winter weather. In addition, Ludlow has led walks for the South Shore Bird Club.

You'd think that such an active and avid birder as Ludlow would have started birding at a young age, but although he watched the birds at the feeders at his parents' house as a kid, it wasn't a passion. When he graduated high school, he went to work as a sawyer at DeMoranville's Sawmill in Hanover, Massachusetts. He never even heard of keeping a life list until he read an article in the weekly newspaper "The Mariner" about Marshfield birder Warren Harrington. This inspired him to start his life list, which he did on April 17, 1984. He was working at the sawmill that day, noticed a robin, and began his list.

Ludlow met Harrington at a slideshow program sponsored at the North River Sanctuary. Harrington invited Ludlow to join a bird club century run—to see 100 birds in a single day—on the North Shore. "I didn't know anyone on the trip or what I was doing, I was that new to birding." He got 35 life birds that day. Harrington became Ludlow's mentor. Over the years, Ludlow traveled with him to four continents: North America (including Central America), South America, Europe, and Africa.

In 1990, Ludlow had his first successful year of 100 species per month, but it wasn't until 2003 that he decided to make this a yearly project. What drives him to continue this feat month after month, year after year? "The point is to get out the door—it's not the list. It's the joy of being out birding and seeing what you don't expect." As an example, he described recently watching a chickadee pull apart a ball of fluff, adding more and more bits to its mouth until it couldn't hold any more and dropped all of the fluff. Then the chickadee flew down and started pulling apart the fluff again until again it picked up one more mouthful of fluff than it could hold, and lost it all once more. Fascinated, he wanted to see what the chickadee would do and watched it repeat the process several times.

Admittedly, the list does give him a reason to get out there and bird. Then he added, "You really don't need a list to go birding. There's no right or wrong way about birding. Anyway you do it is fine."

There is neither method nor madness in Ludlow's approach to achieving 100 species every month, no hard and fast plan. Mostly, he birds the South Shore and Cape Cod with an occasional foray up to the North Shore or out to western Massachusetts. He doesn't have a single favorite patch; he likes to change things up. Birding many different habitats is key to his success.

If there's a good bird somewhere, Ludlow will start there. Or else he'll go for volume first. In winter, this means a day trip to Provincetown for ducks and alcids. It may entail a pelagic trip during warmer weather. Although most birders consider May the month to find the most species, Ludlow thinks October is the better birding month because with juveniles migrating, too, there are more individuals around. The shorebirds linger when they are migrating south as opposed to being in a hurry to get north in May. There are also more sparrows in October. The toughest months are February and March.

Most months, he starts with the South Shore Sanctuaries' Friday morning bird walks and sees what he finds before he plans the rest of the monthly birding. These weekly walks provide birding opportunities for rarities as well as common species. It has rained on many Friday mornings this spring of 2019, which has been good for finding uncommon birds. "David's rainy-day rarities" is how one regular Friday birder describes them. On May 17, the rainy-day rarity that surprised the group was a King Rail—the first one Ludlow has ever seen at Daniel Webster Wildlife Sanctuary.

The King Rail was not the "best" rail, he ever found on Friday morning birding. That accolade goes to a Yellow Rail seen in Scituate behind what used to be PJ's Country House Restaurant. A group of 18 birders was standing around at a flood tide when Ludlow noticed a bird run down the dike. He got it in his scope. It was a Yellow Rail standing at the edge of the water and it didn't fly away, so everyone saw it well. It was a life bird for all but two of the participants. Ludlow explained, "I really enjoy other people's reactions to new stuff and when they get really good looks at the birds."

Was there ever a month that Ludlow didn't think he'd make the 100-species quota? He recalled that the winter of 2015 was particularly snowy and in February he got to 99 with only a day or two left. He decided to try for an Eastern Screech Owl, but had no luck. Instead, he found a Great Horned Owl—and kept the streak alive.

Species diversity and numbers have changed since Ludlow began compiling his monthly lists. In 1990, his baseline year, he saw American Kestrels every single month. To see a Wild Turkey, he had to make a special trip to Quabbin Reservoir in western Massachusetts. Today, it's the opposite—turkeys are everywhere and kestrels make the list only a few months per year. Ludlow noted that bobwhites and pheasants have basically disappeared. Red-bellied Woodpeckers are now common in Massachusetts and Blue Grosbeaks are becoming regular.

Although Ludlow keeps written records of his lists, he does not analyze the data. "David Clapp likes to look at the numbers," he said. Fair enough. In the rest of this article, Clapp analyzes Ludlow's lists to show you that seeing 100 birds per month every year is not easy. Clapp divides Ludlow's lists into three categories:

  • Birds seen only once, twice, or three times per year
  • Birds seen 11-12 months per year
  • Birds seen in all 12 months per year

Surprisingly, Ludlow averages only 32 species seen in every month and 52 species seen 11 or 12 times per year. That leaves a lot of work in our winter months to reach the century mark. The number of species that Ludlow sees on average in only one, two, or three months is stunningly high. The most was 95 and the average is 88—that makes 88 species from the usual Massachusetts annual list that you cannot count on seeing 70% or more during the course of the year.

Factor in that our May migrants and many of our summer breeders—Purple Martin and Orchard Oriole for example—are here but briefly and then they are simply not available. Blackburnian Warblers and many of their kin show up in May and then again in September and October, but rarely after that. The need to visit special habitats also plays a role in annual lists; pelagic birds are not usually available away from the coast and often you need to get offshore to see them. Many of our pelagic species are warm weather birds and don't really help with the monthly list during the slowest months.

Then there are the western Massachusetts birds, starting with Pileated Woodpecker and moving west to the Cerulean Warblers and the winter finches; these are much more common in the central and western parts of the state than in the coastal towns.

The numbers are what you might expect, with January and February averaging under 110 species and May through October above 130. May is usually in the 160s but Ludlow has had several in the 170s and even one above 190.

Ludlow always has a few rare birds included in the year lists. There have to be, in order to make the 100-species list work. Some of his one-time-wonders included Yellow-billed Loon, Ross's and Slaty-backed gulls, Sage Thrasher, and Black-backed Woodpecker. And each year must include many of the near-annuals to Massachusetts: American White Pelican, Long-tailed Jaeger, Ash-throated Flycatcher, Cave Swallow, Gull-billed Tern, Pine Grosbeak, and Townsend's Solitaire.

Ludlow's achievement is a decent accomplishment in a single year, but for 14 years and running, it is truly remarkable. Give it a try—just for one year—and you will learn a lot about your neighborhood, the local countryside, and your threshold for challenges and success. Go for it.

And congratulations to David Ludlow.

David Clapp has had two overlapping careers, one of 35 years with Mass Audubon as a sanctuary director, mostly on the South Shore, and a second as a tour leader, primarily for the Smithsonian Institution's travel program. He currently works with the famous Tanzanian guide Joseph Ndunguru to operate a small-group safari company operating mostly in Tanzania.

Marsha C. Salett is editor of Bird Observer.

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