My name is Nate.  And I keep county lists.

I realize that this admission tars me as the most obsessive and compulsive among a community of obsessive-compulsives.  I realize that listing is a reviled in birding culture as it is celebrated, and more listing even more so, but hear me out here.  I mean to make the argument that county listing is birding at its most pure, the ultimate combination of the two warring angels that sit upon each one of our shoulders.  The first, the much caricatured hard-nosed lister who stops at nothing to get just one more bird, and the second, the deep-patch birder who just wants to hang around the common species.  Both of these opposite ends of the birder spectrum combine effortlessly in the county birder.  The search for the next new bird is that much more fulfilling when you’re limited to the smallest of the arbitrary political boundaries in the United States, and the search for those birds necessitates a broad working knowledge of the county of the sort that can only be attained through experience.  Plus, your search for county birds can be as energy intensive or green as you want it to be.  You simply cannot go wrong.

I never had the time or the money to be a player on the ABA-area scene, and while I occasionally can be convinced to partake in a little state twitching, these days my birding is mostly with my county lists in mind.  With a full-time job and a toddler at home, I find that paying attention to counties offers the opportunity to fill that competitive jones that so many birders feel without running deficits in time and money that would see me pushing the boundaries of my family’s patience.  My latest, and ongoing, project, akin in some ways to a Big Year, is the Carolina Century Project, in which I try to accumulate at least 100 species in as many of North and South Carolina’s combined 146 counties as I can.  This has been a challenging, but immensely fun, endeavor.

Take, for instance, the Lesser Black-backed Gull I happened upon on the recent Jordan Lake Christmas Bird Count.  It’s a bird that’s not particularly notable in the state, occurring in large numbers along the Outer Banks, but here?  500 miles inland?  A fine bird for the county.

County tick!

More than that, focusing on counties encourages you to get off the beaten track and away from the well-known hotspots.  You peruse Google Earth looking for accessible reservoirs and patches of gameland that look productive.  You spend time looking for something different, passerines on the coast, shorebirds in the rural piedmont, holes in those lists – sometimes common species – that need filling.  You find yourself doing odd things like pulling over on the highway to scope for Ring-necked Ducks and grebes in multiple counties or pulling into McDonald’s parking lots looking for House Sparrows in small rural towns (surprisingly difficult!).  Sure it sounds obsessive, maybe it is, but knowing where birds are on a fine scale is a huge part of becoming a better birder.

I still chase state rarities, at least those within my self-imposed rarity radius, but so much of the fun any more is spending a little time around those stakeouts picking up incidental species and knowing that they count every bit as much as the target.  Case in point, this past weekend I headed south to the sandhills to find a Western Tanager that had been visiting a feeder in Moore County.

State tick! But more importantly, county tick!

The tanager was great, a stunning adult male, and North Carolina bird #325 for me, but just as good were the House Finches and Yellow-rumped Warblers that were surprising county birds.  And isn’t that argument against the big listers?  That regular common species are ignored?  Not worth consideration?  County listing turns the listing paradigm on its head. Suddenly every species and every trip is an opportunity, and that’s not something you can say about every time you go outside.

And that’s before you even start on total ticks…

Written by Nate
Nate Swick is a birder. He grew up in the midwest but currently makes his home in Greensboro, North Carolina, with his wife and two young children, who are not yet aware that they are birders too. He has a soft spot for Piping Plovers and loves pelagics even when his stomach doesn’t, which makes him the quintessential Carolina birder. Nate is the editor of the ABA blog, host of the American Birding Podcast, and author of two books, Birding for the Curious and The ABA Field Guide to Birds of the Carolinas.