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To Hastings pastor, birds are a calling

Bird No. 1 was easy.

The Rev. Paul Dunbar spotted a dark-eyed junco in his backyard feeders in Hastings, Neb., on Jan. 1.

Bird No. 347, the final entry on his quest to chronicle 350 species, was a little more difficult.

It involved plowing through dense cedar on December 31, twigs slapping him in the face and falling down the back of his shirt.

“I went out on the last day of the year, in the afternoon, still trying to find a long-eared owl,” Dunbar said. “It had eluded me all year long. I found it 10 miles from home. It was awesome.”

Dunbar, the pastor at Faith Lutheran Church in Hastings, Neb., spent last year chasing down birds across the state. What had started as a quest to find 300 ended with him claiming the record for number of bird species seen in the state in one calendar year.

John Sullivan had held the previous mark of 331, set in 1998.

“I think he had to eat, drink and sleep birds,” said Joel Jorgensen, the nongame bird program manager for the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission. “To accomplish what he did and destroy that old record, he had to be committed not just for part of the year but for the entire year. I would suspect it will never be broken, unless it’s some person in their 20s who will sleep in cars or whatever.”

Dunbar actually surpassed the state record on Sept. 13, when he found a Nelson’s sparrow in some wetlands near Ceresco, Neb. That’s when he decided: why not just one more?

“I thought, ‘I bet I can get to 350. That’s a nice round number.’ That’s where I’d hoped to end up,” he said. “I fell a few short of that.”

The 41-year-old father of three kept track of his adventures in a spiral-bound notebook, the latest of many he’s kept since he caught bird watching fever from his biology teacher in Wolcottville, Ind., at age 15.

He has about 10 notebooks in all, covered in coffee stains and mud splatters, that he keeps next to his bed for easy reading access.

Each entry chronicles when and where he spotted a bird, along with anything unusual about it. There are even a few illustrations.

Dunbar also started keeping track on a website, ebird.org, which makes it much easier to reference his birds instead of flipping through notebooks, although he loves looking back over his work. It also allows other avid bird watchers to read the entries.

Dunbar got the idea to join the 300 club after looking at one of his journals one day and realizing it had been six months since his most recent bird-watching entry.

 

 

 

 

“I had really let that hobby of mine fade, and I missed it,” he said. “I decided, ‘I’m going to make 2013 the year of getting myself out there and seeing the state and getting back into this hobby.’ It relaxes me and it challenges me.”

He did his homework first, reading posts online from other birders to see what types of birds they’d found in different parts of the state and when. He spoke often to Mark Brogie of Creighton, Neb., who held the state record with 324 in 1996.

He also checked birding.aba. org daily for the latest news on birding in Nebraska and around the nation.

And he pored over the book Birds of Nebraska: Their Distribution and Temporal Occurrence by Jorgensen, W. Ross Silcock and Roger S. Sharpe.

“I more or less put that book to memory,” Dunbar said. “Here is where I’ll need to be in May if I’m going to find this species, be in the state park on this date, weather permitting.”

Dunbar has Fridays off, so he set those aside for birding, armed with a digital camera, a spotting scope and binoculars.

He estimates he put about 15,000 miles on his Honda Fit, starting with a trip to Scottsbluff on January 3 to find winter weather western birds.

“My strategy was to work the edges of the state,” he said. “Your best chance of finding a kind of western specialty bird is to search the Colorado-Wyoming borders of Nebraska. I made lots of trips to the Missouri River Valley, down by Rulo and Indian Cave State Park.”

His favorite places to find birds became Bellevue’s Fontenelle Forest in the eastern part of the state, Harvard Marsh in the central part and Sowbelly Canyon north of Harrison in the west.

The rarest bird he recorded was a hooded oriole, usually found in the southwest United States. It showed up at the feeder of the Daro family in Garrison, Neb., at the end of May, attracting birders throughout the Midwest.

His biggest surprise was seeing six species of hummingbirds in Nebraska. That was a real treat, he said, since you expect to find only one.

There were all-night drives so he could arrive at a marsh or lake at sunrise. And lots of mosquito bites. He had run-ins with rattlesnakes, which he would nudge off the path with the legs of his tripod so he could look for birds.

He froze on a trip in December to Gavins Point Dam, looking for rare gulls. A trip to Lake McConaughy in September to see shore birds was his scariest.

“I was trying to march across wetlands, and I was way out there,” he said. “I took a few steps and sunk just about to my waist. I had to crawl, using scope legs to pull myself out.

“I was miles from anybody, in almost like quicksand. That was kind of dumb. There were some good birds, but nothing I would have died for.”

 

 

 

 

 

It was on the late night drives in the middle of the Sand Hills when Dunbar used to wonder if he was crazy. Or the 300-mile trips to find a bird that wasn’t there.

He encountered rain, snow and tornadoes. And he got stuck on back roads, trying to figure out how to find his bird and then get home.

“There were a number of times, actually, that I said, ‘This is silly,’ ” he said. “But then, later the same day or a week later, you’d come into this little pocket of birds, all the color and all the song and you are seeing new stuff. It just drives you on. The thrill of the chase and the thrill of the hunt.

“It’s the same goofiness that gets deer hunters in their stands with freezing fingers at 4 a.m. in the morning, and football fans freezing in their bleachers.”

Luckily, he said, his family members have good senses of humor and were very supportive.

His wife, Emily, an English teacher at Hastings High School, wrote a tongue-in-cheek poem called “Widowed by warblers, the lonely life of a birder’s wife.”

Sometimes, when he’d get a call about a bird he was searching for, his one day for birding became more. But if he’d ask Emily if he should do something around the house or go birding, she’d always tell him to go birding.

“Because she’s great,” he said.

His parishioners have been supportive, too. Dunbar has an assistant pastor, but he didn’t miss any activities – just sleep – often pulling all-nighters.

Most know about his love for birding. Not a week goes by that he doesn’t get a call from someone asking how to get ants out of a hummingbird feeder or to identify a bird, and he loves it.

After spotting that owl on December 31, Dunbar said, he was exhausted. He’s made no bird trips the past few weeks, instead organizing his notes and pictures. He took the kids to the dentist and plans to clean out his garage.

2013 was the year of birding, and he was trying to figure out what 2014 would be.

That’s when he remembered his wife’s project. Emily has become involved in an online endeavor called “Real Women, Real Songs,” in which participants are asked to write a song a week based on a prompt. One week they wrote about optimism.

“This is my year of supporting her,” Dunbar said. “I’ll do dinner so you can go write a song. I admire her for being that creative person she is. This year is my year of saying, ‘Yes, dear.’ ”