By Rex Rowan
-Originally published in the FOS newsletter.
Birders stalwart enough to brave January pelagic trips and freezing Christmas Counts somehow lose their nerve during late May. As the temperature rises ever higher and tee shirts grow sodden with sweat, they flee inside their houses, not to emerge until September.
It’s embarrassing, is what it is. Our species climbed Everest, conquered the Poles, explored jungles, even went to the moon … and yet we can’t go birding in June because it’s warm?!
In May 2004 Gainesville’s Becky Enneis found herself vexed by this state of affairs: “Spring migration was over. There were no more Audubon field trips until September. And word was, there was no point in going out birding until fall migration started up sometime in August. The birding calendar on the Alachua Audubon web site even advised, ‘Don’t bother,’ for June.
“In the fall we had migration. In winter we had the Christmas Bird Count, and ducks and sparrows. In the spring we had migration. But there was nothing in summer. Being relatively new to birding, I wondered what was out there – and why didn’t anyone want to see it?
“I didn’t want to wait till fall to go out birding again, so I started thinking of birding activities to fill the summer void. I nixed June Bird Count because it was too similar to the CBC and would only last one day. I ended up with The June Challenge.”
What she dreamed up was a contest, a sort of Big Month that would last from June 1st to June 30th. She laid down a few rules:
1. You can count only birds found within a single county: “I wanted it to be inside a geographical boundary, so that we’d be motivated to explore an area thoroughly and perhaps find some new birding spots.”
2. Birds must be seen, so you have to invest a little extra effort to add owls, nightjars, and rails to your list: “I wanted everyone to lay eyes upon each bird they put on their lists. Birds are beautiful and amazing creatures! Let’s look at them!”
3. You compete with birders in your own county to see which of you can amass the longest individual list, but you let the other contestants know if you find something good so they can at least go out and look for it: “I wanted it to be competitive but not cutthroat, with everything (birds and territory) shared.”
Most of all, though, “I wanted it to be fun. I wanted to give birders a good excuse to go birding during the summer.”
Only a handful of us competed that first year, but gradually the word spread. By the 2010 June Challenge, 15 Florida counties and one county in England (Norfolk) were participating. By 2011, it was 25 Florida counties, plus Norfolk, plus counties in Delaware, Texas, and California. Even more surprising, the idea had gone (modestly) viral through birders’ online forums, and people who knew nothing about the origins or rules of The June Challenge were doing June Challenges of a sort in Arkansas, Missouri, and Wyoming.
Just apart from the fun of competition, there are good reasons to keep birding through June. One reason is that spring migration lasts longer than we think it does. Admittedly most of the transient passerines are gone after the first few days of May and most of the shorebirds by mid-May. But small numbers of both are in no hurry to leave the state. The North Florida county I live in has early-June records for six migrant warblers and eleven migrant shorebirds. Likewise fall migration starts earlier than we think: Louisiana Waterthrush, Black-and-white Warbler, Greater and Lesser Yellowlegs, and Willet have all been recorded here during the waning days of June, and several other species have turned up during the first week of July and are thus potential June Challenge birds.
A second reason, even more compelling, is the possibility that you’ll find something out of place, some wanderer. During the third year of the Challenge, Mike Manetz found Fulvous Whistling-Ducks at Paynes Prairie. When he took a couple friends to see them on the following day, they spotted a Limpkin as well. And when a larger group walked out on the third day to see the ducks and the Limpkin, they stumbled onto a Snail Kite, only the third in the county’s history.
And this phenomenon has been repeated everywhere birders have done a June Challenge. After discovering a Fulvous Whistling-Duck in Hillsborough County in 2011, Cameron Cox wrote to a listserv, “This is another example of an interesting bird found as a result of The June Challenge. No way would I have been out on Taylor Gill Road without the motivation of The June Challenge….In addition to the rarities that are found as a result of increased field time, it also helps to more clearly define migration and other quirks of summer distribution.”
A fourth reason, if you need one, is that the Challenge will occupy you throughout the entire month of June.
As the contest has evolved over fourteen years
And after June comes July. But you can’t go birding in July. Because that IS too hot.