The Free Press, Mankato, MN

August 4, 2013

Extreme birder coming to Mankato

By Robb Murray rmurray@mankatofreepress.com
The Mankato Free Press

---- — MANKATO — You’ve probably never heard of Lynn Barber.

But to people in the birding world, she’s kind of a big deal.

Since the turn of the millennium, no one has done the kind of birding she’s done, and no one has seen as many species of birds she’s seen. She’s among just a hand of people in the upper echelon of birders, the kind of people who, for example, will routinely drop everything for a 10-hour ride to southern Texas for a chance to see a drab but rare bird.

And she’s coming to Mankato to be part of the Mankato Area Life Long Learners schedule of special talks and presentations.

She was invited to come and talk about her so-called “big year,” a term common in birder conversations. Doing a “big year” means counting up as many birds as possible in one year in a given geographic area. In her case, that big year took place in 2008. What made hers unique, though, is that the geographic area she covered was the entire coverage area of the American Birders Association, which is everything in North American north of Mexico (not including Hawaii). Her adventures were captured in her book, “Extreme Birder: One Woman’s Big Year.”

She covered a lot of territory, for sure.

To do it, Barber — who happens to be a patent lawyer — and her meteorologist husband maxed out a few credit cards and did what they had to to make it work. By the time she was done she’d traversed the country several times, including a pair of flights to Alaska. She counted 723 birds, more than anyone else since 2000 and second most in history.

“I really just love birding,” Barber said via phone this week. “The big year thing gives you an excuse to do what you love.”

Clearly, it’s a love that began a long time ago.

Barber recalls her love of birds starting years ago as a child. She grew up on a 160-acre farm in Wisconsin, an upbringing she says fostered a love of exploring the outdoors and discovering new things.

As long as she can remember, she said, she’s loved birds.

She said she was 12 when she first realized her love for birds was more than just a fad and that she might be doing this for the rest of her life.

“I kept notes on birds I saw since age 7,” she said. “But when I was 12, I made a list of 12 things I wanted to do before I was done with my life and one of them was become an ornithologist.”

She went to the University of Wisconsin-Madison and studied zoology but eventually decided that if she pursued a love a birds as a science career, she’d wind up considering it work, and she never wanted this love of birds that she had to be considered work.

So she switched over to bacteriology. Eventually, however, she went to law school and continues a successful patent law practice. But her passion remains in the skies.

“Years ago, when I lived in North Carolina, a woman asked me why I liked to bird so much,” she said. “I couldn’t answer her satisfactorily and I’ve been searching for a way I should have answered that question and haven’t found it.”

She’s been a birder her whole life, but it was the big year that brought her notoriety in the birding world. She published a book that was written in diary form that describes everything that was on her mind — including those times when she wondered why she agreed to do such an ambitious, large-scope project.

She wrote poems that express some of that despair, poems that are included in the book. She also maintained her law practice, often times communicating with clients while out on the road to find birds. It was costly, she says, and traveling the continent for year took a financial toll, one it took her and her husband a few years to pay off.

When she comes to Mankato this week, attendees will hear of her big year adventures. She’ll also show slides and, she said, do her best to get people excited to learn more about birds.

“I’ve done bird talks for years and I love doing it,” she said. “I like to get people enthusiastic.”

Although, it’d be hard to match Barber’s enthusiasm.

A few years ago, when she was living in Texas, she got a call from a fellow birding friend. The friend wanted to know if she’d heard about or ever seen alanaia, a rare Mexican bird. Why? Because they’d been spotted near South Padre Island.

“It’s just kind of a drab thing, very dull looking,” she said.

Without a second thought, she and her husband got into the car and began a 10-hour drive to the place where the bird was supposedly seen.

“We slept in the car, some vacant lot on South Padre Island,” Barber said. “When the sun rose, our friends showed up and we all got out. In the dusky gloom, we finally saw it flitting around in the brush.”

Then it was gone.

And yes, Barber said, it was worth the drive.

If You Go What A presentation by birder Lynn Barber, author of the book, "Extreme Birder: One Woman's Big Year." When 6 p.m. Wednesday Where Bethel Baptist Church, 1250 Balcerzak Drive, Mankato Cost $5