Mike Evans is writing “The Big Book of Life,” but the Atkins resident hopes it won’t be finished anytime soon because before the soon-to-be 60-year-old can record the next entries, he has to experience them, to see the subject firsthand. Evans isn’t compiling his life book for a big audience; he has one primary reader in mind: his grandson.
For Evans, “The Big Book of Life” began with his life list of birds. That list has been growing since 1978. Now, the book has expanded to include life lists for mammals, wildflowers, butterflies and even amphibians.
For birders, a life list includes all the bird species they’ve seen firsthand and identified with certainty.
For anyone who’d like to start a life list, Evans will lead a birding hike this Saturday on Two Ponds Trail. Anyone interested can join the hike at 9 a.m. at the Mt. Rogers National Recreation Area (NRA) Visitors Center. This event is part of a series of special activities celebrating the NRA’s 50th anniversary.
Evans knows the NRA well. He worked for the U.S. Forest Service on the Mount Rogers NRA for almost 34 years.
While birding has taken Evans to Canada, Spain, Costa Rica, Africa and Mexico among other locales and his life list is closing in on 800 species, he recorded many of those species in the NRA. He noted that as the elevation changes in the NRA from Grindstone and Hurricane campgrounds to Whitetop Mountain, different species can be found. He estimates that, including species that migrate through the area, at least 200 bird species can be found on the NRA.
He noted that numerous migrating species can be found in the eastern hardwood forests during the spring. This area’s forests, he said, are great places to find wood warblers, small secretive birds with brilliant colors.
Evans noted that many of the area’s big lakes, including Rural Retreat Lake, are good locations to see water fowl.
He also noted that climate change is impacting migration patterns. Forty years ago, he said, there were no tree swallows here, and now they’re common. Decades ago, ravens had left the area, and now they’re back.
Evans’ interest in birding began in 1978 in his last semester of college. He signed up that term for an ornithology course. The instructor was an avid birder who wrote textbooks on the subject. Part of the appeal is, Evans said, “You can’t study birds without studying the other natural sciences,” such as biology, ecology, meteorology, geology and even cartography. Of course, birds themselves are part of the attraction, Evans said, noting their wide array of colors, songs and presence. “They’re everywhere,” the 38-year birder said.
And, there’s the fact that they can fly. Some birds, Evans reflected, migrate tens of thousands of miles in a year’s time.
There are “a million things to learn,” he said, reflecting that a person can learn something new about birds every day for their entire lives.
Over time Evans’ interest transformed. “It was a hobby and grew into a passion…. It became an absolute passion.”
Evans is always thinking ahead to his next birding trip. “When I’m not traveling, I’m planning a trip,” he said. This summer, he’s heading to the maritime provinces of Canada in pursuit of some seabirds.
“I’ve traveled thousands of miles to record one bird,” he said.
While his life list is at nearly 800, Evans has met people whose life lists have hit 5,000 and he’s heard of a couple with 9,000 species on their lists. To achieve that kind of list, he said, would require a “lifetime and a large fortune.”
Evans isn’t into the competition that can come with birders comparing life lists. He said, “A day sitting on the edge of a lake – if you see something or not – is a good day.”
Of all the birds the Smyth County native has seen, Evans is perhaps most excited by the California condor, the largest bird in North America. In the 1970s, the species was on the verge of extinction, but scientists captured the last 22 birds and began a breeding program. Now, four release sites exist in the United States, including the Vermillion Cliffs in Zion National Park. Last summer, Evans was able to spend a day at Vermillion Cliffs and witnessed four wild California condors in the wild.
“It is a little ray of hope” for the future, said Evans, who hopes that learning about birds encourages people to care about the world. He often teaches children with a rug. He tells them it’s their nest, their home, the only one they’ll have. He’ll ask the children: “Why would you destroy your own nest?”
In reflecting on the Mount Rogers NRA’s 50 years, Evans said, “To me what’s important is [for people] to put down the cell phone, get out of the mall and be respectful… allow people to teach you…. Learn about nature and, ultimately, you’ll learn about yourself.
Tucked inside of Evans’ “The Big Book of Life” is a letter he’s written to his 7-year-old grandson, whom he’s now gently encouraging to learn about nature. When Evans dies, he wants the book, which is made up of many notebooks, and the letter to go to his grandson. “I’ll leave him a legacy of me and a history of my life,” Evans said.
Let’s Go Birding
Michael Evans will lead a guided hike on Two Ponds Trail.
Saturday, April 30, at 9 a.m.
Bring binoculars and a guidebook if possible.
Meet at the Mt. Rogers NRA Visitors Center, 3714 Highway 16, Marion.