New Year’s Day can mean many things to many people but to birders, it is the day on which you begin anew with your annual lists. It follows all the activity of the Christmas Bird Count blitz and the month of December where you try, often futilely, to add just a few more species to the year’s list. But on January 1, when you notch your first Rock Pigeon, House Sparrow, or European Starling, you actually experience a few nanoseconds of glee over seeing even these species for the first time in the year. Racking up 50 or more species here in Massachusetts on the first day of the year gets that adrenaline going for the promise of the coming year.
Birding is of course full of friendly competitions for who sees the most bird species in any given geographic area. The advent of eBird has many birders checking daily to see what birds are being reported that can be added to the year’s list. Sometimes, we can get a little too serious about listing—never forget to enjoy the bird’s beauty and habitat— but the quest to find as many species as possible can be fun and satisfying. That quest can also give a sense of purpose to any given day, particularly during down times of birding, such as chasing after that Bald Eagle you need for your year list on an otherwise miserable and silent late winter day.
Bob and I pay most attention to a number of lists. For Massachusetts, we keep a state list as well as county lists. Each year, we try to see as many birds as possible in Orleans County in Vermont, where our property is, and we attempt to do what we can for the two other counties in the Northeast Kingdom, Essex and Caledonia counties. We also feed off each other’s excitement when a new bird shows up on our Vermont property, such as the Olive-sided Flycatcher that stopped by briefly during one spring migration and announced itself by singing from atop a tree outside our kitchen window. We have so far recorded 112 species on our property. I always look forward to sitting on our Vermont deck in early summer, sipping our morning mugs of coffee, while Bob checks to see if there are any eBird alerts about a species seen in our area that we still need for the year. If there is, our morning’s plans are solidified in that instant.
For those birders who undertake big year efforts, where they try to find as many species as possible in a single year for the region of interest, most would likely say that in the process, their birding skills improved, sometimes greatly. With the intensity and frequency of birding required to amass a notable year list, often with the assistance of expert local guides from whom you can learn, increasing your birding skills can be a by-product of such efforts. I certainly had to marvel at Noah Strycker’s recent achievement of recording over 6,000 species in one year as he traversed the world, writing a blog along the way. Whatever one thinks of such efforts, they do raise awareness about birds and related conservation measures.
In truth, preparing and entering lists takes some discipline and time, and so cannot be dismissed as frivolous scorekeeping. How many times have I sat in the car while Bob meticulously tries to count the hundreds of waterfowl in the water, taking notes on his totals before he forgets them? Or the times that he counts the Snow Buntings that alight on the ground for only seconds before swirling off in a huge flock to the air for yet a few more seconds and then alighting again elsewhere? We might sit there for 10 or 15 minutes trying to come up with the best possible estimate we can, and we take those estimates seriously.
Compiling lists after each foray into the field obviously is a major source of data for researchers monitoring population trends and other aspects of the bird’s ecology. We can take heart not only in having fun but also in knowing that we are, in some small way, contributing to the vast data being collected by amateur birders worldwide.
The life list by geographic region is also a valued part of birding. And why not? Any bird that would be a new addition to your life list is cause for dropping whatever you are doing and going for it. While nonbirders think this is a bit crazy and perhaps overzealous, it is all part of the fun, competition, and goal-oriented nature of birding. Maintaining lists is a purpose in and of itself and a means of recording not only the birds we see but also the experiences surrounding the birds, as well as memories of those we may have seen the birds with. So, when Bob looks at the Red-footed Falcon in his Massachusetts life list, it conjures not just the magnificent bird, but the frenzy of leaving the Museum of Comparative Zoology in Cambridge in midafternoon with Jeremiah Trimble to catch a ferry to Martha’s Vineyard where they met Vern Laux for the mad dash to the airport to spot and confirm the first North American record of this species. For me, my life Boreal Chickadee brings to mind an afternoon with my friend, Jane Connet, high above the tree line in the White Mountains of New Hampshire. Jane and I were sitting on a rock eating lunch when a beautiful Boreal Chickadee landed in a small shrub about a yard away. Even though I had never seen this bird, I knew right away what it was. It sat there for a few seconds, all of us staring at one another before it took off. I am sure that every birder has multiple stories similar to this and that these stories bring smiles and laughter with their recollections.
So, lists are not just records of what we see; they are also reminders of the memories about the people and circumstances surrounding the sightings that we so meticulously record after each day of birding. They give structure to our daily lives and always represent goals which we strive to achieve. The next time you go up to your attic and pull out one of those shoe boxes with hand-written field cards marked with checks next to the birds you saw that day, or browse your old eBird records, think about the memories associated with that card or record. More likely than not, it will bring a broad smile to your face.
Martha Steele, a former editor of Bird Observer, has been progressively losing vision due to retinitis pigmentosa and is legally blind. Thanks to a cochlear implant, she is now learning to identify birds from their songs and calls. Martha lives with her husband, Bob Stymeist, in Arlington. Martha can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.