Wednesday, May 18, 2011

The Life List and the emotional birder

What makes a bird a Life Bird? First of all, what IS a Life Bird? I heard a few folks ask this question on trips in the latter part of the week at the New River Birding and Nature Festival. Simply put, it's a bird that you're seeing for the first time in your life.

Even though I like to keep lists of birds seen in various places, and I am keeping track of my Life List, I don't really consider myself to be a "lister," . Since I've started giving public talks about birding, I figured I should have an idea of how many birds are on my Life List, just in case anyone asks. My list (currently at 133 species) is pretty meager by some standards, but that's fine by me.

You might ask, "If you keep lists, why don't you consider yourself a 'lister'?" Valid question. The term "lister" has a strange connotation in birding, if you ask me. It seems to imply a certain mentality of "I must get this bird to add to my Life List at all costs." In my mind, listers are folks who travel far and wide to see a bird for what will likely only be a short period of time, and it might be a bird that's only guessed to stay put for a day or two. Depending on how far you have to travel combined with the likelihood that the bird is just "passing through", you might get to a location only to find that the target bird has flown the proverbial coop. Across the pond in the U.K. this activity is referred to as "twitching," and from what I've read about British birding, they are even more serious about it there than we are here in the U.S.! Listing and twitching can even get to the point of being like a competitive sport (which I can't say I'm above, as we had a friendly list competition going at New River for the most species seen/heard - which I LOST!) My slant may sound negative, but please don't interpret it that way. I have no problem with folks feeling a need to go after a bird, and feeling like they REALLY NEED TO SEE IT. It's just that that kind of birding is not for me.

So let's come back to the question of "what is a Life Bird?" Do you count it if you only saw it for 5 seconds? Do you count it if someone else had to point it out to you? Does it count if it's only seen in the hand (i.e. for a banding demonstration)? (The American Birding Association recording rules, for example, do not allow birds restrained by a mist net or a hand to be countable by their standards; my standards say that these birds DO count for my personal Life List.) Will you only count it if it makes you cry (if you don't know I'm talking about here, it will become clear shortly)?

My philosophy is: my list, my rules. One of my rules is that if I only hear the bird, but don't see it, I'm not counting it. During the festival I heard a Black-billed Cuckoo one day, my first ever "by ear" encounter with the species. I didn't see it, however, so I didn't count it as a Lifer. I expected to leave it at that, and was content with doing so. Luckily, I was fated to actually see the bird during my last field trip of the week. We heard it first, and after some discussion, it was decided that a small group of us for whom this would be a life bird would take our chances among the poison ivy and ticks and go scout out the Cuckoo. With the help of Bill Thompson III, I got my life Black-billed Cuckoo, and I will remember it forever.

Black-billed Cuckoo - photo courtesy Doug Sanchez. Note the red eye ring - one of several diagnostic marks separating it from it's Yellow-billed cousin.

With some encouragement from Bill's bird song app of choice on his iPhone, this cuckoo came right out into the open, and STAYED THERE for about 5 minutes. Bill told us this is most unusual behavior for a cuckoo, just one among a number of species that is well-known for its skulking, blending-into-habitat behaviors. And so, in a matter of minutes, I had a very good sense of this bird's color, shape, size, and song, and also its habitat requirements. This bird went onto my list with a full understanding of it in my brain. It wasn't just a quick glimpse. If I saw another BB Cuckoo all on my own, I would know what it was.

This brings us to another criteria that some folks cite about adding birds to their Life List: they feel that they need to be able to identify the bird on their own, without anyone's help. Sometimes it's not enough to have someone just point it out to you and move on. I applaud that, and wish I could say I use that criteria for my own list. Sometimes, though, in the heat of the moment, it's easy to add a bird you're not all that familiar with to your list just to say, "Yup, I saw it."

This has come back to get me, though. For example, I marked the Yellow-breasted Chat as a Life Bird during my trip to West Virginia. I got really good looks at one, heard it sing a lot, and got a good understanding of its habitat. I can now easily identify a Chat on my own. And I thought I hadn't seen one before the New River trip. However, on a recent bird walk at Lake Hope State Park, we saw a Chat, and it suddenly came back to me that a Chat was pointed out to me on a hike in the very same location 2 or 3 years ago. But it hadn't stuck with me. Why not? I can come up with a number of reasons: it just didn't register, I was not familiar enough with it, I was still somewhat new to birding, I wasn't really sure about what I was hearing or seeing, etc., etc. Needless to say, it obviously did not make an impression on me at that time. And a bird that makes an impression goes a long way to elevating a bird from a Lifer to one that goes on the Emotional Life List (that's ELL for short). This list is much shorter than my standard Life List, and only includes birds that I feel some sort of connection with, and that have touched my life in some significant way. The Eastern Phoebe and Carolina Wren hold the top 2 spots on my ELL.

I tend to wear my heart on my sleeve, which means that I'm also wiping tears from my eyes with that same sleeve on what some would consider to be strange occasions.

Take a look at this beautiful male Magnolia Warbler.

This Magnolia Warbler (Maggies, for short) is being held by Bill Hilton, Jr., who was banding birds throughout the week at the festival.

He's gorgeous in the photo, but a two-dimensional image really doesn't do justice to just how stunning this bird was. As I was looking at him through my camera lens, tears were welling up in my eyes. It was a Life Bird, and goes on the ELL for sheer beauty alone.

A bird that's a little higher up on the ELL is the Black-throated Blue Warbler. I went into the festival hoping to see this bird. I already have an affinity for one of his cousins, the Black-throated Green Warbler, because when I encountered it for the first time, I was in a very sacred place in the Hocking Hills area. It was early morning, the park was not yet full of people, and it was pretty much just me, my camera, and the woods full of bird song. A special moment was etched into my soul, and that bird will always be a part of that. My Black-throated Blue moment was just as powerful. I get all worked up just thinking about it. I make no effort to hide the fact that this bird made me cry.

The Black-throated Blue Warbler has some very specific habitat requirements, and one place where it nests is in the higher elevations of West Virgina, such as in Cranberry Glades. Photo courtesy Jim McCormac.

The Black-throated Blue was just a small part of an incredible experience, but I'll leave the magic of Cranberry Glades for another post.


Julie Zickefoose said...

Wonderful post, Heather. I share more with you than you'd imagine. Like you, I'd gladly trade a good experience with a bird for any tick on the life list--even if I've seen that bird hundreds of times. And a magnolia warbler, held in the hand, was the subject of my very first article for Bird Watcher's Digest--it knocked me flat and made my world ring like a huge bell.
I'm so delighted Bill called in your life BBCU. What a terrific life bird. I mean, look at that thing! And the black-throated blue is his favorite warbler.
I like your idea of an emotional life list. I have one, too, and phoebe (obviously) and Carolina wren are perched right at the top.
Keep writing, keep writing, keep writing.

Susan Gets Native said...

Great post, Heather.
And I unexpectedly laughed out loud when I saw the Magnolia warbler photo. It looks like it's flipping you off. :)

dAwN said...

super post~ Amazing birds~
hee hee Susan~you would notice I am cracking up...