If you are a serious birder, you probably keep a life list. As any collector understands, adding birds to that list brings a sense of elation, accomplishment and satisfaction. However, if you’ve been birding the same place for very many years, you probably have already seen most of the birds in your area.
How can experienced birders recapture that beginner’s sense of excitement? Along with their cumulative lifetime list, many birders keep year lists. What birds can we find this year? It doesn’t matter how many times we’ve already seen them, it’s fun to start over.
Our local nature center hosts a winter bird count every January. Since 1993, teams have been exploring the trails and ponds looking for birds. Both species and numbers are tallied and the results are compared with previous years.
You never know what you’ll find. One year, sparrows were in abundance. Another year, we only saw a handful. Ducks typically crowd the unfrozen ponds, but his year we saw Blue-winged Teals, a species that doesn’t usually arrive until March. A couple of Virginia Rails didn’t seem to know that they were supposed to migrate to somewhere warmer, but the Wilson’s Snipe we usually glimpse was nowhere to be found.
Some years blowing snow catches in our binoculars, while other times (like this year) the weather cooperates with a balmy 55° and sunshine. No matter what it’s like outside, I consider it an improvement over moping indoors, munching nachos and watching yet another bowl game.
This year, the gorgeous day drew 35 volunteers ranging in age from preschoolers to great-grandparents. A group of cub scouts offered boundless enthusiasm, although perhaps we saw fewer birds after they tromped by. No matter—it’s more important to pass on an appreciation for creation than it is to count one more Song Sparrow.
Scheduling this event at the beginning of the year is perfect for those who wish to keep a 2011 list. All told, 55 species were spotted—impressive for the middle of winter, and a great start. When else can “old hand” birders get excited about checking off Downy Woodpecker (at top of page), Canada Goose, and Red-tailed Hawk?
However, like most years, this year held a few special surprises as well. The first was when I learned that Winter Wrens had been split. The birds I saw several years ago in Olympia National Park are now labeled Pacific Wrens. If I wanted to keep my Winter Wren, I’d have to head east… or not. It “just so happened” that a bona fide Winter Wren was hanging around in the bushes just off the nature trail. Now I have two species where before I only had one. Nice!
For several weeks prior to the count day, a Pine Warbler had been reported hanging out next to some sewage treatment ponds at the north end of the park. Sure enough, the team that covered that section saw it. So, after all the results were turned in, a bunch of us headed back out to see if we could spot this “accidental” species. We searched in vain until a friend’s (non-birder) husband asked, “What’s that yellow bird on the railing over there?” Sure enough—he’d spotted the Pine Warbler! Seeing that bright beacon in the midst of a brown and gray landscape really brightened our day. I even managed to snap a quick picture through the chain-link fence. Imagine, seeing two life birds in one day!
Back at the nature center building, the feeders were busy with flocks of blackbirds, nuthatches, and chickadees, along with a few White-crowned Sparrows. But what’s that large sparrow on the ground by that rock? I pulled out the field guide and quickly realized I was seeing the Harris’s Sparrow that had been reported earlier. Another life bird!
Even with all the people walking by and repeatedly scaring away the birds, I was able to get a few photos of this handsome stray.
Not all birding trips produce life birds, or even “year” birds, especially after the first few outings. Most of the time, it’s just a pleasure to get outside, stretch my legs, and visit with familiar species. Even then, there’s always more to learn. I guess that’s why I keep doing it!
Do you keep a life list? A year list? Another type of bird list? Tell us about it.