I recently ticked my 200th lifer, a Canada warbler who dropped into my yard on his way north a few weeks ago during migration. I started tallying a life list only recently, on the recommendation of a friend and mentor whose enthusiasm for birding extends to the attempted (but so far unsuccessful) recruitment of my non-birding spouse into the club.
My own bird watching history is short, about five years, but I’ve tried to make up for lost time. All things considered—time, location, learning curve—I’ve racked up what I’d consider a decently sized list, and some satisfactory bird-craft skills. List quality is another story. Now, I don’t think 200 species is something to sneeze at, but if you take a look at the ABA list and start counting what most folks consider the easy-to-get birds, you get close to 200 fairly quickly. Even trading out mid-continental ubiquities that are scarce here on Long Island for the coastal species I can get easily… well, I’ll just say when I went through and checked off all the species I could remember seeing, I was a little disappointed.
The thing is, for the past few years there have been some holes in my list, birds that should not be so hard to find that I have somehow managed to miss. Even though I would know them if I saw them. And, out of no small degree of vanity, I never confessed to anybody.
I specifically remember being on a guided walk about two years ago when the leader paused, cocked his head, and announced the presence of an Eastern bluebird, a bird I thought I should have seen already, but hadn’t. “Can you hear it?” he said. Uh, no. I did not hear it—I hadn’t yet started learning songs. I stayed silent. “It’s right over there!” Everyone aimed binoculars through the bushes, ooh’ed and ahh’ed. “Did everyone see it? Ok. Let’s go.”
Reader, I could not find that bird.
We got quite a few other birds that day, though no other bluebirds, and every time the leader called out a common bird such as house wren (didn’t have it) and moved on, I tried to invisibly hang back so I could tick it off my mental list. I wanted to start to feel more like a real birder. Of course real birders have seen bluebirds and wrens. Right?
I eventually landed an Eastern bluebird, but only after months of silence whenever the subject would come up. Even though I had seen all kinds of great birds. Even though every bird is a great bird. I still couldn’t ‘fess up to the ones I felt were missing.
Until my birding-evangelist friend asked me in April which birds I needed for the year. I really, really, really would like an indigo bunting. No really. But I didn’t want to tell him that. I should have indigo bunting by now, shouldn’t I?
I should have one, I thought, and I kept my mouth closed.
“What I really need is an indigo bunting,” I mumbled. I hurried on to set the record straight, “I know I should have that one already, seeing as how I’ve been doing this for so long, but…”
“No, that’s great!” he said. I think he was more excited for me than he’d been over any of the more exotic finds I’d reported over the years. “This is the most exciting time in your birding career!” he said. “You can go out anywhere and get ten lifers in a day! So many birds are still new to you!”
And then I got it. I’d spent so much time trying not to blow my cover as a new birder, I completely overlooked the fact it’s actually pretty awesome to be a new birder. My own backyard was just as exciting to me birdwise as any great birding destination in the world! And my backyard is free!
It’s safe to say that after five years of birding, I’m just about done with these heady days of new birds every time I go out. In fact, this may have been the last crazy good, new-birds-every-day migration I’ll have until I move to a new region. Since I started drafting this post, I’m now well over 200 species, thanks to an exceptional migration season I was sad to see dry up, and birding skills finally honed to the point where I recognize a lifer when I see it. But still, knowing every bird I see could easily add to my as-yet-too-short life list, I’d better head out and keep racking ’em up.
After all, every bird is only a lifer once.
About the Author
Erin Gettler is a writer, photographer and naturalist living on Long Island, New York. She likes long walks in the woods, but she's too slow for real hiking on account of stopping to look at every little thing. She travels with a sketchbook, and keeps a spare pair of binoculars to share. Learn more about Erin by visiting her website at thefamiliarwilderness.com.