Life List - Birding Eccentricities

[Image:  Part of a page on my life list]

Birding has its various eccentricities, and one of the most common is the creation of a so called 'life list.'  There are lots of feelings about these lists, some love them to the point of obsession and others hate them and see them as a non-scientific endeavor, or believe that those who keep such a list would not appreciate nature for itself.

Personally, I believe, as with so many things, that there is a healthy middle ground.  I keep my life list.  I can get a little obsessed, especial when in range of easy to get new birds for my list.  But I see the other side as well, and I appreciate nature and birds for their behavior, adaptations and simply for their beauty.  Despite 'listing' I believe that I appreciate birds as much, if not a whole lot more, than many others.  I do find them fascinating.

I did a post some time back on taking field notes. I mentioned in that post that listing would be worth a post on its own. This post looks at why listing is perceived as not being good, why I believe listing is just fine and how I go about doing keeping my life list.

1.  Why do people believe that listing is not good?
  • Fist off, birders (twitchers) are simply people who run around like mad, add to the carbon issue by traveling around, and on seeing a bird simply 'tick' it and go all the way home.
  • Listers are not interested in bird behavior and other aspects of their lives.
  • Listers are competitive.  Tom Gullick is sitting at 8725 at the time of writing []
  • Listing is all they do.  They make all sorts of lists, but don't do much else.  [Somewhat true for some, see here]
2.  Why do I believe it is just fine?  Well, a little lesson in what it is all about.
  • First of all, I often get told that 'Twitchers are so competative??"  I don't get it?  Nobody ever told me that Rugby players are competative, or that Lodge managers are competative.  It's not a problem for them.  If a lodge manager, or business manager is not competative, they get fired.  Watch birds and competition is given as a solid reason for your list being bad????
  • At some point in the history of birding a term 'twitching' came about.  Twitching usually refers to an activity...of running (or traveling to find) rare birds that have shown up within the country or region.  These 'Twitchers' as they could be refered to during the course of this frantic activity became a symbol for all birders and many people started to refer to birders themselves as "Twitchers."  This usage is unfortunate and perhaps the start of making the whole activity of birding look bad.  Birders spend time looking for rare birds in order to get one more "tick" on their life list.
  • Life lists are simple, really [for another explanation of a life list, visit this page.]  A list of all the birds you have ever seen.  When you start it is usually very innocent.  You see some bird, flip frantically through your bird book until you locate the one you have just seen.  If you don't have it on your list, you add it.
  • After a while of doing this, you soon find that you have seen all the birds in your 'local spot.'  Here it gets fun.  It's a quest.  Get out an see another bird for your list.  An outing here and there adds 10 or so, then soon it's down to the ones or twos.  I had a few days where I added as much as 14 birds.  That would be seriously hard to repeat on this much of this continent for me now.
  • At some point all this birding starts to get a little dull.  You just end up not being able to find anything new to add to your list.  Then you start to search for the specials, try to add birds with difficult ids (that you probably looked the other way on seeing the first time, when you struggled to id them earlier in your birding) and probably at this point start to get into bird clubs.
  • When you are communicating with other birders initially it may help and a few specials come your way no problem.  But it gets harder and soon, if you still have the time and money (or willing to throw out your thumb and catch a lift,) you start to chase rare birds...Twitching.
Now, that progression is what often happens.  It is normal for people to assume that you have done that.  But often, for many birders, another side comes in to play.  Not all your birding is twitching.  You start to go out to observe birds.  The birds in your garden become a fascination.  Nests, breeding, feeding, migration, there is so much of interest to birds and birding.  Conservation.  Many many birders that keep a healthy life list are also involved in bird conservation.

I believe that bird lists are a great way to get people into the hobby.  There are many people with very little interest in nature who take up birding, and through birding get into nature much more.  I can often see that with guests that I have at the lodge.  The birders tend to be the ones also interested in lizards and beetles.

There are many birders who never become mad twitchers.  The peak of "Twiching" as it was in the past is probably gone already.  There are more and more birders who are becoming very knowledgable about birds indeed.  Just search birding blogs (start here to get an idea.)

3.  How do I go about keeping my life list (some personal history)

[Image:  My sister helped decorate my life list booklet, and this is part of the art work.  This was done about 10 years ago, but still shows well on the worn cover of my book.

To decide when I started birding would be a rather tricky thing.  I have been doing it for a long time.  At school I mostly didn't have bird books or bins for ids, but went out with friends who would tell us what birds we were seeing.  As soon as I came to South Africa in 1992 to start studying, I got a bird book and had some old Carl Zeiss bins.

When I started to study at Saasveld in George I met some birders that were more serious and had birding 'life lists.' I was interested. At first I was just trying to do some ids, but I really wanted to 'be' a birder.

The second half of 1995 I was posted at Addo Elephant National Park. [here is another post of mine about my time at Addo] I spent a lot of time alone at an outpost. As summer approached, I was finding myself with lots of daylight hours with nothing to do. We would finish work on normal days at around half past four, and at the latest the sun would set at something like 8 o'clock.

So I took my bins and bird book, and took a note book that I had, drew some lines, and decided, on the 29th of October, 1995, that I was now going to be a birder. Of course, now I would argue that I was one already, but it did make it important for me to start learning to id properly. After I was all set up, I went out for a walk. Birding in the thick bush isn't easy. Especially alone. And without really knowing your bird ids very well. That first day I only got one species that I managed to identify...Black Sunbird. They have changed the name to Amethyst Sunbird Nectarinia amethystina now, which is probably the only name change that bothers me, because I don't want to change it in my was my first post.

[Image:  My bins, old Swarovski 10x40 roof prisms...I love them]

Within the next five days I had twenty birds.  By the 9th of February the next year, I hit 100.  One the first anniversary of listing I had hit 177.  Two years, 319 and so it went on.  When I came to Namibia in 1998 it was fantastic.  I had a whole country of new birds and set about seeing them frantically.  But it all slowed down.  This year I have only added three new birds, two of them rare birds and one was a pelagic that happened to be inshore.  It sure is getting harder to find new birds for my list.  Yet I go birding often.  Not so much with the thought of finding new birds, but just to enjoy and learn.  But there is always that hope of one new species.

I keep my life list in a book, so the term 'tick' never really applies to me.  I started out for years carrying that book into the field, but now its much to valuable for that.  It has some character from those days, but these days I carry field note books with me in the field (or, I know this is wrong, but sometimes I even make a note in my phone's notes function or simply record some things in pictures to remind me later.)  Anyway, when I see a new bird, I make note of where I saw it, when (date and time) and just a few general notes.  I do keep a southern Africa list, and I update my list's numbers on the list of birders in southern Africa who have not yet reached 700 'lifers' [sa heading for 700 club, zest for birds], and I keep a 'life list' of all the birds I have seen anywhere. It is sitting at something like 640, which is not a big list at all. But I have really enjoyed making it and will carry on doing it in the future.

I think sometimes we take ourselves to seriously.  Lists are just a bit of fun, and there is nothing wrong with  a litte competition in it.  What other hobby/sport is totally self accessed?  If you say listing (or call it Twitching, if you want) is the worst thing about birding, then consider is a competition based entirely on the honesty of the practioner, not only their honesty, but their belief in the honesty of those they compete against.  That says something good to me about the feelings of birders towards their fellow birders.  And, in my experience, here in Namibia, at least, most birders I know are some of the most dedicated conservationists in this country!

Added after posting:
Build your life list
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DK Miller said...

Thanks for sharing your experience with keeping a list. I don't list. I avoid it as I'd likely get obsessive. But I think they can be fun and useful.

Namib Naturalist said...

Thanks for the comment. It has been fun for me. I don't know if it's useful?