I’ve been a dedicated birder (not just casually seeing birds in the neighborhood) for more than 10 years, I’ve birded in five different countries on two different continents and in the Caribbean, and I’ve visited nature preserves and hotspots in different states throughout the U.S. Yet my life list – the sum total of all the bird species I have personally seen and identified – stands, as of today, at “only” 457 species.
With so much dedicated birding, including guided trips and tours of outstanding preserves in some of the most prolific birding destinations in the country, why haven’t I seen more birds? There are even widespread, relatively common birds I’ve never yet added to my list, such as the red-headed woodpecker, barred owl, Carolina chickadee, and purple finch. For me, the explanation is as simple as the painted bunting.
When I first visited south Texas on a press trip to review birding hotspots – of which there are a great many and it’s a stunning destination for any birder – I desperately wanted to see a painted bunting. But not just any bird – not a molting bird, or one half-hidden, or even a subtly gorgeous female. I wanted to see a bright, bold male in all his breeding glory. For my personal life list, I wouldn’t add the painted bunting until I managed to get that crackerjack view.
Fortunately, I did. Among many other stunning birds I saw during the trip, including the green jay, buff-bellied hummingbird, Altamira oriole, aplomado falcon, and least grebe, I got amazing views of a male painted bunting as he visited a secluded watering hole on South Padre Island. Hooray for adding this rainbow of a bird to my life list!
But why was I only interested in a breeding male? The female painted bunting has her own delicate beauty with her lemon-lime plumage, eye ring, and pleasant demeanor. She’s no less spectacular than the male, just differently colored. Careful observation of her colors, shape, size, and bill can make identification just as clear as the male’s bolder plumage palette, so there would be no mistaking her with or without her partner.
For me, the decision to add a life bird to my list is a very personal, intimate one. I must be absolutely certain of the bird’s identity, and I want to have identified it on my own. I don’t mind someone else pointing out what species it is, and I even welcome the friendly heads-up so I know exactly what to look for as I watch the bird’s appearance and behavior. But I do want to confirm that identification in my own heart and mind, through my own observations rather than just being told. Furthermore, I want to be sure of one thing, no matter which bird I am watching – that I won’t be wishing later on that I’d had a clearer, better, more definitive view. I don’t ever want to regret a bird I count, questioning myself and the birds I’ve seen.
Admittedly, we always seem to want better views, longer observations, and more cooperative birds willing to pose for our convenience. I easily recognize that does not happen, so every bird I count is a compromise of sorts. Some I’ve seen spectacularly, others I’ve seen only briefly but still unmistakably, with no doubt that it could possibly have been any other bird, even if I’m not wholly satisfied and contented with the view I did get. I’m always eager to get a great view and a pleasing observational experience with a bird, even if it’s a bird I’ve seen many times before.
Yes, I only have 457 birds on my life list. But I’m confident in all 457, and many of them have very clear memories in my mind’s eye of the first time I saw them, enjoyed them, and marveled at witnessing a new bird. For me, that’s what a life list is about – my life in birding. I want to savor it, to enjoy it, to keep it not as a brief count record or bare number, but as a testimony to how much I enjoy and appreciate birds.
Your life list should be your own, kept however you prefer and with whatever verifications or confirmations you are personally comfortable with. Every birder may keep their list in their own way, but you only have to be happy with your own. You have to be your own birder.
Stay tuned for another discussion – when you can’t keep your list your way – coming soon!