Listing Priorities

The week began with a Barred Owl. Just minutes after midnight, my tired brain registered a series of emphatic hoots somewhere in the woods beyond the campground loop. I smiled as I continued preparing for bed. It had been 14 months since I last encountered the species, which is essentially unheard of on Long Island. These birds are quite common in forests upstate, and I was hoping to connect with one during a brief weekend visit to the Lake George region. Mission accomplished. I listened to the owl hooting and yowling for nearly half an hour before it quieted down, which I took as a cue to get some sleep. One more tick for my 2018 year list.

Birders are all about lists, but not all lists are created equal. The life list, the painstakingly maintained inventory of every bird species ever seen by the chronicler, takes the top spot on the list of lists. Different birders prioritize their other lists according to their own interests and habits, keeping track of what matters most to them. For many, the ABA area list is the be-all and end-all, their crown jewel. Those who spend more time traveling internationally may not place as much stock in their North American total, setting their sights on a world list in the thousands or curating large lists for separate continents. State listing is wildly popular, and I know plenty of birders who are super intense about listing at the county level. Some are content to focus on their home county, while others challenge themselves to create eBird checklists for every county in their state. Lists often keep track of sightings based on time as well as location. One doesn’t have to partake in a true Big Year to experience the thrill and stress of keeping a year list. Month lists, patch lists, yard lists…the list goes on and on! These meta-lists and lists within lists can get complicated in a hurry, but that’s absolutely part of the fun.

For the love of the list

I’ve spent some time pondering my various lists lately. My current year list is more than halfway complete, and it’s looking like my humble, arbitrary goal of 400 species for 2018 is within my reach. It doesn’t come close to the lofty scores of national or global twitchers, but it works just fine for a 20-something high school teacher. I achieved the same target total last year and the year before, so I want to stand up to my own standard again. With an outing to southeastern Arizona coming up next week and 374 birds already under my belt, I’ll almost certainly reach my objective before August is over. A February trip to southern Spain played a major role in bringing me so close to the finish line so early. The week long, 700-mile roadtrip on a different continent netted a heaping helping of additions for my annual archive, as well as 99 all new species for my life list. In fact, if the “Scopoli’s” subspecies of the Cory’s Shearwater had been split by the AOS as many predicted and hoped for, I would’ve been able to claim a triple digit trip. I felt some mild disappointment when I learned that the proposal was voted down this year, which got me thinking about how listing impacts the birding experience.

There’s no question about it, I’d be lost without my lists. My life list is an in-depth record of my travels and experiences, centered around the fascinating organisms I’ve met along the way. There are times, however, when listing gets in its own way a bit. Take my trip to Spain. Does it really matter that I saw 99 lifers instead of 100? The 1% difference between my tally and a sweet, sweet hundo feels much larger than it actually is. That said, every single one of those new birds is a vivid memory, and some of them were truly spectacular. I still saw those shearwaters, too, whatever the scientific communities at home and abroad choose to call them. On the subject of year listing, I know that it is impossible to connect with every species I seek before New Year’s Day 2019. If I’d missed that late night Barred Owl, a species I’ve encountered on countless occasions in the past, would its absence from the final count be felt more than any of the other thousands of species I won’t see in 2018? Is it more frustrating to miss a common, easy bird for the year, or to dip on a regional rarity that showed up nearby? If you saw every warbler reported in the state this spring except for one, would you focus on the exciting achievement or the agonizing blunder? I’m certain every birder has uniquely personal answers to questions like these. Birding is what you make of it.

Rack ’em up!

While I was packing to depart from Lake George the morning after the owl’s visit, I checked reports back at home on my phone. The forecast predicted an interesting change in the weather. Strong southeast winds off the sea, combined with a patchy wave of rain and fog sweeping up the coast towards New York, made great conditions for seawatching. Having grown up along the coast, I absolutely adore seabirds. Until this week, my 2018 list was sorely lacking in pelagic species. Initial updates from Long Island indicated that the birds were definitely on the move: shearwaters, storm-petrels, jaegers, and gannets were all reported early on Sunday morning. As much as it always pains me to leave the lake, the place where I was truly introduced to the great outdoors, I was eager to get back to the Island.

For the next few days, until the high winds finally started to peter out late Wednesday night, I spent much of my free time by the sea. Robert Moses State Park is located near a productive ocean inlet, and the patio of the main bath house offers a sheltered, elevated vantage point for scanning the waves. As soon as I got home, I drove out for an afternoon vigil. The next day, I was headed to the beach before sunrise. After allowing myself to sleep in an extra hour on Tuesday, the nicest day of the week, Wednesday once again found me proudly leading the dawn patrol. Despite regular cloudbursts and occasional periods of limited visibility, I managed to rack up some pretty impressive seabird totals for a land-based effort at this time of year in New York. You want a list? I’ve got a list!

Friends and family asked me what the best bird of my 4-day seawatch was. How does one define a best bird? Looking to my lists, there’s no denying that each species occupies different rankings according to different metrics. Great Shearwaters and Parasitic Jaegers were both welcome additions to my 2018 list. I’ve enjoyed the company of these birds many times before, but neither is an easy, guaranteed encounter in most years. I saw the two species on multiple occasions during the week, but the tiny, surface-hugging Wilson’s Storm-Petrels eluded me until the final day. Is a bird “better” because it poses a challenge or because it makes life easy for you? Sooty Shearwater gave me the slip entirely in 2017. Spotting those shadowy shapes zooming past the beach was that much sweeter as a result. Hell, I hadn’t seen a Manx Shearwater since 2014, when I worked for Project Puffin. I enjoyed greatly improved views of the dapper little flyers, for the first time ever in my home state. That’s a pretty great bird. The Cory’s Shearwater, source of my wishful split heartbreak, was the only tubenose I found these past few days that wasn’t “new.” A hypothetical, short-sighted, diehard lister may have scoffed, “We’ve already got one!” Even so, the sight of those hundreds of sky sailors, masterfully harnessing the squalls on their journey east and diving by the dozens into a feeding frenzy with dolphins just beyond the breakers, is the kind of observation that makes birding so special. Memories like that are the reason we keep lists in the first place.

What really counts

I did make a brief foray away from my post at the shoreline around midday on Tuesday. Birders reported a young Roseate Spoonbill hanging out at Liberty Marsh. This property of the Wallkill River National Wildlife Refuge is bisected by the New York/New Jersey border, which makes ticking new species a challenge for those who keep lists based on geography. I learned about the sighting from fellow Empire State residents who grumbled that the bird was sticking to, and only visible from, the southern portion of the wetlands. My list-brain momentarily harrumphed in agreement, but I soon came to my senses. Spoonbills are wonderful, bizarre, entertaining birds, and I had an opportunity to see one a short drive away! Invisible political lines be damned!

When a wayward wader looks out over the landscape at Liberty Marsh, it doesn’t see any indication that two different territories are rubbing up against one another. It sees only a continuous, complete habitat that apparently feels close enough to home for a creature that is very far from home indeed. I had to keep checking my map to determine where the magical boundary was as I walked along the loop trail, plugging my sightings into eBird accordingly. I managed to find the spoonbill with little trouble, and I admired it from afar for several minutes, both of our feet planted firmly in New Jersey soil. I didn’t sit around and wait for my quarry to make a grand, dramatic flight across the marsh to the (somehow superior) ponds a few hundred yards north. It would’ve been awesome to add Roseate Spoonbill to my New York list, but today the bird was content to stay in New Jersey. I love my state list, and wacky new additions to my state list make me happy, but I’m not crazy enough about it to fly a drone out to nudge the bird over the border, as some bystanders playfully suggested. I may not even live in New York forever, so in the end my lifelong tally of sightings here may not always be my most prized state list. The prospect of starting a new home state list, and a new yard list, and hopefully many new year lists is an exciting idea! Times change. Birds come and go. Our lists help us keep track of the encounters, but the memories are worth more than numbers on a page.

…besides, at least the spoonbill was a new bird for my year list!