Not that long ago I saw my 450th lower 48 life bird in the form of a Golden-winged Warbler. He was cute, flashy, and very cooperative. 450 seems like a pretty big mark... and 500 really isn't too far away given not-to-distant traveling plans to Texas. However, I've recently been reflecting a lot about listing and what it all means.
(GWWA - Lower 48 450th lifer)
Back in January of 2006 I hated birders and birds. Honestly, I really did. I know many of you have a hard time believing that but there are MANY people who can testify to this being reality. Thing is, I didn't know much and it frustrated me to be around people who had seen HUNDREDS of birds and the only birds I had seen were American Robin, Bald Eagle, Blue Jay, and American Goldfinch. Twitching seemed absolutely insane to me and completely un-environmentally friendly. I didn't understand the mentality that was behind it all. Who cared about the LeConte's Thrasher? Why was it worth getting cactus spines in my foot? It was just a bird. Why would we drive 12 hours out of our way (each way) to see Whooping Cranes in Texas? Wouldn't the drive be a huge waste? Not to mention, if everyone did this regularly wouldn't the habitat disappear sooner with SLR and climate change?
In time, I got past the frustration and began to identify birds like Chickadees, Kestrels, and Red-tailed Hawks. Birding became fun and a way to feel connected to the world around me. It was a way to feel a sense of place and was one more piece of the puzzle that is the world around us. I saw Baltimore Orioles, Rose-breasted Grosbeaks, and Warblers! Birding was fun and I started keeping track of what I saw. Not because I wanted to reach a certain number but because knowing how many species I was able to identify on my own was a testament to how much I had learned and how far I had come in just a few (2) years. My 300th species came in the form of a Grasshopper Sparrow in Northern Lower Michigan. It was very exciting because I didn't really know how to identify many sparrows at the time but they seemed like they could be a lot of fun especially when they had neat names.
Things changed drastically between 300 and 400. I became obsessed with birding. I wanted to find out how good of a birder I could be, how many things I could see, and what I was capable of when I pushed myself to my limits. I set a state record, I chased birds, I got upset if I missed a sighting. Four years ago I hated that type person because they seemed to not care about the birds themselves so I attempted to make an effort to observe behavior, practice the identification, and enjoy EVERYTHING. However, there were times when I failed because I was simply too caught up in the moment.
(Me enjoying birding from a parking lot)
At the end of my year I was left to a similar conclusion as Ken Kauffman was at the end of his big year; the journey, the process, the birds are what make it worth it. The listing is exhausting. Listing can be fun as it pushes you to be out birding every day and can help you keep track of how far you come. However, somehow it seems as if our motivation as birders has switched away from this. Life lists, year lists, etc no longer really represent what we know or what we've learned; instead they reflect how talented the people we bird with are, how talented the people are in the state we live, how often we are called about rarities, how often we chase rarities, etc.
Stop and think for a moment: how many birds have YOU seen? Not how many birds have you chased. When was the last time you went birding, had a completely average or below average day and were proud of it? I'm guilty of saying "gee today was really slow and below par" and being bummed about it at times. But I want to fight this so bad. I like anyone will fall into this trap. I just really hope that I surround myself with better people than I have at times in the past. People who appreciate rarities from a distance (and don't harass the hell out of them), people who genuinely appreciate every bird they see, and people who recognize that "getting out into the field isn't a means to the end, it itself is the end".
(people who genuinely care about the birds)
My big year was filled with many above average and below average days. But each one of them is what made it great. Because the year ended up being about much more than a number and a total. However, it would have been very easy, the temptation was there, and on some days I gave in to it and the number became my focus. I think as a birder it is impossible to escape this temptation at times. However, I promise to myself to strive to escape it as much as possible, to appreciate every day, every bird, every experience, and every walk where we see "nothing" because everything is part of the journey and everything is part of our life. And really, the "big life" isn't about a total of species. It's about knowledge, growth, happiness, friends, and family.
(friends who are practically family)
Two years ago 300 species said a lot about me: it said I had come from hating birds and birders to learning to love, accept, and identify. 450 says I've grown some more, but it also says that I bird with three of the most experienced birders in the state on a regular basis. It says that people call me about rarities, and it says that I've moved to a new geographical region of the country. What says way more about the last two years is that I now can identify dozens of warblers by song and/or call. I can tell you about uppertail and undertail coverts of Common Gull. I can tell you about retricies and tarsi of Jaegers. I can tell you when Blackpoll Warblers arrive in NH, when you're likely to happen upon a Black Tern, and how to read radar for migration.
These are the things I'm proud of now; not 450.