I woke up in 2011 to the sound of a downy woodpecker hammering the suet feeder outside my bedroom. It was my FOY. That’s birder shorthand for First of Year. My FOY downy woodpecker was followed shortly by my FOY black-capped chickadee, FOY red-breasted nuthatch and FOY blue jay.
For some, it’s the excitement that comes with a brand new year of birding. For others, it’s a brand new year of birding and listing. A life list is a record of all the birds you’ve seen in your life. Or, at least, that’s the way it starts.
The act of starting a life list is nature’s way of telling you that a pastime has become an addiction. My life list started as a young teenager and for that I blame none other than Roger Tory Peterson. In 1934, Peterson created America’s first popular bird guide. It was simple for beginners to use, plus it featured a new identification system that pointed out the field marks useful in recognizing the species. And it had a checklist of birds.
Starting a list was as easy as checking off each new sighting. Eventually, I lost my original Peterson guide, leaving it on a bench somewhere. This actually proved to be a blessing because it gave me a chance to purge the birds from my life list that I had probably misidentified in my youthful optimism. (I’m pretty sure that the worm-eating warbler I originally identified on a New Hampshire mountaintop was actually something else.)
You are a mere addict if you have a list. You are an incurable fanatic if you have a list of lists. As the New Year starts, I have 752 birds on my world life list, 550 birds on my North American life list, 310 birds on my Maine list and 129 birds seen around my home. Me, addicted? By the way, those aren’t impressive numbers. In 2010, Luke Seitz of Falmouth chalked up as many Maine birds in one year as I’ve seen in my entire life. Doug Hitchcox of Hollis has been spending 2011 breaking that record.
There are birders with state lists, county lists, yard lists and feeder lists. Some list by continent, country, region or even parts of regions. An attempt to list a maximum number of birds in 24 hours is called a Big Day. The ultimate Big Day competition attracts some of the nation’s elite birders to New Jersey for an event called the World Series of Birding, sponsored by New Jersey Audubon each May. A competitive list for a year is a Big Year. It was fodder for this year’s Steve Martin movie titled, of course, “The Big Year.” I may be addicted to birding, but even I think these people are a little nuts.
OK, maybe I’m a little nuts, too. I hold grudges against birds that elude me. Last April, I finally put mangrove cuckoo on my life list after multiple trips and 30 years of trying to find the little twerp in southern Florida. Two days later, I located a Cape Sable seaside sparrow in the Everglades after 20 years of trying. While driving north, I spent a South Carolina evening in a cheap motel, searching the Internet for any other birds that I could add to my list during the long drive home. The next day, I chased down No. 550 — a Swainson’s warbler in Congaree National Park near Gadsden. Until then, I didn’t even know there was a Congaree National Park.
Few bird lovers are listers. The more sensible birders avow that listers focus too much on the list and too little on the bird. They’re aghast when a companion spies a new species, checks it off, and then charges away in search of the next one without fully appreciating the first. There’s a lot of merit to their horror.
Kenn Kaufman writes some of today’s best field guides. He self-observes a personal quality that has made him one of America’s foremost experts: He simply takes more time looking at each bird, paying rapt attention to the special field marks and behaviors that fashion the bird’s uniqueness. This may not seem important at first, but when the bird is next encountered in the field, the lighting, plumage, age and proximity may all be different. The birder who paid attention the first time is less likely to be fooled the second.
So what kind of birder are you? Just curious. I’m keeping a list.
Bob Duchesne serves in the Maine Legislature, is president of the Penobscot Valley Chapter of Maine Audubon, created the Maine Birding Trail and is the author of the trail guidebook of the same name. He can be reached at email@example.com.