Laura Erickson's For the Birds

Friday, December 7, 2012

Keeping a Field Notebook and Lifelist

Some of my field notebooks from the 70s

On January first, I want everyone to start keeping a field notebook of the birds they see. Why? Because paying attention to birds contributes to our feelings of well-being. When we become mindful of the birds around us, we take more pleasure in even our most mundane everyday experiences, and when we write down what we see, we can easily recapture those joyful experiences and plan new experiences. As I see it, keeping a notebook of our bird sightings gives us pleasure in the past, present, and future all at once.

Now, while it’s still December, is the right time to head out and buy a notebook for next year’s bird sightings. Don’t get one of those lifelist or birding diary books that show all the birds possible or leave a large space at the top of each page for specific details you may not record every time. Get a plain old lined notebook in which, one by one, you can write down your birds as you see them. Before each day’s birding jaunt, write down the date, where you are, what the weather’s like, who you’re with, and any other details you choose—a blank notebook provides as much or as little space for this information as you like. If you don’t go out on a particular day or week or month, there isn’t a gaping hole between birding events. On a day when you see just a handful of birds, you can use a small space, and can use as many pages as you like when you see lots of birds. In a blank notebook, each bird is an experience in and of itself, and you can add particulars if the bird is doing something you especially want to remember. Checking birds off on a checklist or pre-printed birder’s diary leaves gaping holes at species you missed rather than focusing on the birds you actually enjoyed that day.

That said, those checklists have a lot of value. Few but the most disciplined and/or anal-retentive of us stop each time we see a bird to write it down. Tucked in my own field notebook is a checklist of the birds of whichever state I’m in. When I get back to my car or later that day when I’m home, I go through the checklist to jog my memory of each species I saw, adding these to my notebook along with any other notes I didn’t jot down in the field. If I’m being particularly lazy, sometimes I just check off the birds on the checklist and tape it into that day’s page in the notebook.

To be honest, I’ve been lazy about keeping my own lists for several years, and I’ve had lots and lots of enjoyable birding experiences without them. But when I look back, I can’t remember specific experiences when I didn’t keep notes, while I can thumb through pages of my notebooks from the 70s and vividly recall those lovely experiences. The more details I wrote down, the more fully I can recall the day and the birds, but even when I just recorded a few general notes about the day and jotted down my list without any other details, it’s surprising and gratifying to realize how much I can recall. Now I do take photos of most of the birds I see, which in some ways is even better at jogging happy memories, but I find it most satisfying to remember those photographed birds in context via my trusty field notebooks.

So, just in time for my 2013 Conservation Big Year, I’m getting back into the habit of being diligent about my field notebook again. I hope you have as much fun keeping your notebook as I’ve had, and will once again have, with mine.

(For those of us who submit to eBird, our field notebook can provide the data for us to submit checklists, too.)

Keeping a Life List

If we do keep track of the birds we see each day in a field notebook, is there any good reason why we should also keep a lifelist? If you mark each species you’ve seen into your field guide, a checklist of birds of your state or country, bird listing software, or eBird, you can’t help but notice the empty spaces for birds you haven’t yet seen. I don’t like being reminded of all the birds I missed when looking back on specific birding experiences, but I do like being reminded of all the birds I’ve yet to see—my personal bucket list. Each bird we’ve already seen represents at least one exciting moment in our past, and each one we’ve yet to see is a promise of an exciting moment in our future.

During the first year and a half that I birded, I stayed in Michigan, Illinois, and Wisconsin, with a brief trip to Virginia for a meeting. It was an exciting time for me during which I birded on my own for at least an hour or two every day. My first spring I saw 40 species—a total that would disappoint me for just a spring morning now, but each bird gave me a surge of joy, and I was adding a lifer on average more than every 2 ½ days. When I look at just those first 40 species on my lifelist, I relive each joyful discovery in a way I simply could not if I hadn’t written them down on a list.

After that first spring, in addition to my solitary local jaunts, I took two ornithology classes with lots of field trips, and the next spring went on some Michigan Audubon trips to see more far-flung birds such as Greater Prairie Chickens and Kirtland’s Warblers. If I’d been more experienced, this amount of birding would have left me with at least 250 species, probably more, but I was darned proud of the lifelist I did amass—188 species.

Painted Bunting

Then, in June 1976, Russ attended a scientific meeting in Savannah, Georgia, and took me along. I spent weeks ahead of time poring through my field guides, using the range maps to study all the new possibilities. Of course, I didn’t see most of them on the actual trip, but that didn’t take anything from the joy of anticipation, and the 26 lifers I did see—more than 5 per day—gave me 26 of the most thrilling moments of my life. My first Brown Pelicans! My first Painted Bunting—and he was singing in the sunshine! Anhingas! Snowy Egrets! Purple Gallinules! That spring I’d taken particular pleasure in warbler watching, and on this trip I added the Northern Parula and Yellow-throated Warbler. Filling in gaps in that part of my checklist was especially satisfying.

It was also satisfying to see familiar birds in new settings. Keeping state lists gave me something to look for and extra pleasure on the long drive, because every time we crossed a state line, I got to start anew, adding such common birds as crows, starlings, cardinals, Blue Jays, and Red-winged Blackbirds in each new state. Those state lists didn’t grow very quickly, but that just reminded me of new possibilities for future trips.

Once we reached Savannah I saw a lot of cool birds on both sides of the border, at places like the Savannah Wildlife Refuge in South Carolina and Skidaway Island State Park in Georgia. I had a huge sense of achievement when I broke the 200-mark on my lifelist with exquisite Least Terns at Fort Pulaski. Seeing each bird was a deeply felt joyful experience, but there was also something inexpressibly satisfying about adding birds to my lifelist and state lists, and keeping track of the places where I saw each species. A few years ago, Russ and I returned to some of these places, and we could compare the birdlife now to what I saw then thanks to my lists.

Again, as I always say, no one should go through life listlessly.