I have a confession that I hope won’t get me kicked off this blog: I have no idea where my life list currently stands. Since I moved to Montana I’ve been updating it sporadically at best, and over the past year or so, not at all. Part of this is a simple technology problem — my official list is stored in a clunky, outdated format at an internet location I rarely visit any more. Part of it has been shifting priorities as I work to get my writing career off the ground — getting outside is still important, but if I’m in front of my computer I want to be writing something publishable, or at least fun. Part of it has been sheer laziness.
And, you know, on some level that’s fine. Plenty has been written about the joys and values of birding that isn’t list-centric, and a lot of it is right. Someone who is just happy to see a Stellar’s Jay or a Greater Flamingo or an Evening Grosbeak isn’t lesser-than.
But the thing is, I know that’s not me because I’ve been through this before. After being a fairly serious, if inexpert, lister in high school, I quit listing for the first time in undergrad, for many of the same reasons I listed above along with a dash of diagnosed depression (in an post-ironic twist, I still told anyone who asked that the reason I chose Cornell over Harvard was the Laboratory of Ornithology.) Moving to NYC, with so many incredible birding opportunities available by public transit, brought me back into the game. I even tried to do an all public-transit Big Year once, but that fell apart quickly because, again: I can be quite lazy.
Lazy will probably keep me from ever being a truly competitive lister on the world stage, but that doesn’t mean that I don’t see the value in twitching, ticking, and all those other activities that sound a bit like symptoms. Just as I’ve tried to find a middle way between chasing and not chasing rarities, I believe there must be ground where I can enjoy listing without letting it run my life to the extent that I become a comedic movie character.*
Enter eBird. I’ve used eBird sporadically since 2007, but I recently went back (confession: for the smugness of being able to enter Baikal Teal) and I don’t know whether the interface has changed or I have, but something about it is really clicking with me lately. It’s still rigorous enough that I feel I’m contributing to something of scientific value but it seems more user-friendly than I remember, easier to extract useful information from and less intimidating. Perhaps, too, it doesn’t hurt that the number of lists from Montana is large enough to create meaningful pictures in the data, but small enough that I feel like I’m really contributing in some way.
Another thing that helped was taking a nature journalling class. I always found journals unnatural and clunky, prone to getting dropped in puddles and lost, to say nothing of a little bit old-fashioned and Victorian cabinet-of-curiosities precious. I couldn’t draw and I wasn’t going to note the wind speed and barometric pressure every time I went outside. Turns out, you don’t have to be Charles Darwin or Beatrix Potter for it to be fun, and potentially valuable.
With both the eBird and the journals, what I have learned is that a record helps me revisit glory days. I flip through an old notebook, even ones where I just scribbled a date and a list of species names, and I often find myself being taken back to a given afternoon or at least a season. It’s Proustian, and less fattening than cookies. It’s for me. Anything competitive about it is purely a bonus.
The latest addition
*As an aside, I know that That Film was quite controversial around here, but I must report that over the past year or so I’ve run into at least three conversations where people told me they were never interested in birding until they saw it, and proceeded to have interesting ornithological discussions with me that grew out of queries about how realistic it was.