“Why do you always keep a list?” my brother asked on a hot and muggy afternoon in North Florida. Gwynn sat behind me in the canoe as we paddled lazily around a shallow lake. Visiting from California, he had visited local gardens and trails with me, spent time by the pool, and took a few mini-canoe trips. Each time, a small notebook tagged along with me, and I would note the bird species I spotted, then put it away.

“Well…” was my first answer, as I struggled to articulate all the reasons I regularly noted the birdlife in my neighborhood. I keep year and life lists on eBird, which helps scientists collect and analyze movement and population trends, but most of my daily lists originate in areas I tread on a weekly or even daily basis. I rarely record these sightings anywhere, other than my handy, dandy, palm-sized nature journals. Since I couldn’t lean on an “official” reason to keep these lists, I had to look deeper.

As we kept paddling, I continued, “It helps me remember when birds come and when they leave. Otherwise I would never remember.” And it’s true, I know that the Pied-billed Grebes show up around the same time the Mississippi Kites leave, because I make a note of both and it sticks in my memory. I can go back in my notebook to see when other species arrive, or which spend all year in my Florida region.

“It helps me pay attention,” I add after a few more oar strokes, long after my brother regretted asking me this question. “If I’m making notes about what I see, I’m more likely to pay attention to the little things. I notice more.”

Notetaking as a way to hone focus is common among birders and and naturalists in general.

“Sometimes, birders become lazy observers,” writes John Muir Law for the National Audubon Society (note: I work for Audubon Florida). “If you’ve ever dismissed an American Robin, then you’ve been there. It’s human nature: Once we think we know what we’re looking at, we mentally fill in the gaps and move on to the next thing. By pushing yourself to record observations in a journal, you will learn to see more and, at the same time, improve your study of birds in the field.”

My brother and I finish our paddle and head back to shore, but I keep pondering his question in the days and weeks since. Perhaps most importantly, I conclude, I keep track of the birds I see because I like to, because it’s fun. I feel a sense of satisfaction transferring the birds I see to paper, like a small pat on the back for each one. I imagine it’s a similar sense of well being that bakers get when their 99th cookie is as perfect as their 100th, that joggers feel when they reach a mile target or new record, that gamers experience when they beat a level.

Who knows why we do the things we do. If writing my neighborhood birds down makes me smile on a stressful day, that’s really all the reason I need to continue!

Do you keep daily bird lists?

Written by Erika Zambello
Erika Zambello is a National Geographic Young Explorer who grew up in Maine, inspiring a deep interest in nature at an early age. She fell in love with birding after receiving a Sibley field guide for Christmas during her senior year in college, and has birded across the eastern seaboard and internationally ever since. To inspire others to protect birds and the environment, she has blogged for the Conservation Fund, Sarah P. Duke Gardens, Triangle Land Conservancy, and Duke University, and is writing a birding guide to Northern New England for Wilderness Adventures Press. She has founded OneWorldTwoFeet.com, and is currently living along the Emerald Coast in Florida's Panhandle. You can check out her exploration site or follow her on Instragram.