“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?
I do. It can feel a bit obsessive at times, but I agree that it keeps me in the present moment to collect and document what I see. Lately, I’ve been doing cumulative bird counts. On walks, runs, hikes, or looking out my window, I count the number of birds I see and record the details. Over time, I can see the total bird population rise and fall by the seasons and across the years.
Of course. This morning, 2 mi / 3 hrs / 58 species, I can list them all for you 🙂