Can a Casual Birder Have a 500+ Life List?

A Swallow-tailed Kite – a relatively common CR species I first saw just last week – spotted from the El Copal Reserve in Cartago, Costa Rica.

About three years ago, I wrote in a post from Ecuador that “Even after taking a pretty intense ornithology class at Cornell University and working for the Lab of Ornithology, I don’t really consider myself a birder.” Last year I revised that statement a bit, clarifying that “now, as James and I add our observations around Xandari to eBird every day, my opinion may have changed slightly (though I can’t yet subscribe to the labels of bird-head or bird-nerd by a long shot).” Then, this January I wrote of myself and my friends John and Justin that, “Although none of us are the type of birder that pursue ‘life lists’ — a checklist of the thousands of bird species in the world that one has seen — we all use eBird and are definitely interested in seeing and identifying wildlife of any sort.”

The parenthetical from last June holds true — I still wouldn’t call myself a bird-nerd or hardcore birder — but, having just surpassed 500 species in my eBird life checklist this past week (having added thirty-five species I’d never seen before, and twenty-two I’d never heard and still haven’t seen), I’m finding it harder to convince myself that my claim six months ago continues to apply to me. Does trying to identify every bird I see or hear, writing that information down, and then submitting it to eBird count as dedicated pursuit of a life list? Part of my goal in doing this is recording data for the purposes of eBird’s citizen science initiative, so I can say that the list isn’t merely for personal glory in high numbers. There’s also a biophile and naturalist’s pleasure of matching observations with scientific classification, putting organisms into their respective slots and knowing that you solved the puzzle of identifying a living creature to the species level amongst thousands of distinct possibilities.

But what happens when this activity is quantified, as it is so conveniently done by eBird, and you derive satisfaction from watching the life list expand over time? And not only that, but you sort of look forward to going outside partly because you just might see or hear a species of bird that you haven’t before, and then your list will grow further? I don’t mean to indicate that I constantly have birds on the brain, or that I can’t enjoy being outdoors without the promise of a new bird species, but I have to admit that I’ve developed a certain “collector’s appeal” as my life list has swelled into the four-hundreds over the last year and now sits at 518. And while I have great respect for self-proclaimed bird-nerds with massive life-lists — several of whom I count among my friends and are contributors to this blog — for some reason I remain reluctant to label myself in the same manner.

Perhaps it’s because although I enjoy looking at birds and admiring their beauty, I haven’t had a lifelong passion for them, and birding is not my favorite hobby. While I have grown to like the sight of a large life-list count, having it grow is not my primary aim. When I’m out birding my objectives are to a) find birds I haven’t seen before that I consider either “cool” or aesthetically captivating, b) watch a bird do something interesting or novel for my personal and scientific gratification, and c) get a photo of the bird or a video of its behavior that is worth recording and sharing for the sake of beauty or curiosity. But I’m sure a hardcore birder can relate to all that too.

A male Snowcap, a species of hummingbird I’d never seen before last week but always wanted to given its stunning white crown, which is impossibly brilliant in person. This individual was seen at El Copal Reserve right by the main lodge.

There’s no doubt that my time at Cornell University was the main catalyst for my recent interest in birding, although it probably helped that I grew up with the frequent and very fortunate opportunities to see “exotic” birds like Scarlet Macaws, Resplendent Quetzals, toucans, hummingbirds, and other species in Costa Rica. It so happened that one of the better part-time job openings available my sophomore year was a student position at the Lab of Ornithology in the citizen science branch, which exposed me to a completely new field of study. It was largely by chance that I took the intense Cornell ornithology course, because I was looking for engaging vertebrate biology classes and, coincidentally, some good friends were enrolling in that particular one. From there I’ve embarked on the path of a casual birder who just happens to have a relatively large life list due to favorable circumstances. We’ll see what I write if I ever get to the 1000 mark.

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