105 – Why I Bird

Yesterday my life list passed 100 birds. This makes me happy; I’ll try to explain why.

Beltzner asked me once why I liked birds so much. I told him I didn’t, not particularly. I like nature. But if you go out for a walk in nature, you’re apt to come across a rodent or two, maybe an interesting mammal like a fox or deer, and you’re going to see at least 20 to 30 different kinds of birds. Bird knowledge is high return on investment, and gives lots of opportunity for practice. Knowing… I don’t know… voles, seems less immediately rewarding.

As for keeping track of them, I only started that last fall after a trip to Florida that was particularly packed with “life birds” (birds I’d never seen in the wild.) It may delight you to know that keeping track, “listing” as it’s called, is not without controversy. There are rules, if you enjoy such things, and there are a variety of local, regional, continental and world lists to work from. There are also, because of course there would be, reactionary elements within the bird watching world who are anti-list. There are lines drawn along the axis of listing that separate “birders” from “bird watchers” in ways that any Trekkie (or Trekker) will find immediately familiar.

I mostly don’t go in for all that. I record every bird I see in the wild; that’s it. For now I keep the list to North America, though I might start a world list at some point. I don’t record a bird until I’m confident of the ID, and I add a little ‘P’ in the margin for those where I managed to snag a good photo. Among (ahem) serious North American birders, my 105 is child’s play. 250 is the price of admission, 400 is typical of serious hobbyists, and 700 is a target once thought impossible but now reached regularly by people with the ability to fly to the Aleutian Islands to sneak in some Eurasian migrants while still technically in North America. I’m not likely to go in for all that, either.

Still, it’s rewarding for me to keep track. It motivates me to seek out habitats I haven’t visited before, and it lets me flag certain birds with extra import. It helps me notice detail on the birds that, I think, makes me a better photographer. Mostly, it gets me out of the house and into nature with a camera – that’s reason enough.

For posterity, then, my list to date (in Peterson’s order). Big thanks to Barry, my mentor in all things bird, for getting me this far.

  1. Canada Goose
  2. Mute Swan
  3. Tundra Swan
  4. American Wigeon
  5. Mallard
  6. Redhead
  7. Ring-necked Duck
  8. Lesser Scaup
  9. Long-tailed Duck
  10. Bufflehead
  11. Common Merganser
  12. Wild Turkey
  13. Common Loon
  14. Western Grebe
  15. Northern Gannet
  16. Brown Pelican
  17. Double-crested Cormorant
  18. Anhinga
  19. Magnificent Frigatebird
  20. Great Blue Heron
  21. Great Egret
  22. Snowy Egret
  23. Tricolored Heron
  24. Cattle Egret
  25. Green Heron
  26. White Ibis
  27. Wood Stork
  28. Black Vulture
  29. Turkey Vulture
  30. Greater Flamingo
  31. Osprey
  32. Bald Eagle
  33. Northern Harrier
  34. Cooper’s Hawk
  35. Red-tailed Hawk
  36. Rough-legged Hawk
  37. American Kestrel
  38. American Coot
  39. Sandhill Crane
  40. Killdeer
  41. Black Oystercatcher
  42. Spotted Sandpiper
  43. Ruddy Turnstone
  44. Sanderling
  45. Laughing Gull
  46. Ring-billed Gull
  47. Herring Gull
  48. Western Gull
  49. Black-legged Kittiwake
  50. Caspian Tern
  51. Royal Tern
  52. Sandwich Tern
  53. Common Murre
  54. Thick-billed Murre
  55. Atlantic Puffin
  56. Rock Pigeon
  57. Mourning Dove
  58. Snowy Owl
  59. Acorn Woodpecker
  60. Yellow-bellied Sapsucker
  61. Downy Woodpecker
  62. Hairy Woodpecker
  63. Northern Flicker
  64. Pileated Woodpecker
  65. Eastern Phoebe
  66. Eastern Kingbird
  67. Gray Jay
  68. Blue Jay
  69. American Crow
  70. Fish Crow
  71. Common Raven
  72. Tree Swallow
  73. Northern Rough-winged Swallow
  74. Bank Swallow
  75. Barn Swallow
  76. Black-capped Chickadee
  77. Tufted Titmouse
  78. Red-breasted Nuthatch
  79. White-breasted Nuthatch
  80. Hermit Thrush
  81. American Robin
  82. Gray Catbird
  83. Northern Mockingbird
  84. European Starling
  85. Cedar Waxwing
  86. Yellow Warbler
  87. American Tree Sparrow
  88. Black-Throated Sparrow
  89. Savannah Sparrow
  90. Song Sparrow
  91. White-crowned Sparrow
  92. Dark-eyed Junco
  93. Northern Cardinal
  94. Indigo Bunting
  95. Red-winged Blackbird
  96. Common Grackle
  97. Boat-tailed Grackle
  98. Great-tailed Grackle
  99. Brown-headed Cowbird
  100. Baltimore Oriole
  101. Pine Grosbeak
  102. House Finch
  103. White-winged Crossbill
  104. American Goldfinch
  105. House Sparrow

10 comments

  1. This may be the tipping point for getting into this myself. And for the same reasons, too.

    Any pointers for getting started? Favourite birding lens?

  2. Your Acorn Woodpecker photo is really, really cool.

  3. I have no strong feelings on birds, but I do love learning about subcultures.

  4. @humph – love those posts.

    @drew – Thanks. He was a real treat, especially for an east-coaster like me. Not only are they Western birds, but very local even in the West, so I was lucky to catch him.

    @tyla – OMG me too. I feel backwards into this particular subculture, but I have a whole shelf at home full of subculture profiles. Word Freak is a personal favourite.

    @Unfocused – Woo!

    As for getting started, some tips:

    – If you know someone local who’s into birding, latch on to them and extract their vital essences. Seriously, not only will they know good spots to find birds, but they’ll probably also have informed opinions about the various guides available for New Zealand, and know some of the common gotchas for birds in your area.

    – Find yourself a guide book. The big names are Peterson, Kaufman and Sibley. Amazon seems to think that Peterson has an NZ book, at least. First and foremost, the guide book helps you identify birds, but they typically have a little section at the front on basics, and having the birds arranged taxonomically helps give you a feel for the various relationships. Most listers start by just marking up the index in their guide – so much so that many indices in field guides now have little checkboxes beside each species.

    – If you’re gonna be a camera-based birder, you’re in a special category. The camera can be a crutch, it can cover for weak field skills by letting you stare at a bird after the fact, but personally I think (perhaps obviously) that anything that gets you involved and attending to the details is a good thing.

    In terms of lens, while I covet very expensive things, there isn’t a need in the early days. You’ll be birding by daylight, so you don’t need super-fast glass to get it done. All of my bird pics have been taken with Nikon’s 70-300mm, F4-5.6 VR lens, which runs about $500 new and is a phenomenal bargain at that price. The VR is amazing for letting you hand-hold at 300mm (480mm equivalent on a DX sensor!) But if I remember correctly, you shoot Canon, so that specific lens won’t give you much love. Another quick search at amazon suggests that the Canon EF 70-300mm f/4-5.6 IS USM is a basically identical product. These days I’m contemplating an upgrade to an F4 300mm or even longer, largely because F4 is fast enough that I could actually use a teleconverter with it when appropriate.

    There’s always a nicer lens out there, of course.

  5. Canadian Goose at #1 but Bald Eagle down at #32? Why do you hate freedom?!!1!

  6. I maintain some interest in birds, but haven’t quite gotten to the point of keeping a list. You’re making me think about it, though.

    All the “warning boxes” in Sibley about how easy it is to get gull identification wrong might scare me off, though.

    Mozilla’s Mountain View office happens to be relatively near what I have seen alleged to be some of the best birdwatching spots on the West Coast of the US. When you’re in town, I could certainly show you where you can find quite a few birds to add to your list (at least some times of day or some tides, although I’ve never quite managed to predict which ones).

  7. […] 105 – Why I Bird « meandering wildly […]

  8. So what role do you ascribe nominative determinism in your chosen hobby?

  9. @John P: not very much of one, per se; birding has more post-hoc aptonomenclature than it does propter-hoc determinism.

    Put more simply, I’m not sure the birds care what we call them. 🙂