Keeping track of what you see
(published 9-16-08)

Does the name Sandy Komito ring a bell? Probably not, unless you read “The Big Year,” a book about three men who in 1998 each tried to set a record for the most North American bird species seen in a calendar year. Komito won handily, with 748 species. It's a record that may never be broken.

Komito, a New Jersey native now living in Florida, visited the DuPage Birding Club in July. His bird-by-bird account of his 1998 adventures was fascinating because most of us simply wondered how somebody could possibly see so many birds in one year. The answer had a lot to do with time and money—Komito, a self-made man, had plenty of each.

Truth is, not everyone in the room was impressed. The competitive side of birding is a turn-off for some, and then there's the carbon footprint issue. In most forms, a “big year” is anything but green. Komito, for example, never hesitated to book last-minute cross-country flights to see a single rare bird.

But “extreme listers” like Sandy Komito are themselves rare birds. Most of us keep lists, but we do it for fun, not sport. I think that's how it should be.

Of course, you don't have to be a lister to enjoy birding. There is nothing wrong with not knowing how many species you've seen in your life, or how many kinds of birds you've spotted in your backyard. For me, though, keeping track of these things is a way to chart my progress as a birder. List keeping also motivates me to keep an eye out for new birds, or birds in new places.

My lists are relatively few, with life list and yard list being the most meaningful. I'd be fine if I could only keep those two. But why stop there? I recently made room for another—a list of the birds I've seen in Illinois. The trigger was a small colony of purple martins at Cantigny Park in Wheaton. Watching the birds, it dawned on me that I'd never before seen a martin in this state, my home since 1989.

Well, then I started thinking about a bunch of other cool birds I've seen in Illinois—some being species not easily observed in this region. This past spring I had two state “lifers,” a yellow-crowned night heron in Chicago and a pileated woodpecker at Waterfall Glen Forest Preserve in Darien. And two trips to Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie have yielded northern mockingbird, upland sandpiper and loggerhead shrike—the only place I've seen these species in Illinois.

My best Illinois bird, and one of my favorite sightings of all time, was the scissor-tailed flycatcher that visited the Batavia River Walk in 1998. It took me three visits to Batavia before I finally located this spectacular bird, which fortunately stayed in the same general area for several weeks. Scissor-tailed flycatchers, I've heard, are a dime a dozen in places like Oklahoma, where it's the state bird. But what a thrill to see my first one so close to home!

I'm especially excited about my new Illinois list because of its growth potential. Next spring I hope to explore extreme southern Illinois for the first time, where species like blue grosbeak, worm-eating warbler and Kentucky warbler are waiting if you know where to look. I might even take a side trip to Prairie Ridge State Natural Area (near Newton in Jasper County) and try for greater prairie chicken. Only a few hundred of these charismatic birds survive in our state, due mainly to habitat loss.

The fun of listing applies to the backyard, too. If you birdwatch at home, I highly recommend keeping two lists. The first is simply a log of all the species you've ever seen in or from your yard. That means “flyovers” count, and so does that scarlet tanager in the top our your neighbor's tree. A growing list is your reward for expanding your field of view beyond the feeders and birdbath.

The other backyard list I recommend is a record of the species you see each year and when you see them. I started doing this in 2003. So far my best “yard year” was 88 species in 2007, but my 2008 list is already up to 86. With a little luck, the upcoming fall migration will carry me to a new personal record.

One interesting aspect of an annual yard list is arrival dates. What's the earliest you've seen a junco in the fall? And when can you expect that first golden-crowned kinglet in the spring? With careful recordkeeping, your annual yard lists will answer questions like these and serve as valuable reference tools. Keep them all together—the patterns they reveal can be fascinating.

No matter how you approach listing, have fun with it. Keep track of whatever is meaningful to you personally. Those are the only lists that really matter.

Copyright 2008 by Jeff Reiter. All rights reserved.