Does it count? Sometimes it’s a tough call
(published 6-7-10)

If you’ve read this column before, you know about my precious yard list. Next to my life list, it’s my favorite diary. In early May, however, it became a little less pure. Or maybe not. I’m still pondering what happened.

First, a little background. Many yard list species have never physically entered my space. That’s not a problem. Most people count birds they can see from their yard, so a bird perched in a tree two houses away “counts,” as does a bird flying over. The rule of thumb is that the observer must be stationed on his or her property when the sighting occurs.

Usually that is the case, such as on May 3 when, from my back patio, I spotted a red-headed woodpecker high in a neighbor’s tree. This was an exciting find—one of my favorite birds, and No. 109 on a yard list that began the day we moved to Glen Ellyn in 1997.

These days, growing the list is a big challenge. It takes a lot of watching and luck to add one or two new species per year. So there I was, not expecting much, the day after the red-headed woodpecker sighting.

It started with a buzzy sound from the yard next door. I knew it was a bird but that’s all. My view was blocked by a hedge, and this bird seemed to be low and staying put. The unusual song kept repeating, so after a couple of minutes that seemed like 10 I decided to go around the hedge and try for a visual. This worked out well, because in a moment I was eye-to-eye with a blue-winged warbler! Another new species for the yard list!

Wait a minute boy, not so fast.

It was a blue-winged warbler all right, no doubt about that. I’ve seen a few of them before. But when I spotted this one I was standing on my neighbor’s property, six feet south of my own. After making the ID I scurried back into my own yard, hoping to see or hear the bird. Nothing. The bird was gone.

So, does it count? Or put another way, do I deny myself yard bird No. 110 due to a technicality? Am I nuts to even be worrying about this? Absolutely!

The bottom line is that I counted the bird: blue-winged warbler, No. 110. I did hear and see the bird, after all, and this wasn’t just any bird. It was a premium, out-of-place migrating species that I’ll likely never see again outside my back door. It deserved to be documented.

So you see, I did this for the bird.

In the end, those of us who keep lists make our own rules. It’s a highly personal matter. A few birders, very few, will add a bird to their life list if they just see it fly, relying on the field trip leader for the identification. Most are lot more scrupulous, applying a code of honor that ensures the highest level of list integrity. It helps us sleep at night.

It also keeps the birding police at bay. Nobody wants a visit from the Federal Bureau of Bird List Investigations. If the bureau comes to my place, I’ll calmly tell my story just like I’ve told it here. Then, if they insist, I will remove blue-winged warbler from my yard list. But as soon as their white van with black letters on the door is out of sight, I’ll put it back on. House rules!

Copyright 2010 by Jeff Reiter. All rights reserved.
Blue-winged Warbler photo by Jerry Goldner,