Goal-Oriented Birding

I realized when I became slightly uncomfortable asking myself “why lifers,” I had to blog it out! I’ll start with what to me is the personal elephant in the room: using fossil fuel to see a new species, alongside the potential disruption to the bird. If I’m honest, I feel the contradiction of releasing more carbon through combustion to go see a bird, and the fear that I’ll inadvertently disrupt it. The more “public forum” discomfort in my question probably mostly came from a negative association with ticking (and though I can’t quite place it, somewhere on social media I think I remember someone outright criticizing listing in birding). I remember going to chase a lifer with a friend once, who remarked that our experience was “dirty” because we pretty much just went for the target bird. Would it have been more worth it if we’d birded around the area longer, and if so, to whom, and why?

There has been recent criticism of ABA Big Years as privileged and not particularly requiring skill (i.e. if you have enough money, you can do whatever you want). Also, what is any endeavor like that really worth? In other words, what level of experience, effort and takeaway makes seeing a bird “worth it” (and to whose criteria)? For these reasons, I’ve wondered if lifer chasing will become somewhat passé in favor of some other more nuanced and woke way to enjoy wildlife (or maybe, we’ll just talk about it less).

Nonetheless, though, I love finding lifers, and I think there’s something to it.

“Every morning I awake torn between a desire to save the world and an inclination to savor it. This makes it hard to plan the day. But if we forget to savor the world, what possible reason do we have for saving it? In a way, the savoring must come first.” – E.B. White, from a New York Times interview in 1969 by Israel Shenker

For instance, I resonated with this article about why it’s important to have a nemesis bird. The article partially talks about chasing lifers, and how the whole process makes you a better birder. I believe it makes me a better ornithologist: I usually read extensively about species I hope to see! I study phenology and location of rarity reports, and dig into why they may be more or less likely to occur in some areas at some times. If I’m going on a trip, I pour over the Birds of North America (BNA) accounts for species I hope to encounter. By the time I see them, they’re practically little feathered celebrities to me.

“Birding without a target is just a gussied-up walk in the woods; you need to have some sort of treasure.” – Nicholas Lund

That quote resonates with me, but I’m also not sure it’s a universal truth. Yet, I see it play out so often as the author describes: people like myself who love birds always want to see a new species, and people who are often skilled birders are driven by seeking new things. How then does listing and birding intertwine?

I’m not sure I can answer that question, and I can also only speak to my values around birding. These bear no particular virtue, but just reflect perhaps my outlook on life. First off, I only keep a life list (no area or time-specific lists).

My “Why”

The reason may be complex, but the answer that I know best is that I’m aware there’s so much to see in this world, and we’re not going to see or do it all. In that way, I actually list a lot of things, and I rarely return to something I’ve tried before (e.g. a recipe, a book) unless it’s really that good. Otherwise, and most commonly, the scales tip in favor of the unknown. Birds are my favorite things on the planet, so I’d like to see as many kinds of them as I can. I won’t pass up an opportunity to see a lifer for much, knowing our future is uncertain and life is short.

One of my friends mentioned that people keep checklists for the feeling of accomplishment. Perhaps that drives me too: I’m a goal-oriented person, and maybe listing feels like progress in my hobby. There is an underpinning sense of urgency, though, and I’m not sure if that’s a good thing. I wrestle between listing and enjoying sometimes. I think a challenge in many spheres of my life is learning to let go of the future and being fully in the present.

How I Experience It

In the case of a local rarity, I love the popup of an out-of-the-blue alert for a rare bird in the area! It can be likened to any other anomalous local event that would add a bit of excitement: it shakes up the ordinary. It puts into focus my plans or obligations for the day, and the importance of whatever else has been occupying my mind. It shakes things up, and is my way of ensuring I keep things in perspective. The cool thing is, if you’re a birder, you have the wherewithal to understand why it’s so interesting. In that sense, chasing lifers can be way lower impact and simpler than many other forms of entertainment (I’m thinking most recently when a king eider showed up on the lakefront, not far from where I live).

The Benefits

Looking for lifers is, perhaps most importantly for me, my form of “carpe diem.” Sometimes, chasing lifers pushes me beyond personal boundaries to help me accomplish things I didn’t think I could at the time. It has also thus been an impetus for me to take some calculated risks and get out of the ordinary, in several ways. For instance, in my mind, there was no way I could chase an arctic tern a week over 3 hours away before my Ph.D. defense. Yet, we did, and that was a great memory. We also used that trip to visit a natural area I’d very much been wanting to see, and I got to see a “lifer” species of wildflower (squirrel corn) blooming. (Also, it got me temporarily out of the high stress that staying in my typical surroundings was feeding.) Guess what? I still defended successfully, and am so glad I took the chance to go for it! I would have wondered what might have been had I passed it up.

When I go birding, and specifically looking for lifers, it pushes me to experience the fullness of the day. It gets me up well before civil twilight and keeps me out all hours of the late night/early morning. We plan vacations around seeing lifers, and it’s not just for ticks. As ecologists, we just love how new bird species signify that you’re in a different place. (I almost typed it signifies that we’re not in Kansas anymore, but we haven’t spent nearly enough time birding Kansas, and we’d love to go!) In that sense too, I’m happy that we can thereby appreciate the nuance of ecosystems. Until our most recent vacation, all of them have been to the Dakotas, which isn’t a common vacation destination many would have on their bucket lists. Yet, we appreciate the landscape and the fine-scale differences that make grassland bird habitat (it’s more intricate than you think, and we still can’t say we totally get what’s going on just from our birding trips). Places many would call “ordinary” become full of wonder when you’re looking for birds you haven’t seen. We often discuss why a bird would be here and not there, and then dive deeper into our understanding.

So, while I don’t know if listing is a necessity for being a birder, it certainly pushes the boundaries of my experience. It’s a rich experience for me, I think because I do so much research before and after. Seeing a long-anticipated lifer brings to life out of the pages of reading about plumage, behavior and ecology. I also let myself be surprised in the event of going to a place with different bird species, allowing myself to explore a new park and seeing what and where species occur (and of course you’re inevitably surprised to find a rare bird).

Other Goals

Life listing brings a lot to my birding experience, though it isn’t the whole story! I also find a lot of joy in intensive citizen science bird efforts such as the Breeding Bird Survey (BBS) and Breeding Bird Atlas (BBA). Generally having some sort of a target or goal feeds my birding experiences.

Please comment on the discourse around listing and goal-oriented birding, because I’m sure there are articles and public threads I’m unaware of. Also, what role does listing or goal-setting play in your birding practice?

One thought on “Goal-Oriented Birding

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *