Hart Beat by Hart Rufe

First published May 1, 2013 ... Contact Hart at hartrufe@gmail.com

Thick-billed Vireo

Serious birders can add this Thick-billed Vireo to their lists with good conscience. Other sightings may be open to discussion.

Life Birds and other lists

White-cheeked PintailMost birders keep lists of the birds they have seen.  Perhaps the most common list is of the birds seen on a particular field trip. Many birders keep a “yard” list of the birds seen around their home, or birds seen from their kitchen window. Others, a county list of the birds they have seen in their home county, or their state, or a region such as the Treasure Coast or the Delaware Valley, the two regions Jewel and I bird the most.

You get the idea, the list of possibilities is endless. State lists, multiple county lists, multiple state lists, international lists, birds of South America, Africa, France, Russia, trip lists, you name it. We even have a friend who keeps a list of birds seen on television shows, and a second list of birds ­heard on television shows, including those strange anomalies when a definite North American bird is heard in a TV show while depicting some African jungle scene. And I won’t even get into Big Year lists.

But the one list that is most popular and the one most birders are asking about when they ask, “What’s your life list?” is the birds seen during your lifetime in North America, meaning north of the Mexican border and including Canada. Officially, the birds that may be counted on a formal birding life list is legislated by an American Birding Association committee composed of eight members who evaluate every sighting of a new bird seen in North America to determine whether it should (or not) be added to the ABA Checklist, which currently stands at 976. For further information on all aspects of the ABA Checklist, see: http://www.aba.org/checklist/.

Thick-billed VireoJewel and I are frequently asked the “What is your life list?” question, and we now answer, “We don’t really know,” because we haven’t really kept it up. We used to. It used to be important to us. When we went to Attu in 1992, we proudly added our names and then life lists of about a respectable, but not outstanding, 760, to the long list of names and life list numbers of previous birders, magic marker inscribed on a wall in the old barracks we called home for two weeks.

But in recent years, as some of the birds we had on our list got de-listed for one reason or another, and other birds got added, as some species we saw in different parts of the country got split into two or more species, we have just stopped major “chasing.” I guess we have become less competitive and simply enjoy the birds we see regularly more than we used to, and in addition, travel has just become less pleasant and more of a hassle. Now we only go after birds that are relatively nearby. Like this year.

The White-cheeked Pintail (2 views shown) showed up at Pelican Island National Wildlife Refuge, and after four trips there, two completely unsuccessful, one just OK, we finally were able to photograph the bird satisfactorily on the fourth trip.  The Thick-billed Vireo (3 views shown) was White-cheeked Pintailbeing reported regularly at Bill Baggs State Park on Key Biscayne, just south of downtown Miami, and when we got there another group already had it in sight and made it easy for us to see and photograph it. So there you have it: two life birds in less than two weeks. It’s been years since that happened.

Ah, but just a minute, the Vireo is OK, but will the Pintail be countable? There are two schools of thought. The first is expressed by David Pavlik, a post graduate in Ornithology, who was standing next to me when the photos shown here were taken; his thoughts, “This is a bird that is commonly kept in captivity, but also exists in the wild just over 100 miles from Pelican Island NWR. Given the spree of Caribbean vagrants Florida has had this winter, the fact that this bird is on an Atlantic coastal NWR associating with Blue-winged Teal (a species that also occurs in the Bahamas), is unbanded with no clipped halux and isn't pinioned, it seems this is about as good of a vagrant as it could get! It will be interesting to see what the Florida records committee does with this bird, but if this one doesn't get accepted, it seems the other accepted records from Texas, Florida, Alabama (and Virginia?), should also be called into question.” His blog, and these thoughts, can be found at in his March 18 blog at "Birding for Conservation."

Thick-billed VireoThe second is expressed by Jeff Bouton, a highly regarded birding writer and speaker, referring to a known released White-cheeked Pintail in a public park, who writes, “This is also valid in lieu of a certain [referring this time to the Pelican Island bird] White-cheeked Pintail and understanding why it will likely never be accepted as a true "wild" bird. There are just too many cases like this where well meaning "bird lovers" with a farm mentality, buy a bunch of exotic waterfowl and just toss them out in a pond in a neighborhood for all to enjoy. Because these individuals did not apply for or adhere to proper permitting, or treatment etc. It is more than likely the birds are not banded so no obvious sign that these are aviculture birds.” This second view is further expressed at 10000birds.com/the-problem-with-vagrant-ducks.htm.

But there is also a third thought on the matter: Your list is your list and if you aren’t going to submit it into any formal competition or to the ABA or some other similar organization, it doesn’t matter. Do what you want with it.

Then there are Big Year lists and big time competitions, and the related questions of birding ethics, etiquette, honesty, and the credibility of your lists, which reminds me of the principle so important to  birders, “Your credibility is like your virginity: you only lose it once, and once gone, it is gone forever.” (Is this a topic for another article?) Once you reach that highly competitive level of list keeping, with a little bit of luck and a lot of effort, not to mention money, you might get yourself immortalized in a movie starring Steve Martin, Owen Wilson and Jack Black. Or, more likely, not. (5/1/2013)

(Click photos for larger versions)