I still have my original Peterson’s “A Field Guide to Western Birds”, which was given to me by my first wife Karen, on my 27th birthday, in 1967. In those days, birdwatchers referred to it simply as “Peterson’s”.
The guide contained a checklist, with the recommendation: “Keep a Life List”. I did use the checklist, and added notes of bird sightings in margins and elsewhere in the book. But I did this on a haphazard basis. It was not that important to me that I keep a complete record.
More recently, I became enamoured of bird photography, and started to look and post to websites like Facebook Birders. Birdwatching had become “birding” – no doubt to make it sound like a more serious undertaking, and not simply the preoccupation of old ladies in sneakers. It was on these websites that I began to see references to “lifers”. What is a “lifer”? It is one’s first sighting of a bird, and represents, therefore, a new entry on one’s life list. And it became evident that adding lifers to one’s life list is, for dedicated birders, of the highest priority. One’s lifelong passion is to checkoff the greatest number of birds possible – both in one’s country of residence and world-wide, if you have the means. This passion can extend to birders doing a “Big Year”, in which they race around the country from one birding hotspot to another, amassing a species count. The American Birding Association has promulgated these rules for a Big Year:
“ABA Area Big Year Rules
An ABA Area Big Year shall start at 12:00 AM on 1 January of that year and end at 11:59 PM, 31 December of that year, based on the local time of the location of the birder at each time threshold. Each species counted by the participant must have been encountered in accordance with the ABA Recording Rules current at the time the species was encountered. Each species counted must have been on the ABA Checklist during the Big Year …”
How many species have winners recorded? In 2016, John Weigel counted 784 bird species. And, in case you missed it, Owen Wilson starred in a riotous spoof of this competition, entitled, of course, “The Big Year”. So, like practically every other activity in the modern world, birdwatching became competitive.
As an amateur photographer of birds (amongst other wildlife and nature subjects), running around from place to place to maximize sightings is the farthest thing from my mind. I want to spend time with birds, because they are both beautiful and interesting. Nowadays, I find that being around birds is the most relaxing and fulfilling thing I can do, whether it be watching birds at the feeders at home, or traveling to see and photograph birds in new places. It is said of trout fishing that trout live in beautiful places, and the same thing can of course be said of birds. And, birding in new locales takes me to beautiful places I may not have otherwise discovered.