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The Palest Ink Is Better Than The Strongest Memory

If you’ve kept a life list for more than a couple of years and keep it updated, you’ve probably had the experience of “earning” a few lifers at home from the comfort of your favorite chair.  This can happen when the American Ornithologists’ Union splits one species into two (or more) separate species.  If you keep reasonably good records of your birding then you can look back and see, for example, that the Clapper Rail you saw in San Diego Bay is now deemed a separate species from the birds you saw in Florida.  Now Ridgway’s Rail is a new check mark on your life list.   (By the way, try saying Ridgway’s Rail ten times real fast!)  One is now Two and your life list just got larger!

There’s nothing wrong with armchair listing.  It’s easy and doesn’t cost you anything.  Well, maybe that’s not quite true as they who giveth can also taketh away. Your new check marks can be “erased” if the AOU has decided to lump two species and Two now become One.  This is particularly frustrating if your list is hovering right around one of the big round numbers.

Many birders treasure those birds that put them “over the top.”  You’ve finally spotted a bird you’ve chased several times before, or you are on the last day of that first big trip to the Rio Grande Valley and a memorable bird lets you enter the “club.”  I read recently about ABA’s first president, Joe Taylor spotting a Gray-spotted Flycatcher (now Gray-streaked Flycatcher) on Attu in 1972 that made him the first-ever member of the 700 club.  Now that was probably a memorable bird for Joe!  But what if your 600th, 700th, or 800th bird is something you attain sitting at home?  Or, worse, you finally made it to 600 and then you drop back to 598 a month later.  Congratulations…you’ve been lumped!

Page one of my original life list notebook from 1975

Page one of my original life list notebook from 1975

I started writing down my life list on May 25, 1975.  I’d just finished finals after my junior year in college and decided to rekindle a boyhood interest in birding.  On my first day, I wrote down 12 species.  On the second day, 12 more.  And then I was off to the races.  I managed to attach myself to some terrific local birders and soon was picking up new birds right and left. A REALLY big driving trip from Iowa to southeast Arizona and west Texas added 99 new lifers. BOOM! There were subsequent birding trips to Minnesota, Florida, California, and the trip of a lifetime to Attu and the Pribilofs (Red-legged Kittiwake, St. Paul Island, #600.)   After my first and only (so far!) trip to the Rio Grande Valley in 1989, I came home at 637 (Red-billed Pigeon seen at Zapata.)

Then things started slowing down.  Our wonderful children came along in 1984 and 1987 and adding new birds became more opportunistic and I slowly added lifers here and there.  In 1990, I started a new job in development for the University of Iowa and while the national travel facilitated some great (but limited) birding, looking back, I realize that life’s competing demands made it difficult to focus. My listing became disorganized.  I drifted away from birding.

How do I define “drift away”?  How about 18 years between life birds?  Then in 2010, I was visiting my Dad in Florida and decided to take a drive to Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary.  Something had sparked my interested in birding again and I’d brought along my binoculars.  I purchased a copy of the Sibley Guide to Eastern Birds at the refuge gift shop  and quickly realized how rusty my birding skills had become.  I’d done a little bit of internet research before leaving home and read that at least one Shiny Cowbird was hanging around the sanctuary feeders.  I found the bird and also felt certain I’d identified it correctly.  After returning home, I dug out my old box of bird records and found an 18 year old copy of my ABA life list that I had printed with an Epson dot-matrix printer.

Of course, it wouldn’t be good enough to just write Shiny Cowbird on the last page so I scanned my old printout as a PDF and used Adobe Acrobat to convert it to an Excel spreadsheet.  This introduced a lot of errors as the optical character recognition software struggled with things like “Buff-collared Nightjar” and “Craveri’s Murrelet.”   Eventually I was able to upload my life list in eBird which flagged dozens of new errors including inconsistent date formats, unrecognized birding hotspots, name changes, lumps, and splits.

During this updating process, I remembered a birding trip to Arizona with Tom Kent in 1992 and some terrific birds that I never entered on my old printout including Eared Trogon (now Eared Quetzal.)  Apparently I hadn’t added these to my life list database at the time and Tom graciously copied his old trip checklists and I added three last life birds into eBird.  The list clean-up was finally done and, how about that, the total was 655 and my last two birds were Plain-Capped Starthroat at Portal, AZ in 1992 and my Shiny (new) Cowbird in 2010.  Talk about going from the sublime to the ridiculous.  And, that’s right—18 years between life birds!  About the time it takes to launch a child into adulthood…or build a career to the point where your next promotion is no longer the main goal.

So far, my story is probably not very unusual, at least not until about a month ago when I was sorting through yet another of the seemingly endless boxes of paper and stuff we all tend to accumulate.  Oh, look, here’s a another dot-matrix life list printout—guess I printed more than one copy.  But wait, this list has an extra page—it’s a longer list.  What?  Aha!   The printout I scanned in 2010 and finally squeezed into eBird was apparently not my latest version.  Good news, right?

One can understand not having a clear memory of a Dusky Flycatcher.  Photo by Tom Benson courtesy Creative Commons

One can understand not having a clear memory of a Dusky Flycatcher. Photo by Tom Benson courtesy Creative Commons

This newer list had five more birds on it from 1992.  Bird I’d apparently forgotten completely!  Dusky Flycatcher—a bird I worked hard to “refind” in the past few years.  Lewis’ Woodpecker and Williamson’s Sapsucker found during a business trip to the Denver area way back in 1992. And I guess I also saw a Black Oystercatcher in California during a few borrowed hours that same year.

My mind was spinning!  And then came the kicker—this newer printout also listed a Garganey at Ruthrauff Pond, Tucson AZ on March 28, 1992.   This had to be some kind of transcription error or typo!  I’ve unsuccessfully chased Garganey at least once in recent years and considered chasing another in northwest Wisconsin.  It’s a great bird.  And here it says I’ve already seen one?  In Arizona no less!  A quick Google search showed Arizona with two Garganey records —so it was possible.  And the second record was right there from Ruthrauff Pond March 21-29, 1992.  My record was from the second to the last day.  But how is it possible that I don’t have a vivid memory of that sighting?  I would say I have at least a memory, if not a vivid recollection, of pretty much every other Code 3+ bird on my list.  But I apparently saw a Garganey and had forgotten it!  Can I still count it?  Somehow I feel a little cheated…by myself.  Yes, it’s clear now that my birding activities were getting a little disorganized in the early 90’s but not remembering a Garganey.  Really?

I think most birders can understand the lack of a vivid mind-picture of a Dusky Flycatcher.  I mean, I can’t remember the features of most Empidonax flycatcher more than five minutes.  But distinctive birds like Black Oystercatcher, Williamson’s Sapsucker, Lewis’ Woodpecker and Garganey.  Really?  How does one not remember seeing them before?

In the last month, I do seem to be developing a memory of that trip to Colorado when I ticked off a staked out Lewis’s Woodpecker and nearby Williamson’s Sapsucker nest.   And I was certainly traveling to Arizona several times a year in the early 1990’s visiting university alumni.  My written record seems clear and I must have heard about and chased that Tucson Garganey.  But, darn it, I just don’t have a picture in my mind.  That bothers me.   But, hey, it’s a Garganey—I’m going to keep it!   But I do have a request of you, the reader–given the recent discussion about heard-only birds,  PLEASE don’t start advocating for “remembered-only” birds!

You would think that distinctive birds like Lewis's Woodpecker, Williamson's Sapsucker, Black Oystercatcher, and Garganey would be unforgettable!  Garganey by Dick Daniels courtesy Creative Commons

You would think that distinctive birds like Lewis’s Woodpecker, Williamson’s Sapsucker, Black Oystercatcher, and Garganey would be unforgettable! Garganey by Dick Daniels courtesy Creative Commons

What are the lessons learned from my adventure in file-cabinet listing?   First, of course, it pays to keep good records.  Thanks again to my friend, Tom Kent (a compulsive record keeper), I’ve been able to track down and document a number of the splits for my updated list.  I wish I did a better job on my records but I guess I was fortunate to have not one but now two printed life lists from before my birding hiatus.   Second, it’s a lot easier to keep your list up to date along the way compared to cleaning it up en masse later on.  Finally, I, like many other birders have seen again and again that the life list, the daily field card, and the old grainy photo are amazing memory markers.  For me, polishing my life list has produced a kaleidescope of memories of places visited, adventures and misadventures, and most important, friends, colleagues, and chance encounters with so many birders along the way.  For me, birding is maybe more about the people than the birds.  Re-discovering that Garganey on my list was like finding long-lost friends that you’d forgotten along the way.  I just can’t remember their faces.

To paraprase an old proverb, the faintest dot-matix printout is better than the strongest memory.  I’ve sure learned that lesson!

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Carl Bendorf
Carl Bendorf encountered his spark bird at age 12 when he rigged a toy parabolic reflector to a small reel-to-reel tape recorder and captured the song of an Eastern Bluebird near his home in small-town Iowa. Now retired from a career in non-profit management and development, Carl is past president of the Iowa Ornithologists’ Union and was recently elected to a second term on the ABA Board of Directors and he serves as vice-chair. In 2011, Carl founded Iowa Young Birders and serves as a member of the board. He and his wife, Linda, live in Longmont, Colorado and Carl's latest venture is Colorado Birding Adventures - www.ColoradoBirdingAdventures.com
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