I was stalled.
Ever since I started my life list in April 2014 — yes, I’m a late bloomer — I’d managed to add at least one species, and often many more, every month. After I hit 250 with a gorgeous Fox Sparrow in the snow in my backyard last January, I set my course for 300.
A family trip to northern California over spring break covered a lot of that gap, netting 31 new birds. But then progress slowed to a crawl. After a Reddish Egret and a pair of Gull-billed Terns on consecutive days in late June for 297 and 298, everything sputtered to a dead stop.
July, brutal with heat, came and went without a single new bird. I had high hopes on a trip to Cape Cod in August, but nope: everything I saw, I’d seen before. One morning I tracked down a Red-breasted Nuthatch high in pine tree and felt a brief, completely irrational flush of regret: Crap. I wish I hadn’t seen that one in Durham two years ago.
The climbing gets steeper once you’ve seen all the common birds in your area, of course, so it’s normal for progress to slow. But August ended as July had, and I seemed to have stalled completely, with 300 so tantalizingly close. Maybe that’s it, I thought. Maybe I’ll just sit here at 298, the magic number visible just up ahead but unreachable, forever.
Only A Little Crazy
Why did I care? On one level — and maybe more — this whole listing business can look a little silly.
Certainly, a lot of non-birders think so. Even those who understand the appeal of the natural world wonder why any otherwise rational human being would climb out of a warm bed before dawn and go slogging through the wet woods, feeding ticks and mosquitoes, all in hopes of catching a brief glimpse of some little brown bird just to check it off a list. A list that nobody else cares about. That will bring you no riches, rewards, or glory. That won’t help you advance your career, attain enlightenment, or lose weight. What’s the point?
I do it for lots of reasons, one of which is that it keeps the game perpetually afoot. Birding is like an endless scavenger hunt. It’s a challenge, a game that you can never really win, but at which you can always improve. It’s a competition with myself. Listing is how I keep score.
It also fulfills the human urge to collect. Something in our nature compels many people to seek out similar objects and gather them together. (One theory holds that we collect things in order to attract potential mates by proving our skill as providers. I’m pretty sure that birding has, if anything, the opposite effect.)
In any event, it’s thing we do. My dad collected stamps. My wife and I once stayed in an Airbnb whose owner collected tiny porcelain cats. I had a boss who collected anything eggplant-themed: dishes, salt and pepper shakers, ceramic pieces.
Birders collect birds — and, happily, we do it without disturbing them. Each sighting is another item to add to my collection. Listing is how I keep track of what I have and, equally important, what I still need. Crazy? A little, but at least my collection doesn’t clutter up the shelves.
Listing makes me a better birder. When a Warbling Vireo was reported at Lake Lynn in Raleigh last year, I listened to recordings to learn its pretty, burbling song with a cheery rising note at the end of each phrase. I drove over one morning, hiked in — and, right on cue, there was that lilting song with its little concluding lift, leading my eye straight to the vireo up in the branches. In seeking a specific life bird, I’d also added a new song to my small repertoire.
And, of course, listing is a way of recording my own little history. A life list is like a ship’s log, and each checklist an individual entry. Looking back over them jogs my memory and, in a small way, lets me relive times and places and experiences that might otherwise dissipate in time.
We went to Wilmington for Labor Day weekend, imprudently driving down into the torrential teeth of what had been Hurricane Hermine. The next morning, birders reported crowds of shorebirds in a flooded recreation field at Fort Fisher.
The crowds had scattered by the time I arrived, but some stragglers lingered. Least Sandpipers scurried across the drowned grass and a carpet of tiny yellow flowers. Lesser Yellowlegs waded in the deeper water, and a trio of Solitary Sandpipers huddled in a loose formation off by themselves.
Then there was a medium-sized sandpiper that looked new to me. It had beautiful scalloping on the back and wings and a tapered bill with a bit of a droop to it. The breast was draped with fine, dense streaking that ended abruptly where the white belly began. Yes! Pectoral Sandpiper. Bird No. 299.
I got ready to leave, taking note of a pair of Yellowlegs feeding in floodwater up their bellies. I looked away — and then looked back. One of those birds was not a Yellowlegs. It was too bulky, too pale. Soft gray, white eyebrow, long black bill. Could it be?
It could. Stilt Sandpiper. Life bird 300. The magic number.
And then, in the way of magic numbers, as soon as it appeared, it vanished, and another one materialized in its place. Four hundred, I’m on my way.