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Bird Watching and Listing

Updated on July 9, 2015
Sherry Thornburg profile image

Writer, photographer and birding enthusiast, Sherry Thornburg writes about birding and birding related topics.

Listed Bird

Purple Gallinule, from list of birds found at Anahuac NWR, 4/30/15.
Purple Gallinule, from list of birds found at Anahuac NWR, 4/30/15. | Source

When I first got into birding, the first thing I learned was that bird people keep a journal. Keeping records or lists of your sightings with some basic data seemed to be what separated the millions who keep the sunflower seed industry alive and the serious birder.

To do it right, I decided to create a life list. I gathered up my collection of bird photographs to build some proof of what I had seen already. What I didn’t have anymore, I would get later.

This isn’t required of birders; it’s just how I chose to start my move into the hobby. I am a proud Navy Brat. I’ve lived in many states over my life time. I later went active duty myself and then married a serviceman, again moving extensively. There is no way at the age of 50 I could remember all the birds I’ve seen over the years, so just going with the ones I had pictures of was the best I could do.

Listing and Birding

Lots of Listing
Lots of Listing

Listing for Yourself

As my start-up goal in birding is to see all the birds that move through the State of Texas, I then divided my list into the in state sightings and out of state sightings; easy enough to keep up with. I then subdivided my diary into an ongoing birding record. When I made a trip anywhere, I wrote down the birds I saw by the date seen. These short trip lists were then used to update my master list when I had the time.

I also kept tabs on my backyard birds. When I had seen nests, or fledglings or a large flock, I made a note of it along with what hangs around my feeder, such as the two House Finch pairs, the three Blue Jays, the colony of House Sparrows from my neighbor’s yard and all the rest through the year. I don’t do this day by day. More like weekly depending on how busy I am.

As my knowledge of birds grew, my lists grew. I soon discovered that this list keeping can take on a life of its own.

  • Lists of each year’s sightings
  • Lists for each day trip
  • Backyard lists
  • In state lists
  • Out of state lists
  • Listing by county, city, state park, etc.
  • Listing by country for international travelers

Yes, a birder could get buried in paperwork of their own making. It took some thought and decision making to keep all this data collecting from taking the fun out of watching birds.

Listing for Science

I later found out about citizen science work. If you want your lists to be of more use than your personal diary counts, sign onto various record keeping websites like e-bird and share your sightings with people that keep track of birds across the country. Yes, your lists of birds seen in your our own backyard could be useful to bird scientists. Inquiring minds really do what to know about your birds.

There are even two big events around doing this. The Christmas Bird Count and the Great American Backyard Bird Count. This latter one was my first effort to be part of bird population record keeping.

Listing for Competition

As I read more about birding, I found out about another kind of listing, something called competitive birding. This really shouldn’t have surprised me. When people do anything, they can make a game of it, and games become competitions.

Competitive birding started on the East Coast and then spread like wildfire across the country. In Texas, we just had the 19th Annual Great Texas Birding Classic in the spring with 10 categories for birders all over the state to choose from. It involved choosing one day to list all the birds your team can see in 24 hours during a 30 day spring migration window. Wow! Dedicate a day to being with the birds and raise money for bird conservation in the process? Sounds like fun, doesn’t it. The event even has its own Facebook page. Turns out one of the regional awards ceremonies took place close to me.

Texas Birding Classic

Big Year Lists

Do anything for long and competitions can turn into major expeditions of adventure. That’s what the big year seems to be about. Some people do this on their own in their spare time and some do it with sponsors and make big productions out of it. The general rules are stated below.

A big year is an informal competition among birders to see who can see or hear the largest number of species of birds within a single calendar year and within a specific geographical area. A big year may be done within a single US state, a Canadian province, within the lower 48 continental U.S. states, or within the official American Birding Association Area (defined as the 49 continental U.S. states, Canada, and the French islands of St. Pierre and Miquelon, plus adjacent waters to a distance of 200 miles from land or half the distance to a neighboring country, whichever distance is less. Excluded by these boundaries are Bermuda, The Bahamas, Hawaii, and Greenland).

From:, Big Year

Birding Who's Who

Roger Tory Peterson
Roger Tory Peterson | Source
Ted Parker
Ted Parker | Source
Sandy Kimoto
Sandy Kimoto | Source

Big Year Record Holders

  • A banker, Guy Emerson, decided to take a bit of time during his many business trips to build year lists. He gathered 497 birds in 1939. He is considered the creator to the big year list.
  • In 1953, famous birders Roger Tory Peterson and James Fisher took a 30,000 mile road trip in 1953 tallying up 572 species. A book and a documentary film, both called Wild America tells their story.
  • In 1971, an 18-year-old, Ted Parker, birded the east coast and then moved to Tucson Arizona for college finding many more central and western U.S. birds. He ended the year with 627 species.
  • In 1998, three birders, Sandy Komito, Al Levantin, and Greg Miller went for the record. They recorded 748 species. Their book about the experience was adapted for the 2011 film The Big Year.
  • This year, 2015, a worldwide big year record is being attempted by Oregon birder Noah Strycker. As of June, he has recorded 2,975 species.

This sounds like a lot of fun. This sounds like a lot of work and big bucks spent on research and travel too. I did read in Of a Feather by Scott Weidensaul that a teenager named Kenn Kauffman did it in 1973 while hitchhiking on less than a thousand dollars he had saved for the purpose. Yes, this is the same Kenn Kauffman that has since written birding guides. My hat is off to his pluck and passion.

This sort of marathon listing may sound like an advanced birder activity, but it is also something that would make an advanced birder. Hmm, any sponsors out there willing to help fund a region by region Texas Big Year Adventure? Talk to me. My fertile mind is suddenly coming up with interesting ideas.

Listing for Learning

As much as the lure of a big adventure intrigues and excites, and I’m not adverse to that idea at all; listing is also a learning process, not just counting species in set short time periods.

I have something over 200 species in my life list gathered in my spare time. The thrill of finding a new bird is its own little adventure, and when found; diving into the guides and websites to research its life history becomes discovery. Listing and journaling, recording bird histories from personal observations can put you in the shoes of those first explorers as they too discovered a previously unknown bird and followed its activities. Actually, those first explorers were only a few generations ahead of us. Even today, the life stories of some birds are still not fully known. Birding is one of those few activities where the professional and the hobbyist armature walks side by side. Both can make important contributions.

Listing for learning, and sharing that learning is my main reason for listing. Yeah, I could be putting a book together one day, but for now I am writing these articles and having fun while I’m doing it.

My belief is that birding is about looking up from our day to day life and seeing the beauty of the world outside of us. It is too easy to become mired in just existing and missing big picture. If birds can be a doorway leading to that big picture, then grab your checklists and bird guides and hit the road.

Happy Birding

© 2015 Sherry Thornburg


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    • poetryman6969 profile image


      3 years ago

      I would never have imagined that something like competitive birding would exist. You really can learn something new every day!


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