Life Lists

7:11 PM

I have been a collector my entire life. I always have been and probably always will be. So keeping life lists has come naturally to me. In fact birds were not the first thing I started life listing. I began with herps, reptiles and amphibians. When began watching birds as a serious hobby it was easy to apply my listing experience with herps to birds.

For those who are unfamiliar with a lift list, it is basically a list of every species (of bird, reptile, plant or whatever) you have ever observed. As simple as this may sound there are rules to life lists and the rules you choose to observe are up to you, as it is your life list. However, there are some pretty basic rules that most people follow:

  1. It must be alive.
  2. It must be correctly identified (using field markings, by it song etc.).
  3. It must be observed in the wild (unless of course you are choosing to make a list of captive species you have seen).

The other rules are up to you, but another good rule of thumb is to make sure that proper etiquette and ethics (i.e. you didn’t trespass on private property or you didn’t kill the animal to see what it was) are used and that the animal is not disturbed. For my bird lists I count both visual observations and bird calls as long as either method is a positive id. For example, some nocturnal birds are difficult to observe and if I am positive I have heard a specific species and can verify this with another birder onsite or through recorded bird calls I will add it to my list. I typically asterisk these entries so that I know which were entries based on calls. Not everyone agrees with this method. For some it is a visual observation or nothing, but for me this has worked. A perfect example of this is the Yellow Rail. Yellow Rails are small little shy birds that live in the thickest of vegetation in wetlands. They are extremely difficult to visually observe as they hide so well among this vegetation. One of my closest friends, Jenn, and I were birdwatching in an area where a Yellow Rail had been heard. We didn’t think we would hear the rail as they typically call in the early morning and evening and it was noon at the time we were birdwatching in this particular area. We were also talking (a faux-pas in the birding world as it could scare away or silence the birds) as it was just the two of us and we were walking back to the car. All of the sudden this Yellow Rail decides it’s going to go ahead and start calling during our conversation at high noon. When we heard the call we were super excited and knew right away what it was, but double checked with the bird calls on our iPod right there to confirm. Sure enough we listened to the rail calling for a good 10-15 minutes and both of us counted it on our lift lists. I still have yet to actually see a Yellow Rail.

Life lists are not the only type of lists that birders, herpers or nature enthusiasts keep. Some keep track of the species they see each year, a year list. Some keep track of the birds they see in their backyard, a backyard bird list. I keep track of the species I see on each excursion and trip I take. It’s really up to you and what you’re interested in keeping track of.

I’m always amused, as I’m sure most birders are, of the reaction I get when I talk about a “lifer” to a non-birder. They typically cock their head and look at me funny before asking what a ‘lifer’ is. A ‘lifer’ is the term for a species which you have observed for the first time and can therefore add to your lift list. To use it in a sentence: That was a great day of birding I got three lifers. Or I’ve never seen a White Wagtail that would be a lifer for me! A year bird would be the first time you have seen a species in a particular year.

You might wonder what good a life list is or if it is of any practical use. I can’t speak for anyone else, but time and time again I refer back to my lists to check things, such as the time of year I observed a species, where I observed it or how many lifers I achieved in one year or another. The great thing about keeping track is you can tell exactly how many species you have seen in your life and this can make for some pretty interesting (lame) ice-breaking conversations. On a personal note I don’t typically talk to non-listers about my lists because it can be incredibly boring to normal people! :)

I have a list for birds, mammals, reptiles, amphibians and insects (to some extent). If you’re interested in keeping track of the birds and other wildlife you see why not keep a list? It can be as simple as writing it down on a piece of paper, which is how most lists start. Eventually you become addicted and they get a bit more complicated. You begin to classify the species you see, add subspecies, put in the date you observed them on.

If you are interested in keeping a list or upgrading you current list below I have provided some photos to share with you a great life list Excel temple. It is for North American birds and my friend Jenn who I mentioned earlier came up with this system, which I have adopted as well. We have already added in the Order and Family names for most North American species; however some may be missing and may need to be added in. It has spaces to fill in the common bird name, scientific name, location where you first observed it or locations where you have observed it (i.e. Ontario and Michigan), the date you first observed it on and any special notes you would like to add. I have provided some pictures below to explain further how it works.

Excel lift list template with a sample entry.

A sample completed section. As the sheet is filled in you have to remember to fill in the ‘(#)’ with the number of both the total number of species you have observed within a particular Order and Family. Notice beside 'Apodiformes' there are brackets with the number 55 for the total species observed in this Order and beside 'Apodidae' are brackets with the number 8 for the total number of species observed in this Family.

If you would like a copy of this template simply contact me via our blog or our website and I am happy to e-mail you a copy.

Good listing!

~ Kristen Martyn

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