Many birders enjoy adding birds to their life list, but after a few dozen species it can be difficult to keep records of all the birds you've seen. Learning different ways to record your life list can help you choose the method that works best for you and the details you want to note about every new lifer you find.
Information in Your Life List
Before you decide exactly how to keep a list of every bird species you've seen, it is essential to decide which information you want to record. The most common details included with life list records are:
- Species: The common name of a bird species (northern cardinal) is the most frequently recorded piece of information for a birder's life list. In addition to the common name, however, you may want to add the scientific name (Cardinalis cardinalis), particularly if the species may have several common names in different regions. Scientific names are universal internationally, making them a good part of a worldwide life list. Beyond these two names, some birders may record if they have seen a particular subspecies as well.
- Date: The initial date when the lifer was confirmed is a great note for a life list and helps establish your dedication to birding and how frequently you indulge in your passion for birds. For rare sightings or unusual birds, it is common to include multiple dates for the same species as it is seen on different occasions, or if different variations of the same bird are seen on different dates – such as genders, adult and juvenile birds, subspecies or different plumage variations.
- Sighting Conditions: Notes about the conditions where you saw the bird can be useful if you hope to recreate the sighting or are making a more elaborate record to track the species. Items to note include habitat, weather conditions, temperature and how easy or difficult the sighting was, such as whether the bird was easily visible in excellent light or if it was only briefly seen with questionable visibility. Birders may use these notes to decide if they want to repeat a particular lifer to add it more firmly to their list.
- Bird Description: Notes about the bird itself can help paint a picture for you to remember when you review your life list. Note the bird's gender, plumage state and age if possible, as well as anything unusual such as leucistic coloration, injuries, signs of disease or other notable characteristics.
- Behavior: Some birders will include notes about a bird's behavior when they add it to their life list, such as whether the bird was feeding, bathing, flying or tending a nest. Noting specific sounds and movements is also popular, and many birders write mnemonics to describe any sounds or songs they hear from the new life bird, which will help them recognize it again in the future.
- Location: Where the bird was seen can be critical for sharing the sighting with other eager birders, particularly if it is a vagrant bird or other rare species. Noting the location should be done in as much detail as possible, including nearby landmarks that could be useful for relocating the bird. Birders should bear in mind, however, that sharing sightings of a rare bird could cause the bird more stress as its popularity rises, and should only be done with great discretion.
- Notes: If you're building your own life list record, a few blank lines for notes can be useful for recording any additional information that may be memorable, such as whether the bird was first identified by someone else or if it was sighted during an organized event such as the Christmas Bird Count.
Ways to Keep a Life List
There are many ways that can be used for keeping a life list.
- Notebooks and Journals: A simple notebook or birding journal can double as a life list record and can be a perfect chronological record of how your life list has grown. A handwritten record is not able to be sorted or easily searched, however, and can become bulky for a list with hundreds of bird species.
- Field Guides: Some field guides include simple bird checklists for recording sightings. This can be perfectly suitable for a beginning life list or if you do not intend to travel beyond the scope of that field guide. If the birds you see are found in different field guides, however, it can be too cumbersome to switch between guides, and rare or vagrant birds may not be available to mark at all.
- Computer Files: Creating a spreadsheet or word processing document with your life list is an inexpensive but efficient option, and you can include as much or as little data as you wish. Files can be corrupted, however, and if you change computers over the years you may lose access to the file if programs change too much.
- Computer Programs: Some detailed computer programs are available for recording life lists with a great deal of data, and they offer not only a simple list, but different ways to add images, sort the data and analyze your list. These programs can be difficult to update if species change, however, and you may face the same technical difficulties as with simpler files if you change computers. Another drawback may be too much information – if you have no interest in recording many details of the birds you see, these programs may be overwhelming.
- Online Programs: Online computer programs and applications can be effective for storing a life list without any risk of losing the information if your computer is damaged or you change machines. These applications are also often usable with mobile devices, giving you instant access to your life list for immediate updates whenever a lifer is spotted. These applications do run the risk of being discontinued, however, and the associated costs may make them less attractive to birders on a budget.
Choose What Works for You
Ultimately, it is your life list, and you need to keep it the best way that works for you and your birding. Easygoing backyard birders may prefer a simple notebook, while hardcore traveling birders may use more high tech methods to record their life lists. So long as you can enjoy the list, keep it any way you like and use your time to add to it instead!
Image - Checkboxes © Melissa Mayntz