Make a list, check it twice

Making a list

For Christmas, I got a number of books, one of which was Julie Zickefoose‘s new book, Letters From Eden. I read it in just a couple of sittings, and enjoyed every page (some day I wanna be just like Julie!). Another one I got was Good Birders Don’t Wear White. It’s a collection of “essays” by some of the country’s best-known and leading birders and naturalists. There are some good stories and advice in it, but one of them that I thought was a particularly good suggestion was submitted by Julie as well. It’s titled, “Write it down: making a calendar”.

Spring bunny
A bunny in my mom’s garden – photo credit my mom

Many naturalists, and birders especially, are great at keeping track of what they see. Usually, however, it’s in the form of lists. Here I have my backyard list. There is my year list. This one’s my life list. Lists are great because it’s a record of what’s been seen. The more specific the list, the more useful it can be later (for instance, a list for your backyard is more useful than a list for a state or province because it’s more specific to a certain spot; not everything on your state list will be encountered in a given spot in the state). The best lists are those that are accompanied by extra information. Rather than simply being a list of names, more details are attached to each name. For instance, recording the date you first saw a particular species in your backyard, or the location that you saw a certain species in your state.

Green and Leopard frogs

This is the basis to Julie’s suggestion. Keep a calendar of your observations. When you see the first robin of spring, write it down. When the first green frog starts to trill in the swamp, make a note. Record notable observations you have, such as a bluebird feeding babies, or a fox trotting across your backyard. If you do this over the course of a few years you start to get a very precise picture of the timing of nature. You have a great reference to refer to when you want to know when something happens, or where, or even if. There are some great online tools for tracking bird observations, the best perhaps being (or for Canadians).

The Tommy Thompson Park Bird Research Station, which I currently volunteer for, has essentially created such a calendar through careful records of observations every day for five years. It’s really interesting to compare arrival dates for species to previous earliest (or latest) dates, or to look at frequency (you actually have numbers to back yourself up when you make the statement, “this is the most bluebirds I’ve ever seen in a spring!”)

Red-winged Blackbird

My mom has lamented recently that she wishes she’d kept a journal or record of her observations. My parents have lived at the same home in the southern Ontario countryside for nearly 30 years. By now my mom has a pretty good idea of when the Red-winged Blackbirds arrive, or when the spring peepers start to sing. But it’s still a general idea when, and there’s no record of whether it’s the same as it was 30 years ago. My parents are planning on moving and were thinking to leave some nature notes, including a species list, for the new owners. Such a calendar would have been a great introduction to the home.

Look at that great bill! And those out-of-this-world eyes!

I myself have kept a very casual personal journal on some of my birding observations over recent years, going back to 2004. It’s been helpful to refer to for some things, when I saw a certain bird, or took a particular trip. This week, I looked back through it for the date the American Woodcock arrive here. I had been thinking that they should be showing up soon. I had the notion in my head that they start their dusk display flights at the end of February.

Well, I browsed through all my late-February entries, and saw no mention of it. I tried early March in case I’d written it down late. Still nothing. Finally, it twigged that I was a month early, they won’t return till late March. Sure enough, there were the entries, at the end of March.

How disappointing. But at least it saves me from trudging out through the snow at dusk this week looking for birds that aren’t there yet.

(For those who were curious, that leading photo is from a point count survey I did one spring for the bird research station. I had forgotten my pen and notepad, but handily found a bit of charred wood to make notes with; the list washed away in the next rain. Hopefully you’ll have paper available when making your lists.)