So I’m currently staring out the window in my studio, pretending to be working, and a small flock of birds has descended on the finch feeder.
Normally, I’d think they were goldfinches. Goldfinches overwinter in this area, although they tend to make themselves scarce about the time the dark-eyed juncos show up. But since birds are much more interesting than working, I pull out the binoculars and lo and behold, they’re Pine Siskins!
“Uh-huh,” you say. “So?”
Well, I get excited. While Pine Siskins are common birds in general, this is the first time they’ve shown up in my garden. This is what’s called an irruption year—lots of Pine Siskins moving through the south and east, to areas they may not usually appear. Pine Siskins do this regularly, and so you might have dozens of Siskins one year and none the next.
(It’s not just Siskins this year—in the mountains, they’re getting Crossbills and Evening Grosbeaks, which fills my black little birder’s heart with savage envy.)
Having identified the Pine Siskins, I pull up my yardlist and write it down.
Being an avid birder, I keep a lifelist, which is basically a list of every bird I’ve ever seen in my life. Mine is currently at 350+ (respectable, if not terribly impressive, for a North American birder who doesn’t hover over the Rare Bird Alert lists.)
But because gardening is my great obsession, I also keep a yardlist, which details every species that has been spotted in the garden. (Okay, okay, the Tundra Swans did not actually land. I’m counting them anyway, goddamnit, because seeing Tundra Swans go over the house when you’re taking out the trash is a mind-blowing experience. I put a little asterisk next to it, but still.)
The Pine Siskins are bird #58 on this list, which ranges from American Redstarts to Yellow-Rumped Warblers. The most unusual bird was a late migrating Yellow-Billed Cuckoo, the most impressive a male Wild Turkey who strutted along the fence line looking like god’s gift to women. (Hey, if I was a female turkey, I’d throw my panties at him. This was the Ricardo Montalban of turkeys!) The most ominous has been Vulture-Bob, a Black Vulture who lived on top of the garage for several days and still comes back occasionally to see if we’re dead yet.)
I don’t just record birds, I should mention—I keep lists of most of the things I can identify. So there’s four kinds of snake, nine amphibians, twenty-eight butterflies and a half dozen dragonflies. But birds are my great love.
Now, the question you may be asking is “Why?”
Well, why do anything, really? Mostly because it’s fun. The scientific use, in a broad sense, is limited—Cornell Ornithology Lab is probably not interested in the fact that I’ve spotted six varieties of warbler and four kinds of thrush. But I think it’s cool. (Actually, we’ve undoubtedly had more than six types of warbler here, but I limit myself to things I can ID. Moth-eaten fall warblers are often beyond my skill. It’s the same with flycatchers, which is why at the end of the list, uncounted, is “Unknown Flycatcher???”)
On a personal level, it’s very encouraging. Fifty-eight different bird species have found my garden interesting enough to visit! (Okay, fine, fifty-seven. The Tundra Swans probably don’t count.) Out of the 650 or so birds found in eastern North America, that’s what, a thirteenth? And many fewer of those are common this far south, and you can knock off anything that appears only on the southern tip of Florida, and obviously I will not be getting albatrosses and puffins and pelagic birds in the frog pond. So by keeping track of numbers like that, I know that my garden and woods are attracting quite a large percentage of the possible birds that they could attract.
Having the birds visit, of course, is not the same as having them live here. There’s a range. Pileated Woodpeckers live here year-round, Blue-Gray Gnatcatchers live here in season, Black Phoebes visit fairly regularly, I’ve seen one Hooded Warbler in five years. But it’s still not a bad thing to be a viable watering hole for migrants. In spring and fall, I get one or two American Redstarts that pass through, stay for a day or two feeding, and then move on. That’s an important function, even if it’s a short one. (Lord knows, I’ve been pretty darn glad to see rest-stops in my day…)
It’s also delightful to see just how effective planting for wildlife can be—I added pipevines and spicebush to the garden, and a few months later, I added pipevine and spicebush swallowtail butterflies to the yardlist. Cause and effect is not quite so cut-and-dried with birds, but I certainly noticed a massive jump when I put in a water source, particularly among migrants.
So if you don’t keep a yardlist, may I humbly suggest you give it a try? It’s surprisingly exciting, in a geeky kind of way, and you might be surprised how useful it turns out to be.
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