Like many birders, I keep a list of the birds I’ve seen. The tally of the different species you have ever seen, anywhere in the world, is known as a life list. The pursuit of new “lifers” drives a lot of birding decisions. And there’s no denying the thrill of seeing before your very eyes, flitting about in the field or soaring across the sky, a creature you’ve previously only known as a static sketch in field guides.
But nobody cares one bit about anybody else’s life list. And rightfully so – the length of a birder’s life list doesn’t necessarily reflect any particular skill in identifying birds. Rather, it predominantly reflects time spent birding and (more importantly) places visited around the world. Simply put, any fool with the money to travel and hire a guide can be led around Costa Rica and be told that he saw or heard 101 species during a six minute walk in Carara National Park. Of course, any fool can lie about the birds he’s seen, too.
The life list can be broken up into any number of smaller lists, defined by smaller chunks of time and place. There’s the “birds I’ve seen this year/month” list, the “birds I’ve seen in a particular state during my life” list, the “birds I’ve seen in a particular state this year/month” list, the county life list, the county year list, the 5MR life/year list, the backyard list, ….
I’m not a fan of the behavior necessary to pursue year lists on a scale any larger than a CBC circle. But I’m a sucker for local life lists. And it was the pursuit of adding a bird to my LA County life list that had me out the other morning to a Palos Verdes neighborhood. A Rose-breasted Grosbeak had been spotted, both morning and night, in the same silk oak tree. I figured there was a decent chance it’d still be there the next morning. This was a bird I have seen in other places, but had struck out on a couple of times before here in LA.
I arrived at 8:30am (a late arrival by birding standards), and a group of nerds were peering through binoculars up into the silk oak tree, pointing. By the time I got out of the car, my COVID mask on, and my eyes up in the tree, it was gone. As time passed with no grosbeak in sight, the crowd slowly dispersed to try and find it. One birder reported hearing it a few blocks away, and some took off to get their sighting. The decision to wander and chase, or stay at a known spot favored by a bird, is a fraught one. I decided to stay put. The patience of the 3 of us who stuck around was rewarded 15 minutes later when we heard the grosbeak’s call. We found it, high up in the silk oak. It gave a decent show, moving haltingly from tall tree to tall tree. And after about 10 minutes, it took off, flying into the distance, maybe never to return (it was reported later that afternoon back in the same silk oak).