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Margo life list


Many people keep a “bucket list” of things they want to do before they die.

Birders have a life list.

In the 1947 edition of his classic, “Field Guide to the Birds” of the Eastern U.S., Roger Tory Peterson included two pages with a list of birds covered in the volume. The idea was for a watcher to check off each bird when seen for the first time. He called it a “life list,” as in something seen for the first time in your life.

Birders have been rushing around to see and record new birds ever since.

My husband (MH) photocopied that list several times for me years ago, and I’ve used the copies to record birds from various places – my favorite birding spots in New Jersey and in New England, for instance – plus one to use as a master list. This list is so marked up it is hard to follow at times. I’ve had to add many birds as I traveled outside the East. Many birds Peterson considered accidentals, or rarities, in 1947, have become more common as their ranges expand, or as more birders go out in the field and find them.

MH and I have, in our combined life list, seen 338 types of birds in the years we’ve been birders. This may seem like a lot to non-birders, but it is an almost pathetically small number compared with others who are out in the field nearly every day, or who travel the world, the United States, even their neighborhoods in search of new birds. Many have the time and money to do this, and I envy them. MH and I have to fit in our bird activities when we can.

Still, we enjoy being together in our searching, sharing the successes and being wise enough to keep the failures in perspective.

Some “life” birds have come easier than others. The prothonotary warbler that walked out of the bushes in Central Park. The sandhill cranes that soared over the Indiana toll road on our drive back from a midwest wedding. The anhinga, limpkin and kites we saw during a trip to the Florida panhandle.

Our newest, the northern lapwing, came in March and we didn’t have to go too far. Three of these European visitors, with their distinctive crest and coloring, were found by others during the winter, hanging out in a cattle field on a farm in New Egypt, N.J. Like Alexis de Tocqueville, these old-world land plovers found favor with the new world, and were received enthusiastically.

We came after the initial crowd frenzy ended, and were lucky to find another couple watching the birds with a scope, which they allowed us to use. We were also lucky the birds decided to fly around the field, making it fun to study them with binoculars.

If travel broadens the mind, as the saying goes, we will have to do more traveling if we want to expand our life list, and our life.