MONTGOMERY, AL (WSFA) - If you're going to get into birding -- even just backyard birding -- I strongly suggest that you keep a "life list" of all the birds you have seen and can identify. Because if you don't, and decide later that you would like to, putting together an accurate and complete list of birds you have seen in the past will be difficult if not impossible.
Keeping bird lists can be as simple as you would like, or incredibly complicated. If you're relatively new to birding, I suggest you start simple and if you later decide you want to get more serious then you can do so.
I believe that keeping lists are crucial not for the lists themselves, but because they are a motivation to learn about birds and birding.
If you aren't trying to build a list and you see a hawk, then you might just be satisfied with seeing an attractive and interesting hawk. Nothing wrong with that. But if you're keeping even a minimally proper list, then you have to look at references to decide if it was a Red-Tailed Hawk (common as can be in Alabama), or a slightly less common Red-Shouldered Hawk, or an even less common but still not rare Broad-Winged Hawk, or an uncommon species for Alabama such as a Short-Tailed Hawk.
As you check these out, you inevitably start to learn more about birds and how to identify them.
The key, however, is for the list to add to the enjoyment of your birding. If it becomes a chore, then by all means scale back to something simpler.
An example of a simple list is a "backyard" list. After retiring as a newspaper writer and editor a few years ago, the time I spent on an exercise bike on our sun porch moved mostly from nighttime to daytime. So I started to see lots more birds, and pretty soon I started to keep a list of them. I still keep that list, and it's now up to 40 birds. That's almost 10 percent of the 450 bird species on record in Alabama. Those on my backyard list were all seen from a typical residential backyard in an urbanized area of Montgomery.
This month marks the one-year anniversary of my deciding to get more serious about birding. When I did, I started my life list -- a slightly more detailed listing of all the birds I have seen and can positively identify, with an emphasis on "positively."
Before I go on, let me mention more complicated life lists. There are some very serious birders that relish trying to build as large a life list as possible, and to have those lists verified by various birding organizations such as the American Birding Association. The ABA has detailed rules about keeping lists that it will recognize, and I will not attempt to go into them. But you can find them at: aba.org
But if you don't care about getting official recognition for your list, then it's your list, and you can make up your own rules about how to keep it. However, there are some generally accepted guidelines in the birding community about how you keep and what should be on a bird list.
I would suggest that your list follow at least these rules:
-- Positive Identity: You should be certain of the bird's identity. And that means you, not someone else on a bird walk no matter how knowledgeable they are. It's OK if someone else points out the bird, and helps you find field marks to ID it. And it's OK to make photos or take notes of field marks to satisfy yourself later as to the ID. I do many of my identifications with photos. But you should feel confident of the identification, not just take someone else's word for it.
-- Follow ethical birding guidelines: No harming of the bird. No disturbing of nests. No trespassing on private property to see a bird.
-- Only live birds in the wild: No pets. No birds in zoos or other captivity (although local birds flying free in and around zoos are fine). No eggs. No dead birds, even if they died naturally. No birds in a rehab center.
-- Do not count different genders of the same bird, no matter how different they look from one another. Do not count hybrids, where two species have interbred (although you should make a note of such birds).
-- Do not count different "morphs" of the same species. Some bird species have different color patterns that vary from bird to bird. An example is the Snow Goose, with an all-white version and a dark morph, often called a "Blue Goose." (see photo) Despite the very different looks, these are the same species and should be counted just once on a bird list.
If you decide to keep a list, I would recommend that you go to the Alabama Ornithological Society's web site (www.aosbirds.org) and download a copy of the AOS checklist for Alabama birds. It is incredibly helpful, and gives the scientific names of birds recorded in Alabama. The ABA also has a checklist for North America on its web site.
For your list, in addition to the name of a bird I would suggest that you make note of when and where a bird was seen, as well as any unusual circumstances. I also check off whether I have a photo of the bird, and the names of knowledgeable birders who also saw it and may have helped with the identification.
Also, while I have focused on a "life list," there are many other types of birding lists: Lists by states, or by a particular site, or a list of all the birds seen in a year or all that are seen on a trip.
Again, bird lists can be as simple or as complex as you would like. If you want to have a list recognized by an organization, you have to follow its rules. But otherwise, it's your list and your rules.
Finally, remember that birding is about enjoying nature. If keeping a list becomes burdensome, then simplify it or even forget it.
-- Exploring Wild Alabama, Sunday, May 22, 2 p.m. Part of the Audubon Teachers Nature series at the Oak Mountain Interpretive Center at Oak Mountain State Park. Larry Davenport and Ken Wills are the speakers. No charge for the program, but the usual state park fees apply. Come early, bird the park and tour the nearby Alabama Wildlife Center, which rehabilitates and releases back into the wild injured native Alabama birds. For information: birminghamaudubon.org
-- Make Your Backyard a Birding Paradise, Thursday, May 26, 6 p.m., Lanark in Millbrook. Cost: $5. Ideas on how to make your backyard attractive to Alabama birds. This is part of the Alabama Nature Center's Thursday night nature programs. Other upcoming events include a snake walk, lessons on cooking game, and nature trivia. The center is a project of the Alabama Wildlife Federation. Attendees are invited to bring their own dinner at 5:30 p.m. For information: www.alabamawildlife.org/natureplex
Ken Hare is a veteran newspaper writer and editor who writes regularly for wsfa.com. Feedback appreciated by email at firstname.lastname@example.org. Also email items for Nature/Bird Notes two weeks in advance.