Birding by the numbers: Keeping lists is what many watchers do, and some take it to extremes

In February, the man who has seen more birds than anyone else on earth put a bow on his lifetime quest of 64 years.

Peter Kaestner, birding in the Philippines, spotted an Orange-tufted Spiderhunter, becoming the first person to ever witness 10,000 species.

If you are wondering, there are roughly 11,500 officially recognized bird species. It’s unlikely that anyone will ever see them all, or even try to. The list is constantly growing due to genetic studies that reveal new species.

Birders are known for keeping lists, of course, and most of us maintain at least a few. Listing helps us remember what we see, where we saw it, and when.

It’s a way to chart our personal progress in the hobby. List building can also motivate us to spend more time birding, as if we need it.

This winter I’ve been playing a little listing game myself — to see how many kinds of backyard birds I can spot before the first day of spring.

List-keeping birders cheered this winter when European Goldfinch became an officially countable bird in Illinois. Courtesy of Christian Goers

I’m up to 17, with a goal of 25. I’ll need some luck to get there but the unusually warm winter is a plus. Spring migration is ahead of schedule.

If you happen to be a member of the Illinois Ornithological Society (IOS) then you probably know about Listers Corner. It’s a database on the IOS website where birders annually submit their personal sightings (for Illinois only) in all manner of categories such as life list, big year, big month, big day, county list, backyard list, green list and more.

Listers Corner is fun to peruse — Google it and see. The volume of arcane data is astounding. Want to know who has spotted the most species in Ogle County? That would be Dan Williams, with 276. For DuPage, it’s Pete Moxon with 315. In Vermilion County, Steve Bailey leads with 281.

Records for specific birding sites are celebrated, too. The Montrose Point (Chicago) leader is Robert Hughes, with 339 species. No other Illinois venue sports a larger list, with 351 species recorded all-time. Hughes tracks Montrose sightings on his website, The Orniphile.

But maybe you wish to know who has seen a Yellow-bellied Sapsucker in the most counties? Andy Sigler holds that mark with 102, which means he’s seen the bird at least once in every Illinois county. Some birders really get around.

It’s all a bit silly, of course. County, state, and national borders are human inventions. Birds don’t know or care how we draw things up. On the other hand, a few species sound like they are laughing. I’m looking at you, Mr. W.B. Nuthatch. Maybe they find our listing games amusing.

All birders can play. IOS welcomes submissions to Listers Corner, even by nonmembers. The archive goes back to 1987.

For dedicated listers, milestone sightings hold a special place. This Varied Thrush was the author's 500th life bird, seen in Evanston in 2013. Courtesy of Jackie Bowman

My name appears in only one category, Yard Life List-Suburban, where my total is 124 species — a respectable number after 27 years in the same home, but still way down the list. The top yard birder, remarkably, claims 207 species after just five years of residency. I’m fortunate to add one or two species per year.

For all listing categories, the honor system applies. I don’t know any birders who would pad a list with made-up sightings. Owen Wilson, the actor, has a good line about that in “The Big Year,” not suitable for a family newspaper.

The most-watched section of Listers Corner is Illinois Life List. Two birders are tied at 417 species each, and only 10 birders have seen at least 400 species in the state. The “400 Club” is rare air.

In Illinois, 459 species have been officially recorded. Two were added in 2023: Crested Caracara and Broad-tailed Hummingbird.

When those two lit up the Rare Bird Alert there was a mad rush to see them, with the 400 clubbers and birders approaching the magic milestone leading the way.

Joe Lill, who heads up the three-person Listers Corner Committee for IOS, sits at 393 species for Illinois. He told me he missed the caracara in Fulton County by a day, and the hummingbird in Champaign by an hour. His failed efforts speak to the importance of reacting to rare bird sightings on a moment’s notice and always keeping the gas tank full. Good timing helps, too.

Lill did experience some listing joy in 2023, elevating his state life list by three with Ross’s Gull, Gray-crowned Rosy Finch, and Rock Wren.

State listers received a welcome bonus in January when the Illinois Ornithological Records Committee voted to add European Goldfinch to the Illinois checklist. The species is seen regularly, especially in Lake County, but until now was regarded as “introduced” and therefore not officially countable.

Yet another bonus this winter was the appearance of a Black-throated Gray Warbler in Elgin.

The rare visitor from the West visited a private feeder during the severe cold snap in mid-January. An accommodating homeowner welcomed birders, enabling many to score an unexpected addition to their life, Illinois, or Cook County lists — in some cases all three.

So, to list or not to list? You decide. It’s a matter of preference, personal style, and maybe your feelings about the competitive side of birding. That said, few watchers are outwardly competitive, and many keep their listing achievements private.

For all of us, it’s about appreciating birds. I’m thankful that birding offers so many ways to go about it.

Jeff Reiter’s column appears regularly in Neighbor. You can reach him via his blog, Words on Birds.

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