Friday, April 24, 2009


No word is as exciting to a birder as the word "Lifer". Lifers are often the currency by which birders judge themselves and others. A lifer is simply a new bird for a birder's "life list" a bird that they have never before seen. For some birders, birds are often little more than numbers, something to collect as they build their life lists higher and higher. To these birders the goal, in this case a large "life list" is the important thing, the journey is just a means to an end. For others they barely pay attention to their lists, they simply enjoy the experience of seeing a new bird, watching its never before seen beauty and its novel behaviors. For the majority some mixture of the above two scenarios is the norm. Most birders (though not all), watch birds because they do indeed LIKE birds, they enjoy watching their behavior, soaking in the particular habitat of each new species and listening to new bird vocalizations. However, they may also enjoy some facet of listing, competing against others or just against their own goals and expectations.

I fall into the last category, I am and for as long as I can remember, have been fascinated by birds (and indeed by all of the natural world). So much so that I chose wildlife ecology and management as my career. To me life just doesn't get better than being in a new habitat for the first time and watching a whole new community of birds and other organisms interacting with the habitat and eachother. I do admit to also being conscience of my lists though as well. For example at the beginning of each year I set a goal for myself about how many birds I want to see that year, how many lifers etc. its the part of it that makes it a game and a little more fun. With that in mind I entered this year (in what will likely be my final year living in Oklahoma), wanting to get my Oklahoma state list over 300, something I was hoping to accomplish much earlier but with grad school obligations and other responsibilities, I haven't had the time to just bird like I did in years past. Last weekend I was leading a group of my ornithology students (I am teaching an ornithology lab class at OSU this semester) to the Wichita Mountains NWR, one of the last strongholds of the Black-capped Vireo in Oklahoma. It just so happens that I had never before seen this species, not only in Oklahoma but never before period.
The morning started off cool and foggy and I was worried the birding was not going to be very good. However about 15 minutes after arriving at the refuge the fog began to lift and we soon saw a herd of bison.

Many of the bison in this herd appeared to be young males, and they seemed to itching for a fight.

We then took a trail into some likely looking Black-capped Vireo habitat. The birding was good and the students were hearing and seeing many new birds, many of them newly arrived Neotropical migrants like Summer Tanagers and Blue-gray Gnatcatchers. Soon we heard a probable Black-capped Vireo but after hiking off trail for awhile toward where the song originated from, we were unsuccessful in locating the caller. After contemplating turning back to check some other areas for waterfowl and other species, I convinced the group to continue on through likely Black-capped Vireo habitat for little longer.

Ornithology students walking through Black-capped Vireo habitat at the Wichita Mountains.

Only a couple of hundred yards farther down the trail. We heard another Black-capped Vireo calling from up on a hillside. Andy Crosby, one of the students who had formerly worked on a Black-capped Vireo project and I led the way up the hill towards the singing Vireo. The Vireo was skulky and mostly stayed hidden in the small shinnery oaks but we were patient and eventually he showed himself.

Perhaps the most important thing about "Lifers" is that sometimes its just an individual bird, never before seen that can propel somebody into a life of birds and birding and eventually bird conservation. These lifers are called "spark birds" a bird that lights the spark that ignites the birding pation in somebody. For me I can actually point to one of these birds and moments that hooked me on birds for life. At 8 years old I had been interested in dinosaurs first and eventually this led me to a fascination with non-extinct animals as well, especially birds. But I don't think you could have called me a "birder" until a fateful family trip to the Black Hills of South Dakota in 1989. I had been watching the local birds around my little hometown in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan for a year or so, and had already seen many of the common species. This trip into the "west" however would change me from a passive birdwatcher into an avid birder. I had brought along my little Tasco binoculars and golden field guide my grandparents had given me as a present and while my parents and siblings were swimming at the pool in our campground I walked around the area looking for new birds. I still vividly remember the bright sky blue bird that flew into my vision, over the black hills spruce and onto a barbed wire fence seperating the campground from a pasture. My field guide said it was a Mountain Bluebird but to my 8 year old mind it was something much more, something new and exotic, it was a lifer.
Finally adding the beautiful and federally endangered Black-capped Vireo to my lifelist has certainly been one of the highlights of my spring. More importantly adding this species to the fledgling lifelists of my ornithology students might help influence some of them to become ardent birders and bird conservationists themselves, just like that Mountain Bluebird in that Black Hills pasture did for me almost 20 years ago.

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