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The Wrack

The Wrack is the Wells Reserve blog, our collective logbook on the web.

Wing'd XXXV: Is It On The List?

Posted by | January 30, 2016 | Filed under: Observations

Grandma Judkins kept her binoculars to the left of the kitchen sink on a small shelf that grandpa had mounted below the cupboard. Those timeworn field glasses were an easy reach if some bird caught her eye through the windows above the sink. Should a green heron appear along the creek, or should "George," the red-winged blackbird, claim the feeder in the back yard, she could get to the glasses quickly, unwind their cracked leather strap, and take a look.

My Life List

On the same kitchen shelf was grandma's Peterson field guide. Her well thumbed handbook was wrapped in a padded cloth jacket — indigo with little white bird shapes — that had pockets for storing bird-related news clips, her own notes, and a short pencil.

Mr. Peterson had, within the book's front matter, included a life list "so that the owner will not need to mark up the index." In that check-list of birds I discovered grandma's small marks, her permanent record of species seen.

On my summertime visits to their quaint Lower Village house, grandma and grandpa introduced me to bird watching. I'd stare out the kitchen window, eager to glimpse an egret against a mud bank at low tide or a merganser ("sheldrake" grandpa called them) floating toward the house whenever sea water washed over the salt marsh. I practiced with those binoculars and studied Peterson's paintings while keeping grandma company in the kitchen, and I got started on my very own life list.

Listers List

I suppose most bird watchers, and pretty much all "birders," keep a life list. A running record of species encountered is easy enough to maintain in a field guide, on a pocket checklist, or using one computer program or another. A life list is a lovely memory aid, prompting happy reminiscences of unexpected or challenging encounters. It's also an incentive to explore new places in order to check off "new ones."

A young me on a Kennebunk beach with binoculars and field guide.Grandma's life list, tallied almost entirely within Maine, probably amounted to no more than a few dozen species. Mine, covering a fair portion of North America, has grown to several hundred. I started like her, making checks on a list. But as my birding intensified and my travels broadened, I got a little further into listing.

Beyond the life list lie a thousand possibilities, limited only by a lister's imagination. You have your geographic lists — yard, county, state, country, ABA area. You have your temporal lists — trip, month, year, CBC & GBBC. And you have your lister's lists: species photographed, birds observed singing, nests found, songs and calls heard in movies, birds seen in dreams, and so on. After decades of bird banding, June Ficker could compile a lengthy "birds I've been bitten by" list.

I suppose some birders keep a "dead birds" list, but would you put a bird you'd only seen dead on your life list?

Me neither.

Deceased Alcid

Weather graph showing wind (red) and precipitation (blue) at the Wells Reserve weather station on January 9 and 10, 2016.Remember the second weekend of January, when we got hit with heavy precipitation and strong winds? More than 3 inches of rain came down in a day and winds were steady at 10–20 mph with gusts rising to 40.

After the storm, John was making his rounds of the life estate when he found a dead bird in front of the brooder barn. Black and white, plump, and stubby beaked, it was unlike anything he had ever seen, so he brought it to me for identification. I recognized it at once, even though it was my first, dead or alive.

Dead dovekie in the hand, held in front of Laudholm barn, January 11, 2016

Dovekies, or little auks, are sea-going plankton consumers who tend to stay to our north. Millions live in the Arctic, but during some winters one or two or a few are seen along our coast. You're most likely to spot one from a boat or, with persistence, through a telescope at a good "sea-watching" site. I've never been so lucky; dovekie's on my wish list.

So why was this small seabird reposed beside the brooder building? Blame the wild weather. Dovekies are known to go off course during storms and can wind up well away from the ocean. It happens regularly enough that the phenomenon's got a name. While a "wreck" usually refers to several or more storm-driven alcids, it's sometimes used when referring to just one. These ill-fated birds are sometimes found to be emaciated, too, so there may be more to the grim picture than storminess alone.

Dovekie in hand, the question arose: "Should this species be added to the Wells Reserve bird list?" Unlike my personal life list, where dead birds don't count, the reserve's list represents those species known to have occurred within its borders. This little auk arrived under its own power and, whether ultimately exhausted or broken-necked, was alive for a time in the heart of the Laudholm campus. It's on the list as species #280.

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