Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Do you have "Maybe-Not" Life Birds too?

With a few years of active birding under my belt I find myself looking back over my life list and wondering, "Did I really see that bird?" To most of them I can answer, "Yes, I am certain I did because I was with so-and-so who is an experienced birder and he/she would not have led me astray." Others I am certain of because they were just so obvious and nearly impossible to misidentify.  But there are a few birds on my list that I look back on and I really don't trust my early solo bird identifying skills. Shoot, I make enough mistakes still today that its is extremely reasonable to question my past identifications. Today I labor over each different-looking bird until I come away with as much confidence as possible. My techniques have improved and I am learning how to document my sightings with drawings and field notes. Those "maybe-not birds" however remain on my life list waiting for future days when I see them again (or for the first time) when they will really count!

Perhaps I am too hard on myself. I probably did struggle through my field guide in that moment. None of those "maybe-not birds" in my life list were outside of their typical region...but the correct habitat may be another matter! Regardless, I'd still like to see a few birds again so I can "feel" better about them being on my life list.

What do you do with your “maybe-not" or questionable life birds? Did you take them off your list? Do you leave them there and delete them when you see them again “for real”? I have done that a few times.  Do you ignore them and pretend they don't really exist while boasting of your massive life list full or errors?

I also find that I really want to see and identify birds with my own skills, especially those birds that someone else had to point out for me before. Because I didn't have to struggle over that previous identification process, the memory and knowledge didn't stick in my cerebro. Lynn Davenport, my father-in-law and birding mentor, was pretty good at forcing me to point out the characteristics of each bird so that it would truly be mine. Yet, even with Lynn, there are a few “maybe-not” life birds that we saw together that were new to both of us and in regions that were new to us.

So in the interest of full-disclosure here are my dozen “maybe-not” birds still on my life list:

1. Hawaiian Duck – I only trust myself about 50% on this one. Jessica, I guess we’re going back to Hawaii to make sure!!!

2. Hawaiian Coot – I saw coots there, but do they have the American Coots there too? I just check eBird and it say no, so I no longer need to question this one...but Jessica, we still have to go back to Hawaii just to make sure!!!

3. Northern Goshawk – I vividly recall the moment in Patagonia when Lynn I watched this bird through the spotting scope, but I was solely dependent on Lynn who manned the scope most of the time, so I’d really like to see one again.

4. Marbled Godwit – a solo sighting in Star, ID and I’m still only about 60% sure of it as they were at the far side of a flooded pasture and I had only my 8x binoculars and no scope. They had been reported in this region during that time which gives me some hope, but I’d sure like to see them again and hopefully much closer.

5. African Collared-Dove – I saw a collared dove at a Scottsdale, AZ golfcourse. eBird only shows one other AZ sighting at the Desert Botanical Garden. Maybe this other guy and I were mistaken and it was the much more probably Eurasion Collared-Dove or an escaped bird. Who knows?! I just remember it was really white and had that collar and I identified it in my guide at the time.

6. Common Ground-dove – While I saw this with Lynn in Marion Paton’s backyard in Patagonia and I have a 75% confidence in the sighting, I’d still like to see it again to feel good about it.

7. Cassin’s Kingbird – Lynn and I labored over this one at Patagonia Lake and there was another birder there that agreed with us, but yet again, another bird I like to see again with more years of experience.

8. Chihuahuan Raven – another bird Lynn and I claim to have seen in Patagonia. Did we really see some white shoulder feathers poking through or did we magically make them appear in our minds? We certainly were in the right place and there are lots of reports of Chihuahuan Ravens in Patagonia itself, so maybe we did indeed see them. I’d still like another look.

9. Bushtit – this should be an easy one to see, but the one I saw alone in Oregon still plagues me. It really couldn’t have been anything else that non-descript grey about the size and shape of the Verdin I was so used to seeing in Arizona, but I need to get out the Celebration Park here along the Snake River and see them again so I can feel good about it.

10. Bendire’s and Crissal Thrashers – my records are from my yard in AZ which is highly questionable. I know I studied all the thrashers in my yard closely, but these were probably variants of the Curve-billed Thrasher. Now the LeConte’s Thrasher on the other hand that I saw along the Salome Hwy is a 100% certainty!

11. Hepatic Tanager – I had good long views of this and I studied it for like an hour, but I was with my kids at the Tonto Fish Hatchery, so even though I have a certain degree of confidence in the sighting, I’d sure like to see another one!

12. Eastern Meadowlark – seen with my family at Big Lake in eastern AZ where they have been seen by others. I remember studying those tail feathers for quite some time, but I still have my doubts.

Here's to hoping I see all of these birds and many more again!


  1. I've heard off-line that this is a very sensitive subject for many birders and that it is kind of taboo to discuss it. I guess people like to ignore "Maybe-not" birds rather than face them head-on with intellectual honesty. Interesting!

  2. IF there's any doubt, take them off your list. I used to have spotted owl on my life list, but I took it off, because I couldn't safely rule out Barred Owl.

  3. Thanks for the comment Darren. Over the past few years I have developed the prinicple that I don't even right the bird down on my list while I am out birding unless I was able to positively identify it or at least right down field notes and a sketch. I can't say that I lived that principle four and five years ago when I first started. I know I was "pretty sure" when I entered those sightings in eBird, but now looking back I question myself. There are really only three birds on that list that I really truly doubt and that I plan to remove from my life list.

  4. After much soul searching and study I have determined to delete the two thrashers and the African Collared-dove from my life list. The other birds on the list I would love to see again with more experienced eyes, but I have a much greater degree of certainty after reviewing them.