There's a fair amount of contempt out there for birders who keep track of the number of bird species they've seen in their lives. As soon as these "twitchers" witness a new bird out in the field, they immediately check the species off on their life list and move on to search for the next bird. In this manner, birding is reduced to counting, and a productive day is simply determined by the number of new species encountered. This is the stereotype at least, although I've never kept company with such birders myself.
When I first started birding in Ecuador, I knew very little about birds and their taxonomy. Keeping track of the number of species I had seen and could identify held little importance, as it was a very small fraction of the country's approximately 1600 bird species. Instead of counting upwards from the first bird, my first step in the learning process was to revisit the same site repeatedly, in my case the Tandayapa valley, and to keep birding there until I was familiar with about fifty of the most common species and the families they represented.
Once this baseline was established, I started venturing out to different locations, where new birds could be compared with the species I had already learned. It became clear, for example, that on the northwestern slope of the Andes the Rufous Wren replaces the Sepia-Brown Wren at higher altitudes, but that both could be confused with the Rufous Spinetail, which, though similar in appearance and behavior, is from an entirely different family of birds. These basic comparisons evolved into more complex networks of information, and I eventually realized that the best way to organize my experiences would be to keep a detailed record of not only which birds I had seen, but also where and when.
The Excel spreadsheet I created is now comprised of over 500 bird species. This figure, which is the result of a year's worth of recreational birding throughout most of the country, is comparable to the number of birds encountered on a week-long guided birding tour of just one region in Ecuador. Most birders who visit Ecuador on such tours have probably created similar spreadsheets, listing the birds they have seen for just the same reason that I have, to organize their experiences in the larger context of the birds of Ecuador or even South America. I wouldn't devalue their lists in comparison with mine because they were created in far less time and with more help; in fact, theirs are probably more useful in that they provide detailed information about a small area, as opposed to scattered information about a large area, like my list.
The only people who can afford not to maintain such lists are those who live in Tandayapa valley, for example, and have time to develop a deep understanding of the hundreds of bird species that inhabit the area. How superficial it must seem to them when a visitor conscientiously makes note of having seen the Golden Tanager, one of the most common species in the valley. But this resident birder is certainly a stereotype too, as even in the neotropics bird populations are highly dynamic, migrating to different altitudes in response to weather or food supplies. Even if such birders only made a mental note of these changes, the impulse to organize their experiences in a larger context is still the same.
At worst, a "twitcher" is a serious birder that has pragmatically come to terms with the realities of bird tourism. Accepting that there's insufficient time to develop a meaningful relationship with specific bird species, the "twitcher" observes the new bird, records his observation, and looks for the next one, all in hopes of maximizing his time in the field. This quest for new experiences in a limited amount of time is universal, of course, so where's the harm in keeping count?
August 14, 2008