Updating the Life List and Bird Memories

I recently updated my life list, a time consuming task that included pulling information from an agglomeration of notebooks, loose sheets, and fading checkmarks in field guides. In addition, I had to work with name changes, lumps, and new splits. It took the better of five evenings to put it together as good as I could and I ended up well short of the hoped for 3,000. I decided to follow Clements 6.6 updated and published by Cornell, the list contains at least 10157 species. The IOC Common English Names list contains at least 10979 species, as it accepts many more splits over Clements. Of course the taxonomy is constantly changing, for example the AOU just accepted the split of Gray Hawk into the northern Gray and southern Gray-lined Hawks, but Clements just lists them a subspecies. Even though I have seen both, no extra bird, life is cruel.

Going through the somewhat tedious work of placing check marks, I reached the New World Butorides herons, here in Texas we are very familiar with the Green Heron, which stands frozen in densely vegetated wetlands waiting for potential prey. Several years ago the name was Green-backed Heron as the South American form and northern form were considered one species. Apparently limited hybridization in the contact zone in Panama and West Indies warranted the species to be re-split into Green and Striated Herons. As I cruised through the Excel sheet I finally reached the Lava Heron (sometimes known as Galapagos Heron).

Lava Heron Galapagos Islands Photo Stephan Lorenz

There was no doubt that I had seen the species, one of many bird “species” endemic to the Galapagos Islands. I remember one individual rather well, posing on some exposed rocks in Santa Cruz harbor and another that I poorly photographed doing a balancing act on an anchor line in the early morning near Baltra. I clearly remember the distinct dark plumage as birds would freeze on the black lava and almost disappear. I also had several sightings of Striated Herons on a few islands. These birds were distinctly different, lacking the overall slate-gray coloration. Thus I was shocked to lose another bird to the “lumpers”, Lava Heron appeared as Butorides striata sundevalli on the list, a subspecies of the Striated Heron. The Lava Heron, or Galapagos Heron, just lost something of its uniqueness as it was possibly just a color morph. I do not want to bore with a treatise on Butorides herons, there are many more qualified people and the excellent paper by F. E. Hayes NAB 2002 goes into great detail.

Rather I am trying to explore whether it really matters. I clearly remember the Lava Heron, the unique dark plumage as they stalked crabs on the black volcanic rock. I remember the heat from the unrelenting Galapagos sun, Brown Noddies fishing in the channel, and maybe the distant barking of a Galapagos Sea Lion. Does the distinction between species and subspecies matter (I know this can start a heated debate in many circles) when taking into account the whole experience of witnessing a unique character (bird) and location creating a holistic memory of a place (one of the main reasons I enjoy birding). In addition I was glad to look straight at evolution, with thousands of generations of herons adapting to the special environment found in the Galapagos Islands.

What I found was, that, while skimming through the list I could remember the Lava Heron clearly, whereas I referred back to my scattered notes and faint marks in Ridgely and Greenfield’s Birds of Ecuador to sort out the Tyrannid flycatchers. I am embarrassed to admit that I had a difficult time with the Tolmomyias flycatchers, despite it being a relatively small genus. Yet I cannot clearly remember seeing the Yellow-olive, Yellow-margined, and Yellow-breasted Flycatchers. They are clearly in my notes and I need to do more digging to maybe rekindle the memory of the sighting. I am sure many feel the same.

Of course it is impossible to forget the “BIRDS”, the beautiful, incomparable, rare, difficult, and simply stunning. While I may not recall the exact date, I will never forget the sight of a male Marvelous Spatuletetail finally swooping in to display to a female hidden in the shrub in northern Peru, or the small party of Bornean Bristleheads as they appeared right in the campground on my way to the shower. During a long hike in the Kimberley coming across a family of Gouldian Finches or finally catching up with the shadow of a Black-crowned Antpitta after it attempted to sneak across the trail in Braullio Carillo. Of course, no-one needs a notebook entry to remember the first Wandering Albatross appearing on the horizon only to sail close and land right next to the boat. Anyway I think I am getting my point across.

Birding for me is part of a much larger experience beyond checkmarks in a list, beyond the list itself. Of course I obviously maintain a count, but mainly to aid retaining memories of a place. Oftentimes a single checkmark can bring up recollections of the place, people I was with, and the general landscape. Thus it doesn’t matter whether a bird is a species, subspecies, or countable as long as the entire experience is taken into account. Of course for taxonomical reasons and conservation bird classification matters a great deal. I let the Lava Heron slide off my list, happy to remember it and its unique environment.

Much further down the list I reach another set of birds endemic to the Galapagos Islands, the Darwin’s finches. I remember every species of this distinct group and quickly place checkmarks, until arriving at the Warbler-Finch. Instead of a single species there are two, an actual split, into the Green and Gray Warbler-Finch. I wrack my brain trying to stir up 3 years old memories. Did I see green and gray birds, what did I see? A quick check of the ranges showed that neither of the two warbler-finches overlaps and both species occur allopatric on the larger islands. I remembered seeing warbler-finches on Santa Cruz Island, which is now considered Green Warbler-Finch. Fortunately I could recall seeing warbler-finches on San Christobal and even took note at the time that these birds looked grayer and larger. Thus I could place two checkmarks, but does it really matter? You bet it does!

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