Archive for the ‘listing’ Category

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Sabbatical is OVER.

March 21, 2012

Wow, it’s been over a year since I’ve posted here. Good grief. I think I have some bird-things to talk about.

For starters, South America was as good on the birding front as you think it ought to be, especially for someone who spent pretty much all of 2011 there. I essentially was birding from about January 10 to December 10 of last year – certainly there were breaks in that time, but I had my bird-radar on pretty much continuously throughout.

Now, my birding philosophy last year was to emphasize quality over quantity. It’s always nice to tick lots of birds off lists, and a few of my outings sought to achieve that, to be sure. But overall, if I had a choice between seeing a few things well or just seeing lots of things fleetingly, I would choose the former. It was more important to me to feel like I was really learning something about the nature of bird-life in South America, meaning that I saw the birds within the real context of their lives and life histories, and not just as scavenger-hunt goodies. As a result of this philosophy, I ended up seeing probably fewer species than one might think in the course of a full year on the Bird Continent. It was a Big Year for me all the same, but it will definitely not go down as one of the biggest years anyone ever could have.

A digiscoped Brown Jacamar, at the Cristalino Jungle Lodge in southern Amazonia, Brazil (Oct 22, 2011)

At the moment I am still poring over lists and sorting data. It will be months before I have a final definitive tally, because processing my audio files will take that long. I know I recorded many things that I couldn’t identify, and at the moment I am still just trying to catalogue my recordings – actually analyzing and sorting them will come after that. With photos it’s kinda the same, although I’ve been focusing a lot more on that since I’ve been already giving presentations on my travels to Audubon groups here in Colorado. I’ll be talking about those in a subsequent posting.

But, just for the record, it’s looking as if I counted about 1,225 species for the year, including around 949 lifers.

Soon I’ll break the numbers down even more, but I just wanted to break the silence first and let anyone out there reading this know that I am back and am ready to talk birds again!

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Trashing my ABA list

January 8, 2010

I’m about to do it. Yep.

I’m going to give up and throw away my ABA lists. I’m not going to maintain them any longer. I’m going to take the data contained therein and transfer them where applicable to other lists. But I will no longer recognize the “ABA area” as one worth keeping a list for.

I dunno. Is this a big deal? Seems like it. The ABA is a pretty big, established, prestigious organization, with a storied history. I’ve never heard of anyone else doing something like this – forswearing the bird checklist for the ABA. Or at least, I’ve never heard of anyone being as theatrical about it as I am. Still, the point stands – it’s rare to trash one’s ABA list, perhaps unheard of, except maybe by those who give up birding altogether.

So what brings this on? What’s my story? Why am I pursuing this seemingly radical track? If you’re thinking that maybe I have a beef with the ABA, you’d be right.

Well, let me temper that a bit. I don’t really have a beef with the ABA per se. Actually I like the ABA. I’m a dues-paying member, and I eagerly await every issue of the magazine. What I don’t like anymore is the ABA listing area. I’ve never really understood it, and I’ve reached a point in my birding and bird study that the more I think about it, the more ridiculous and nonsensical it seems. And in light of the ABA’s recent decision to keep the ABA area as it is currently defined for no other reason than historical consistency, well, I feel the need to take up arms against a sea of troubles the only way I can and rage, rage against the dying of the light. Or at least breath life into mixed literary allusions.

Once again, I need to temper my rhetoric. Calling it an act of rage really overstates the case. I’m not really angry. I’m not really angry at all. But I do finally feel like I understand the situation well enough, and that I don’t feel the need anymore to simply follow along just because it’s easier, if I perceive something as redundant or overly contrived. In the case of the ABA area list, I definitely find it overly contrived, and essentially uninteresting. That many thousands of birders will certainly continue to keep an ABA list fascinates me, in the way that a slow-motion train-wreck is fascinating. Sure, you can’t take your eyes off it, but you sure as hell don’t want to be a part of it if you can help it.

About 5 years ago the only list I ever kept was a life list. Most of my birding had been pretty solitary, and I liked it like that. I never even thought of things like state lists or year lists even. I just figured that all there really was were life lists. But when I moved to Colorado and got to know other birders better, I came to understand the appeal and utility even of keeping many more lists. I joined the ABA, and of course started keeping an ABA-area list. After all, I wanted to fit in with the kool kids and be able to measure my progress as it were against other ABA members. I did note the ABA area definition at the time, but didn’t really think about it much.

The ABA area is defined as follows:

The geographic area covered (sometimes referred to as the ABA Checklist Area) is essentially North America north of Mexico. Specifically, the area encompassed is the 49 continental United States, Canada, the French islands of St. Pierre et Miquelon, and adjacent waters to a distance of 200 miles from land or half the distance to a neighboring country, whichever is less. Excluded by these boundaries are Bermuda, the Bahamas, Hawaii, and Greenland. A subarea of the ABA Checklist Area, or other prescribed area, is as defined by its legal boundaries. If not legally defined otherwise, it includes adjacent water (rivers, lakes, bays, sounds, etc.) out to half the distance to a neighboring area, but not beyond 200 miles. Birds observed on or over an ocean are counted for the area having jurisdiction over the nearest land, if within 200 miles.

Basically, this boils down to saying the area includes mainland Canada and the continental USA (49 states). And that’s it. Nothing south of the Rio Grande, no Hawaii (even though Hawaii is part of the United States of America, last I checked, unless the anti-Obama birthers recently took over the country), and no Greenland for that matter. But it does conveniently include any ridiculously remote islands that happen to be politically connected to a mainland continental political entity, like a US State. In other words, if a Eurasian vagrant like, say, a Common Nightingale lands in Kap Farvel in Greenland, that’s not countable, but if one lands on Attu on the very end of the Aleutian Island chain off Alaska, then break out the champagne, we’ve got ourselves a new bird for our lists! Never mind that Kap Farvel is closer to Labrador and the Canadian mainland than Attu is to the Alaskan mainland. For the purposes of the ABA list, political boundaries are paramount, as is the peculiar artifact of Attu being not just US territory but technically part of the United States proper.

Which is fine. As part of the United States, Attu should have the benefit of having its bird list included with that of the rest of the country. In this way, what you see birdwise in Attu is as countable as what you see in Central Park in Manhattan. But what about Hawaii? What if that White-tailed Eagle leaving Kamchatka takes a wrong turn and instead of landing in countable Attu, it lands on Kauai? Sorry, as far as the ABA is concerned, a bird in Attu is more important than one in Hawaii, even though Attu is practically as far from North America as Hawaii is.

OK then, so we’re keeping to islands that are at least connected geologically (if not so much geographically) to mainland North America. I get it. Attu is OK, but Bermuda is not. But then why is it that if I travel north of the border, I can count a Boreal Chickadee in the heart of British Columbia, but I can’t count that Hook-billed Kite on the other side of the Rio Grande riverbank at Santa Ana in Texas? What is so magically important or different to the ABA about birds in Canada as opposed to birds in Mexico?

I certainly believe that people and even institutions are free to create and adhere to lists of whatever nature they like. That’s our prerogative, one for all of us. But that prerogative says nothing about whether or not it makes any sense to follow it. And the more I think about the ABA area as it is currently defined, the less and less sense it makes. And to have an institution like the American Birding Association continue to ignore rather conspicuous parts of America, defined either geographically (Mexico) or politically (Hawaii) when it had the choice not to, makes me think that it’s not worth keeping up a list for the birding area that they most proudly lay claim to. (note – link requires ABA-member password to access) The continuing insistence of allowing freaky Attu birds to count on an ABA list just because Attu has had some awesome vagrants just by conveniently being downwind of Asia, while the Bahamas are likely excluded because they will never be able to keep up with the Attu’ses birdwise, shows me that the ABA doesn’t really have its priorities straight. But just because they don’t doesn’t mean I have to follow suit.

So instead, I’m going to convert all my ABA lists to AOU lists, and USA lists. I’m also going to integrate my Hawaii and ABA lists to create a USA list. (This won’t be too hard for me, since I’ve not yet been to Canada or Mexico anyway.) I’m also going to forget ABA year lists, and convert those to US and North America lists. My ABA lists will be dismantled and forgotten, and I will instead focus on lists that make more biogeographic or more political sense. Continent or biogeographic regions, like say, North America, the Western Palearctic, or Australiasia make sense to me. Country lists make sense. State lists make sense. County lists make sense. Yard lists make sense. But does the ABA list make sense? Nope, not really. It never could decide whether it’s a political or a biogeographic list, so it tries instead to be a mysterious hodgepodge of both. It’s just there anymore because some people (OK, lots of people) are stuck in the past, and don’t want to lose whatever sense of prestige gained from keeping a list based on such a strange definition.

And again, that’s fine if that’s what they want. They’re allowed. But I’m allowed to call that kind of thinking ridiculous, and move on to something that makes more sense.

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The 5 Stages of Bird List Grief

June 17, 2008

I got back from a trip to New York City about a week ago. It was a cultural trip with my non-birding wife, and we mostly took in the big tourist sights like the Empire State Building, the UN, Brooklyn Bridge, Katz’ Deli on the Lower East Side, the Natural History Museum, and even a couple TV show tapings. Great fun actually.

On the 3rd, we spent a good portion of the day in and around Central Park. I knew going in that there was some decent birding to be had in a few of the areas, so I brought my binos, “just in case”. And I’m glad I did – even though I had to do my usual hemming and hawing to my wife about why I had them and why I wanted to go this particular route through the park. Fortunately, she’s pretty accommodating, and I don’t have to debase myself too much to get what I want.

We took a route through an area called “The Ramble”, and just as we started to enter, I heard a sound that I’d never before heard in the field. But it was one that I had heard frequently on my “More Birding By Ear” recordings by the Peterson’s Guide. It was an unmistakable thrush song, Bicknell’s Thrush! Quickly I scrambled over to the area where the song was coming from, and not long after I got a few views of the bird in question. How exciting! I wasn’t at all expecting to find this species on this trip, so what a great bonus to add to my newly-formed New York state list, which would only have a couple dozen species on it, but at least one new life bird!

One thing bugged me though – how did I know it wasn’t a Gray-cheeked Thrush? Come to think of it, I had no idea what their song was like. Is it similar? Would either of these species be singing if they weren’t on territory? Lots of questions, and few answers to be found in my NYC guidebook. Well, I had to wait until I got home to look this stuff up. I eventually got home and began my investigation.

And if you are a knowledgeable East Coast birder, you can probably imagine my disappointment when I realized that Gray-cheeked Thrush does indeed sound a lot like Bicknell’s. In fact, there’s only one really helpful sound trait you can use to separate them in the field. And I probably heard it too – the problem is, I didn’t remember it! I wasn’t even paying attention to those crucial notes at the time, because I hadn’t bothered to study the two species before I left for the trip. Who’da thought I’d be hearing any thrush songs in Central Park?

At this point, I should have known that I wasn’t going to be able to count this as a Bicknell’s. But I wasn’t ready for that. I had to go through the Kübler-Ross 5 Stages of Grief first apparently.

(Denial)

Well, I tried ruling one or the other out, based on the likelihood of singing away from their breeding territories. I thought maybe I could just eliminate Gray-cheeked just because it was much further from its usual breeding grounds than the Bicknell’s, which breed in upstate New York. If only it were that easy – Birds of North America as well as a couple different comments over email from knowledgeable East Coast birders informed me that either one could well sing during migration. And as far as field appearance goes, as good a look as I got, it wasn’t nearly enough for me to see any clearly distinguishing traits. I knew it wasn’t a Hermit or Swainson’s, or even a Wood. But that’s as much as I could say.

(Anger)

I felt annoyed that I may not be able to count this as a life bird after all. (I already have Gray-cheeked in Colorado and Florida.) The supporting evidence I had used so confidently to call this a Bicknell’s was falling away, leaving only uncertainly and ambiguity. I had already gone to the trouble of adding it to all my lists! Like hell if I’m going to take it off again!

(Bargaining)

So, given that Gray-cheeked generally occurs on more days in May and June than Bicknell’s, it’s likely that I heard the former instead of the latter. Of course it isn’t ruled out completely – part of me still thinks I heard a rising note at the end. So maybe it was a Bicknell’s! How about if I take off a different species from my life list, like Robin or something? Wouldn’t that balance things out?

(Depression)

Bummer.

(Acceptance)

Well, in the greater scheme of things, I’d rather add a life bird to my list knowing without a doubt that it was that species, instead of scurrilously adding a bird with doubt, just to pump up the list. I’ll just have to make a dedicated trip up to the Northeast some day and look and listen for Bicknell’s properly. Dang it.

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Colorado Birding Year

December 30, 2006

Having left Colorado a few days back for the last time in 2006, it’s time for another year in review. The birding is over, so let’s see how things went….

2006 was a fun and productive year in birding for me. My state list burgeoned from 229 on January 1 to 318 as of Dec 27. 91 new state birds this year included regular seasonal visitors like the Northern Shrike, Great Egret and the Rosy-Finches, and a fair number of unusual vagrants like the White Ibis, Yellow-throated Vireo, and Hudsonian Godwit. I chased quite a few rarities, with mixed results, and I also visited some new areas of the state which allowed me to pick up other varieties which are typical in their respective habitats but not often seen in or around Fort Collins. Towards the end of the year I managed to pick up a couple really nice species, the Yellow-bellied Sapsucker and the Varied Thrush, both of which turned out to be much easier than I expected.

As in 2005 I kept a year list, to see how much I could improve on my regular bird-finding. I had 229 birds in ‘05, and sought to find 300+ in ‘06. I got close, but unfortunately came up short with just 294. I’m still pretty happy with that – 294 is a lot of birds. Off the top of my head I can think of at least 15 species that I looked long and hard for but failed to get, for various reasons. Some of that is of course blind luck, or lack thereof. Despite my best efforts I simply won’t always find what I’m looking for, and that’s not a reflection of anything in particular. Another reason I missed 300 was that I never did do the spring SE Colorado trip I thought I might earlier in the year. Sure, I visited Chico Basin Ranch a couple times, once in February (for the Long-billed Thrasher) and again in May for a Nature Conservancy-led field trip. I also was down in Pueblo in February for a Winter Raptor Survey, and in Cañon City in late September in search of the elusive Common Black Hawk (which I apparently missed only by one day). But these were very short trips, and I never did make a visit out to points further east like Lamar or John Martin Reservoir or better yet Cottonwood Canyon way down in Baca County, like I did in 2005. If I’m going to get 300+ birds in Colorado for a year, a couple days in that part of the state sure helps a lot.

I resisted for over a year since I arrived, but I finally gave in this year and started up some Colorado county lists in earnest. I had been afraid of the administrative overhead in maintaining so many additional bird lists, but the advantages in doing so have turned out to outweigh the challenges. For one, keeping county lists adds a new dimension to in-state travels, giving purpose and relevance to seeing birds in a new place that you might see quite often in more familiar and regularly-visited stomping grounds. Even Rock Pigeons are interesting if you see one while crossing into a county that you’ve never been to before – time to fire up a new list! At year’s end I have 15 county lists, ranging in length from 20 in Montrose County (which we only drove through during a SW Colorado trip back in early August), to 239 in Larimer. Weld and Boulder counties also see a lot of action, and I have 182 and 137 in them respectively, but all other counties have fewer than 100 species tallied so far.

As fun as county lists have proven to be, at this point I still don’t bird for the purpose of increasing their lengths though. In Colorado my real interests are increasing my life list and my year lists – county lists are incidental accomplishments. In time this may change, and I will possibly travel across the state just to pump up county lists. But for now I’m probably obsessed enough as it is.

So what do I hope to do next year, listwise? I’m not sure – I’ve not thought that much about it yet. I still want to see 300 species in a year, but part of me wants to wait to do a full-on Big Year and shoot for 350+. Another part of me wants to focus more on bird-finding and less on bird-chasing this coming year – that would be more in line with my belief in the real purpose of listing, which is to increase understanding of birds, their populations and distributions, and the furtherance of their conservation. That kind of focus would probably reduce my total species counts for the year, but it would increase the number of rarities for which I was the original finder, and it may well be a better use of my skills anyway, helping to cover ground that other birders aren’t focusing on.

Lastly, I started a yard list too this year. The “yard” includes any bird seen from my property, whether flying overhead or in a tree across the street. Some people have great locations and can tally 70, 80, or even a 100 species over time in their similarly-defined yards. I’m currently at 34, which I think is pretty good, but until I can create a much more bird-friendly yard and attract more songbirds, it’ll be tough to boost that number by much. My best yard birds so far are the Eurasian Collared-Dove, Hermit Thrush, and Bohemian Waxwing.

Soon I’ll post some more detailed overall year-end highlights, and finally some of my nicer trip photos.

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List tweaks

September 22, 2006

I just returned from a brief non-birding trip to Kansas, during which I curiously managed to do a fair amount of birding. Funny that. Anyway, I managed to see my first-ever Nashville Warbler, which was life bird #799. On the day I returned, neighbor Nick called and we went in the afternoon down to nearby Union Reservoir to look for recently reported Arctic and Least Terns. We didn’t find them, but we did find a few Common Terns, and that too was a lifer me, #800.

And so, while updating my lists, I decided to do a little organizing of my taxonomic life list, where I break down my life sightings by family. I thought it might help if I ordered them as they are listed in the AOU list, where possible. (I realize that the truly kosher thing to do here is to list them in accordance with, say, Sibley-Monroe or some other world checklist, but I don’t have such lists handy. All in due time, I’m sure.)

I came to realize that some taxonomic changes have occurred, and these have a bearing on my list. Not only that, I discovered that I had omitted a very commonly seen bird from my life totals – the Western Gull! That’s right, perhaps one of the first birds I ever learned to identify never made it into my life totals until this week. Well, that immediately pushed me up to #801.

The Scarlet-rumped Tanager, a bird of the neotropics, was also split not long ago into Passerini’s Tanager and Cherrie’s Tanager. These new species generally occupy the eastern and western coastal areas in Costa Rica and Panama, and although my current lists record sightings for the bird in and around the Caribbean Slope, I do have very distinct recollections of the bird around Corcovado down along the southwest coast. So there’s #802 – 2 new life birds, and I didn’t even have to leave my couch!

But alas, not all was good news. While sequencing hummingbirds, I realized that I had mistakenly counted Magnificent Hummingbird twice – once in Costa Rica in 2002, and again this year when I saw it up close down at Beatty’s Guest Ranch near Sierra Vista, Arizona. Ooops. Back to #801.

I’m mostly done with the list review, but a few other changes have been made, mostly in the arena of species’ renaming, based on new splits. For example:

  • Little Hermit -> Stripe-throated Hermit
  • Crowned Woodnymph -> Violet-crowned Woodnymph
  • Gray-fronted Dove -> Gray-headed Dove
  • Pacific Dove -> West Peruvian Dove

Unlike the aforementioned Tanager case, here I’ve only seen one of the “new” species that was previously considered a subspecies, so no automatic list bumps.*

Also, the family of Dendrocolaptidae, or Woodcreepers, has been subsumed under Furnariidae, the Ovenbirds. Recent genetic evidence confirms their close association, and the decision has been made to put them all in one family, as opposed to keeping them as subfamilies under one family name. I’ve also moved a couple European members of Turdidae (Thrushes) to Muscicapidae, in accordance with recent decisions regarding the breakup of the family of Old World Warblers. Namely, these two species were moved from Turdidae to Muscicapidae:

  • Black Redstart
  • European Robin

I may find other changes to make soon as well. I also might have to make notes in my guidebooks too, especially regarding the Neotropic name changes. Guides like Skutch and Stile Costa Rica book still haven’t been updated since 1989, and probably won’t be for a long time.

* Some of these updates were tricky to make – I was able to find out about the Gray-fronted Dove change from AOU Supplement 46 to their 7th Edition, but the other ones involved consulting the latest info on their South American checklist Committee site, which annotates many of their species lists and name changes. Very informative, albeit time consuming.

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Weekend Bird Review

March 14, 2006

For some of us, the weekend goes ’til Monday. :^)

In any case, I got to see some nice birds the past couple days. Here are some of my better photos…

Sunday morning I made a trip to Connie Kogler’s home in southwest Loveland, to take a gander at a rare Larimer County Sage Sparrow that has been frequenting her feeders the past few days. I got some very nice looks at it, as you can tell. This was only my second sighting ever of this bird (the first being about 7 years ago in Death Valley National Park), so yes, I was stoked.

This morning I dropped by the Grandview Cemetery here in Fort Collins. It was lovely but chilly, having snowed the night before and then clearing off before sunrise. Even this Brown Creeper felt the chill, and puffed his feathers up a bit to stay warm. I was surprised at how docile he was, allowing me to get quite close and take quite a few shots without raising any fuss. It’s always a delicate thing, deciding what constitutes a respectful distance from a subject bird. I used my best judgment, edging closer over a couple minutes time.

My main plan for Monday was to do some Boulder County birding, but on the way down I made an impromptu addendum to try to find a special sparrow down in Littleton that eluded me a week or two ago. I realized while driving that I’d get there shortly after 10am, which was reportedly the best time of day to find the bird. When I got there, I easily found this White-crowned Sparrow, hanging out in one of the bushes at the site.

Then, a couple minutes later, the target bird finally emerged. It was a bit of a skulker, forcing me to take several rather crummy shots of it half-hidden amongst twigs and other less-secretive sparrows.

This Harris’ Sparrow was a lifer for me, and upon seeing it there was much rejoicing across the land. Both of these sparrow shots were taken at the Carson Nature Center near the Platte River in Littleton.

I eventually made my way to Boulder County, where I initially stopped at Erie Reservoir in Lafayette. As had been reported on the COBirds listserv, it was quite active, with about 600 birds there. Very quickly I managed to spot this 1st or 2nd-winter Glaucous Gull – it was hard to miss with its white plumage and large size standing out among the numerous Ring-billed and California Gulls present. Later at Thomas Reservoir less than a mile away as the gull flies were hundreds more birds, including a Franklin’s and a Lesser Black-backed, both adults in breeding plumage. (Thanks to Steve Larson who I linked up with today, who pointed me toward Thomas as a good gull spot.)

Finally, on my way home I stopped by Cattail Pond in Loveland for a quick look at the waterfowl. I’ve been hoping to find a Ruddy Duck this winter, and I’ve had no luck so far. But while scanning the water I heard some squealing overhead, and by the time I figured out what was going on one of the two birds tussling landed in a nearby tree. I don’t know what the other bird was, but this was a Merlin which let me get close enough for this SLR shot from below. A nice conclusion to a birdy day, and weekend.

And like this Merlin I’m taking off for a couple days with my wife so she can enjoy some much-deserved R&R. I’ll be back by next weekend (meaning the one that most people recognize as such). Ciao for now!

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Stricken

February 13, 2006

It was on my list for almost 12 years. But as of tonight, it has been removed. Cassin’s Sparrow is no longer a Life Bird for me.

I’ve been doing some background prep for planning a trip to SE Arizona this coming May. This means creating a target list, as well as revisiting sightings on earlier visits. I have very good recollections of most of my sightings, but was piqued by Bird #83, a Cassin’s Sparrow observed sometime in March of 1994 in Tucson. Unlike the other birds I recorded on that trip, I have no memory whatsoever of when exactly I saw that bird, nor where.

In the case of Cassin’s Sparrow, I find that problematic. For a number of years after I began birding, I relied pretty heavily on bird range maps in Peterson’s Guide to help me determine what bird I was seeing, in cases where there were 2 or more competing possibilities. That’s not a practice I believe in anymore, but I have to admit that it played a fair part in several IDs I thought I’d made in years past. I’d already corrected most of those (e.g., Hutton’s Vireo), but this one had remained.

I try to be very careful in tinkering with my lists when it comes to revisiting very old observations, and I am cautious not to overly second-guess my IDs. But I am aware of how my identification skills have grown over time, and I honestly don’t think I could have truly known for sure that I’d seen a Cassin’s Sparrow in lieu of, say, a Brewer’s, based on the way I know I used the Petersen’s Guide at the time, and my awareness (or lack thereof) of the likelihoods of seeing certain species in certain locations. It may well be, of course, that I did in fact see one, even if I don’t remember when or where. But it troubles me that I supposedly made such a careful ID of a tricky bird at a time when I really wasn’t attuned to such things, and that I remember nothing about the sighting; and knowing that I’d now have trouble picking one out of a sparrow lineup, I just don’t feel comfortable leaving it on my Life List. So, I removed it tonight, lowering my Life, AOU, and ABA totals by one.

I do feel confident that I’ll be able to put it back sometime this year. I just want it to count, to identify it from its characteristics, not from deductions or extrapolations from likelihood. Yet another manifestation of how I’m changing as a birder.