I haven’t been getting all that many birds in my yard so far this season, but on Thanksgiving afternoon, my mother-in-law and I looked out at my feeder to two gorgeous adult male Pine Grosbeaks.
I’m inordinately fond of Pine Grosbeaks, in part because of my first experience with them. On December 3, 1977, as I was walking toward Picnic Point, my favorite birding spot in Madison, Wisconsin, I heard an unfamiliar whistle. I whistled back, and the sound grew louder almost too quickly as I drew closer. It sounded as if the bird were approaching me even as I walked toward it. Finally I saw it—a female or young male Pine Grosbeak--my LIFER! He was plump, both due to his natural body shape and because his feathers were fluffed out against the cold. His big black, confiding eyes looked directly into mine.
Had that been the whole story it would have been splendid enough. But we kept whistling back and forth as he hopped and flitted even closer as I continued to walk toward him. Finally, for some unaccountable reason, I took off one glove and reached my hand toward him. I have no idea why I did that, and am even more mystified why, as if on cue, he alighted on my finger. Our eyes locked for a magical moment as we continued whistling back and forth. I have no idea how long this lasted—a second or many seconds or a full minute or more. My eyes welled with tears but I blinked them away, both so they wouldn’t freeze on my glasses and because they blurred my view of him.
When he finally took off, he didn’t fly away in a huff—just hopped onto a nearby branch and flew along companionably with me for a good ten minutes. Pine Grosbeaks are very sociable birds, and this one had apparently been separated from his flock. All I could conclude was that for a little while that afternoon, he wanted company so bad that he decided I was better than no one.
That was one of the seminal moments of my lifetime. As I walked back to my apartment afterwards, I found myself singing a song from Hello, Dolly, “It Only Takes a Moment,” a song that still makes me think of my own truly magical moment. I’d have loved Pine Grosbeaks anyway, for their beauty, their gentle vocalizations, and the mysterious unpredictability of their winter movements, which makes any sighting an unexpected gift. But that single moment with my first Pine Grosbeak so elevated the species in my heart that I think it’s impossible for me to even think of the words “Pine Grosbeak” without smiling.
This encounter put the Pine Grosbeak at #263 on my lifelist. Some birders nowadays dismiss the concept of listing as meaningless collecting or competition, somehow contrary to the enriching elements of birdwatching and conservation. (See Jeff Gordon's thoughtful essay in the current issue of Birding.)
These people are wrong. Just wrong. Sometimes on a stormy day I like to make a cup of cocoa and curl up in my window seat under an afghan and pore through the notebook in which I keep my lifelist. I’d birded two or three years before the American Ornithologists’ Union changed names and lumped or split various species. Over time, their taxonomy changes have messed up many names and numbers on my list—as I look at the entries and the scribblings I've added over the years, I appreciate how the science of ornithology has advanced even as I vividly recall my personal experiences with these birds.
My lifelist includes only my first encounter with each species. To delve into my continuing relationship with each bird, I look at my field notebooks and photographs. I’ve not been as diligent about keeping detailed notes in recent years as I was in the beginning, but as I face my 2013 Conservation Big Year, I intend to keep track of the birds I encounter as I did when I started out. Some days back then I just kept barebones lists, but now when I look over even those minimal entries, the species combinations along with location and weather details and who was birding with me conjure vivid memories.
As I always say, no one should go through life listlessly.