How To Keep Track of Lifers On A Birding Tour

I take the concept of “Lifer” pretty seriously.  As you know, a Lifer is a bird you’ve never observed before and some birders (like me) enjoy knowing how many Lifers I have.  The last lifer I had before going to Panama was a Cackling Goose, which was #1,319.  While preparing for a Birding Tour to Panama I had an expectation that I would get between 200-300 Lifers because our Red Hill Birding guide Adam said we would see that many species there.  Indeed, according to our eBird checklists I saw 281 species in Panama.  In my fuzzy thinking I expected all the birds I would see in Panama to be Lifers but that was not the case; I had previously seen 128 of those species.  I had been to Costa Rica and Honduras several times and saw many of the same birds that we saw in Panama.  Also there were many species in Panama that I’ve seen here in Chicagoland, such as Turkey Vultures, Bay-breasted Warblers, Yellow Warblers, and Broad-winged Hawks (more about those later).

I learned the hard way that keeping track of Lifers on a Birding Tour is no easy job – if you’re honest about it.  All the guides I’ve been with on a Birding Tour use eBird to create checklists each day.  After accepting one of their checklists you soon find out why they are the professional – they see and hear so much more than you do.   I mentioned above, that, according to my eBird checklists I saw 281 species;  those same checklists showed that our guide Adam saw 331 species.  Fifty more than me – how could that be?  Adam is a professional and can see and hear so much more than I can.  Every day he would put on the checklist many species that he heard – and then I would dutifully take them off my list because I hadn’t heard them.  Even if I did hear a noise he identified, I wouldn’t count it as a Lifer.  To hear a sound I don’t recognize and probably wouldn’t recognize again doesn’t meet my criteria for a Lifer.  A quick glimpse of a bird through a scope does meet that threshold if I can see some prominent field marks.  A blur of a bird flying across the path up ahead is probably not enough for a Lifer.

So how do I know which species to take off the checklists the birding guide shares?  I found out quickly that there was no way I could remember every species I observed just that morning.  I write down every bird I see as soon as I see it.  Here’s a shot of my notes.

At the top of each page I write the date and time.  Each bird identified along the way is scrawled on the page.  Dots represent birds I took a picture of (the updated time helps me match the photo’s time-stamp with the species’ name back home).  After the birding guide sends the checklists I cross-check them with my notes.  If I didn’t write the species down in my notebook I delete it from my checklist.  Of course there’s always the chance that I forget to write down a species, so I wouldn’t get credit for that Lifer.  However I feel this is a more accurate method of recording Lifers (I noticed that many of the other participants on my  Panama birding tour have accepted all the species the guide reported on the checklists, giving them 50 more “Lifers” than I did).

So how many Panama Lifers did I end up with?  153.

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Looks like the bird did the writing!