I thought every birder did this. Do we not all do this?
I chased some birds this winter, eventually finding my milestone 700th ABA Continental bird—a Common Gull in Eastport, Maine. Afterward, I shared some photos on Twitter of the handwritten notations I made in my Sibley field guide and got a lot of responses. Many birders said they do the same, and shared images of their well-loved books. Others had their own methods of keeping physical records.
But some responses caught me off guard: What an interesting idea to keep a physical copy of your life list in a field guide! Or, wow, I never thought of that! Or even: I’d never mark up a book like that.
These comments surprised me because writing down lifers in my field guides is something I’ve always done, and it's something that I’ve always assumed all birders did since the exact moment I started birding. To those who don’t do this or have never heard of the practice, please listen: Do it. It’s the best.
I began birding the day I pulled a used Peterson field guide off a shelf in Hyde Brothers Booksellers in Fort Wayne, Indiana. In it, the previous owner had marked in pen next to each species the date and location they had seen it. My lightbulb went off. The doors of my mind were kicked open. Field guides weren’t just a way to figure out what kind of bird you were seeing, they were they were the answer key to a game you played across the entire country. They were the directions to a lifelong scavenger hunt. “Here are all the birds,” it read, “go find them.”
I bought that old field guide, got to work crossing off the previous owner’s notes (sorry, karma), and began entering my own sightings. The first lifer I ever recorded was a pair of Northern Shovelers in a nearby cornfield pond. I was immediately hooked. I could keep a neat record of everything I had seen—and everything else I needed to find—right there in my book.
It was such a tidy solution that I began keeping records in all my field guides. For my first few years of birding, I’d buy a new guide every year and keep my year list in them. I keep written records in every international guide I buy before an overseas birding trip, and I have entire shelves full of guides to places I haven’t visited yet, just waiting to be inked up. I keep track of mammals, reptiles, amphibians, Hawaiian reef fish, and butterflies in their respective guides. I recently wrote a guide to the birds of my home state and will copy my state list into it as soon as it’s published.
There’s no right or wrong way to do it. The variations I’ve seen relate to how much information people record. I generally just find the species I saw and write the date and location of the sighting. Others will mark every plumage or sex or subspecies. Some will jot quick notes: “Very windy, with Jane.” Maybe you just want to do a check mark. Whatever way you choose, it becomes yours.
As caught off guard as I was by those on Twitter who never thought to write in their field guides, I was even more surprised by the folks who were opposed to the practice entirely. Some people felt that books should be kept pristine, and not cluttered with personalizations. I simply don’t get the argument. After all, I paid for the book, and it still operates perfectly well as a field guide. I guess some people don’t put bumper stickers on their cars or get tattoos, either, but to me, writing my sightings in a book is an act of creation, not vandalism. I’m building a home for my memories.
I keep a record of everything in eBird too, of course, but that’s never been satisfying to me in the same way as a physical book. Turning each page immediately recalls the memory of where I was when I saw that bird, and any single page may be covered with memories written years apart. It’s an individualized keepsake for a hobby that operates mostly on experiences and memories, and it’ll be with me as long as I live. And, depending on which used bookstore it ends up in, these sightings might inspire others well after I’m gone