Most valued item? A little black book ... of birds

I once read in a magazine this trick for figuring out your priorities in life: Pretend that your house is on fire and you can save only two objects. Quick: What are they?

It's an interesting exercise because you realize that all the stuff you think you can't live without (the $300 designer handbag, the fancy figurines) is in fact just a pile of props. I know I'd rescue my cats who can snooze through any calamity. But what about the second item? The photo of my mother on her wedding day? My credit cards?

This is all just mental dancing around, because I know that I'd grab my life list, a notebook in which I record every bird I've seen since becoming a serious bird-watcher.

A life list is as peculiar as the person keeping it. One friend, a corporate consultant, has an elaborate spreadsheet with seasonal fluctuations in wren populations and optimal weather conditions for spotting peregrine falcons. Another birder I know merely places black marks on the checklist in his guidebook.

My system is somewhere in between. I tend toward the dispassionate notes of a census taker, as in my entry for April 18: "2 wood ducks perched in tree at side of house. Solitary vireo is back." Only occasionally do I let emotion creep in, as I did on April 29: "Wood thrush is back!!!"

I have only lately begun adding details. My June 30, 2003, entry for a magnolia warbler also contains a mnemonic aid to help remember its call: "wheeteo but weaker, more warbly." Other times, I'll add description. Last December, I saw my first great horned owl, "face very catlike, ear tufts flopping in wind, belly & torso very white." Sprinkled throughout are notations for that most maddening of species: "heard but not seen."

I'm not a competitive birder, but some people are. Take my brother, for example. On a bus tour through Venezuela, he was traveling with a group of crack bird- watchers. They'd see a minuscule speck flapping on the horizon and say with absolute certainty, "Oh yes, a sharp-shinned hawk." Their peremptoriness deprived him of the pride that comes with making a tough I.D., so he devised a counterstrategy: an elaborate classification system. One star next to a species means he saw it, but someone else spotted and identified it first. Two stars means he either saw or identified it on his own. A three-star bird - the equivalent of an Olympic gold - is one he'd both spotted and identified ahead of his companions.

People like my brother are competitive with only themselves, but other birdwatchers have been known to engage in physical combat. Did you know birding is a contact sport? It certainly was for a big, gangly fellow I met on a trip through Costa Rica. I'd like to believe he simply had poor spatial awareness, or was so thrilled to spy a turquoise-browed motmot that he temporarily forgot his manners.

On every hike we took along narrow trails, he would muscle his way to the front to stay right behind the guide. If he stopped to peer into a tree and someone stepped around him, he'd break into a trot to regain his place. My brother, who was also along on the trip, paused at one point to examine some movement in a tree. As our fellow birder passed by, he jabbed my brother so hard that my brother nearly gave himself a black eye with his own binoculars.

I can only imagine that our traveling companion's life list is immaculately kept - I didn't dare get close enough to ask.

I'm not sure what these lists preserve, but I know they're more than simple documentation. They're an amulet against forgetting, a record of time spent away from a computer and the office. They're reminders of times you chose to stop and look deeply; to train your eyes on that flutter in the tree and think of nothing else than "Does that yellow bird have an eye stripe?" and "What are the markings on its chest?" They preserve the fact that one Christmas Eve you stood on a beach when the wind chill was 20 below, hoping to see the umber eyes of a snowy owl.

My list is my life, in the truest, most authentic sense, and that's something worth rescuing from a burning house.

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