In Praise of the “Lazy” Year List

One of our recent sightings. Photo by Evan Heisman.

At the beginning of 2020, which feels like a lifetime ago now, I decided I was going to do something that I hadn’t in a while: I was going to keep a “year list,” a list of all the bird species that I was over the course of the year. Although I had a job that required writing about birds and thinking about birds and talking with bird scientists almost every day, I’d spent less and less time in recent years actually out birdwatching, and I wanted to change that. With travel plans that included conferences in Puerto Rico and Boulder, Colorado, as well as a week-long family trip to the Oregon coast, I knew I’d be able rack up some good variety. I made myself one promise, though: this was going to be a “lazy” list. My goal was to encourage myself to pay more attention to the birds around me, but I wasn’t going to stress out over reaching a certain “impressive” number; I was just going to see what I saw, with zero pressure on myself.

You know where this is going — none of those trips happened. Since mid-March, all of my birding has happened within about a five-mile radius of my house. But in a way, that’s been the perfect situation for working on my lazy list.

With nothing else to do, we started going on weekly nature walks as a family, returning again and again to the same tiny nature area in a city park near our house. It yielded unexpected gifts: Varied Thrushes singing as they passed through on their way to their breeding grounds closer to the coast. A Rough-legged Hawk wheeling high overhead weeks after I thought they would have all left for the Arctic. Lazuli Buntings appearing out of nowhere one week to fill every tree with flashes of turquoise. I started learning to pick out the songs of different flycatcher species (something I’ve always been fuzzy on). My two-year-old added words like “hawk,” “dove,” “robin,” and “sparrow” to his vocabulary.

As of today, my year list stands at 100 species. The most recent addition was an Eastern Kingbird I spotted earlier this month. I know plenty of birders who topped that number in a single day during spring migration. Do I care? Nah. I’m having fun.

I feel like listing can be intimidating for people just getting into birds, but I’d highly recommend some sort of “lazy” list (life list, year list, yard list, whatever) as a way to keep yourself engaged while taking the pressure off. Are you a lister? How seriously do you take it? Let me know!