Why County Listing?
By Dave Simpson
An old friend of mine said that to get kids interested in birding you need to “keep score.” Indeed, most of us kept life lists from the start. While many of us appreciate birding on other levels, there is still nothing like the thrill of getting a life bird.
So what are you to do after years of birding? Having birded in Florida for 30 plus years, I don’t get many life birds. Even when listing at the state level, it is difficult to find anything new.
Enter county listing. Now, finding an Anhinga in Liberty County or an American Robin in Manatee County can be almost as thrilling as when you saw them as life birds. But is that all there is? Just getting new birds? I often wonder if I really like birding or if birding is a vehicle for my other interests. As a goal setter, county listing is ripe with opportunities. I like to travel and see new places. County listing fit in here. I was lucky enough to have a job that combined the two.
I worked for the Florida Park Service for more than 12 years, participating in land management and restoration. The job allowed me to visit many managed areas and to see what other agencies are doing with their little pieces of paradise. I picked up a lot of county birds this way.
County listing also teaches us about the distribution of birds throughout the state, spatially and temporally. This has been invaluable in my duties as a reviewer for eBird in Florida. I could say county listing snuck up on me, but I knew it was coming.
After running two consecutive Big Years in 2000 and 2001, I decided to take it easy and wait for the next obsession to find me. Inspired by Ron Smith’s attempts to break the Florida Big Day record for July, I took a half-hearted stab at it in 2002. I found only 119 species; the record was 130. Yet I knew then I would be back. That December, I stumbled upon 120 species at St. Mark’s National Wildlife Refuge by early afternoon, and finished up at Tall Timbers Research Station north of Tallahassee. Although I didn’t even find a House Sparrow that day, which I usually need, I set the record Big Day for December.
By 2003, I was rolling. I set my sights toward breaking every monthly record in 2003 then beating my own records in 2004. This was in keeping with breaking the Big Year record in 2000, then beating my own record in 2001. Those are stories for a different time.
One significant catalyst in this process was Bob Carroll’s County Listing website, www.flcountylisting.com. Bob’s faithful updates gave those afflicted by county listing the opportunity to see our standings change by the week. I managed to stay relatively aloof until 2006, but I could not hold out forever.
Starting your county lists after a lifetime of birding in Florida can be an eye-opening experience. It shone a light on the gaps in my field notes over the years. All those trips to the Panhandle during the Big Years, and all I had to show for it were notations of when I added a new Year Bird. Did I see a Blackburnian Warbler in Okaloosa, a Tennessee Warbler in Santa Rosa, or anything at all in Walton County? I don’t know! My initial lists, even lists to this day, are replete with holes that would have been filled had I been keeping better lists.
I have learned quite a bit about what is where in the state of Florida. Did you know that Lake Woodruff National Wildlife Refuge is in Volusia County? I didn’t.
I have seen some unique features that I may never have seen if not for county listing. Have you ever heard of a dune lake? These freshwater lakes, perched atop the sandy dunes of the Gulf of Mexico are only found in a few places in the world. Two of them are located in Topsail Hill State Park in Walton County. This is now one of my favorite spots in the state. And to think, I never went there in the Big Years and Big Days.
Who would want to vacation in Union or Gilchrist Counties? County listers would. They are rewarded with such places as Palestine Lake, Lake Butler, and Chastain-Seay Park (Union) and Hart Springs Park, Waters Lake, and Fort White Mitigation Bank (Gilchrist). De Soto County is one of our most rural counties. There are no wildlife refuges, wildlife management areas, state forests, water conservation areas, and only a couple of parks along the Peace River. Yet, I got 101 species of birds in one day in De Soto County even while spending 4-5 hours in neighboring Hardee and Manatee Counties.
There are many interesting facets to county listing in Florida. So many adventure stories to be told, so many interesting quirks of avian distribution, so many neighboring counties that have completely different sets of birds. I hope you will give county listing a try and see more of Florida!
David was born and raised in Brevard County and has been leading birding tours in Florida for over 25 years. He is currently a bird tour guide for Florida Nature Tours and is without a doubt the most fanatical lister in the state. He has seen at least 125 species in all 67 Florida counties, a true testament to his unrelenting tenacity, and an illustration of his vast experience of Florida’s birds.