Answering the Heard-Only Question

No photos here, just the answer to a philosophical question.

I am a birder of the listing variety, and listers have their own bizarre rules for how they play the game of birding. My rule for the past several years has been not to count heard-only birds on any of my lists unless I saw them first. There was no basis for this other than that I felt birding is a primarily visual past-time.

The arguments for counting heard-only birds are many: hearing an owl or a nightjar in the dark is a much better way to encounter the species in its natural state, some groups like Empidonax flycatchers can really only be identified by their voice even if you are looking one in the face, and the unique sounds that birds make are just as reliable to differentiate them as are plumage and the habitats in which they are encountered.

My change of heart came yesterday, even after I wrote a blog post that mentions this very dilemma. Here is what happened:

I was riding my bike to work, and in passing a field that has been superb for grassland birds this year I thought I heard the faint and spastic chirping of a Henslow’s Sparrow. I stopped to listen, but traffic noise and Red-winged Blackbirds kept me from getting a clear observation, and after a while the bird in question quieted down and I never saw it. I continued on to work where I sent an email to the list-serv saying that I thought I maybe had a Henslow’s Sparrow, but I wasn’t sure, but I was still confident enough to suggest others check out the spot to try for it.

Nearly twelve hours later, another message to the list-serv was posted from a local expert and someone who has helped me grow my skills a lot. He said that after acting on my tip, he was able to locate and confirm Henslow’s Sparrow, which apparently has also been a very scarce bird this year. As of yesterday, there were no other eBird records for it in the county in 2016.

This morning I rode past the same field again and heard what I assume is the same bird again in pretty much the same way as before, with traffic and Red-winged Blackbirds and all. Even though I am still very much a novice birder, yesterday’s validation gives me the freedom to be confident in what I am hearing, and if I know for sure what it is, then why shouldn’t I count it?

With all of that said, I just added the six heard-only species to my official green list and am now sitting at 131 on the year, with only 9 more needed to break my total from all of last year. This post is mostly for me, so I will end by saying that I am pretty optimistic that I can break 150 and am super pumped to try and do it.


2 thoughts on “Answering the Heard-Only Question

  1. Good decision. It will make life easier. Years ago I just went with the ABA rules to keep it simple.

    Not to be a killjoy but I just checked. On my highest county years I only saw 8% of the species after 6/15. I’ll let you do the math on 150. Better get peddling.

    • In a normal year with driving, I think you would be right. But a non-car list progresses much slower than a typical one, and I have a ton of regular birds left to tick that I didn’t get in spring (like every single shorebird besides Spotted Sandpiper).

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