Back in August, while I was writing up my blog posts about my trip to Nova Scotia, I spent a lot of time scrutinizing my photos while deciding the best ones to include. I was going through my photos from our trip to the Bird Islands IBA when I discovered a photo of this bird among my many photos of the Atlantic Puffins, Razorbills and Black Guillemots swimming in the ocean:
I got a horrible sinking feeling when I realized that this wasn’t a Razorbill as I had thought, that I actually didn’t notice this bird while I was photographing it – and that it would have been a lifer! At that point on the boat tour I was photographing the birds on the water, trying to get some decent photos of the different sea birds. They were too far to identify without the binoculars so I wasn’t paying attention to which species I was photographing. The only black and white alcids I actually saw (and identified) were Razorbills and Black Guillemots. This is neither – but looks like a cross between the two. When I checked my field guide, I realized it was a murre. However, there are two murre species possible on the east coast – Common Murre, which is quite numerous, and Thick-billed Murre, which is much less common – so I asked my friends on Facebook what they thought it was. The consensus was that this was indeed a Common Murre: Thick-billed Murre is blacker with a well-defined white wedge into the throat area, and has a white line along the cutting edge of the mandible. Also, Common Murre is the “default” murre in those parts.
This left me with a bit of a dilemma. Since I had photographic evidence, the Common Murre was definitely present and I could enter the sighting into my eBird trip list – but could I count it on my life list? The Common Murre was the only bird in the photo; this wasn’t a situation where I saw a large flock of sea birds, photographed them, then discovered the Common Murre later among the mass of birds. (Remember the time I didn’t add Glaucous Gull to my life list way back when I was a new birder? That was fun.) I had obviously seen the bird and focused on it, but I didn’t know at the time I was looking at anything different.
A debate ensued on my Facebook page. I wasn’t sure I wanted to count it on my life list: even though I had to have seen the bird in order to focus the camera on it, I didn’t know I was looking at a species other than the ones I had already identified – I probably thought it was a Razorbill. When I get a life bird, I need to know that that I am seeing something new at the time of the sighting, even if I can’t ID it at the time. I watch the birds as long as I can, noting the field marks and observing its behaviour; by doing so, I get much more out of the experience than just a tick for my life list. Finding a photo of the Common Murre a month later just did not feel like a completely clean or satisfying way to get a life bird. One of my friends agreed with me; others did not, and said I should count it.
One friend said that lots of new birders get lifers this way, by taking the photo and identifying the bird later – there isn’t anything illegitimate about it. I responded by saying that while I used to do this too, when I was a beginner, I usually knew I was looking something different – I knew enough to say that it wasn’t Species X or Species Y, but took the photos so I could look it up later. I also said that the issue isn’t HOW the bird was identified; the issue is whether a life bird is countable when you don’t realize you are looking at something something you’ve never seen before.
Another friend gave me a hypothetical example. He said, what if you saw a thrasher in Ottawa, looked at it, photographed it, and thought it was just a Brown Thrasher – only to find out from the photo it was a Long-billed Thrasher? He said he would count the Long-billed Thrasher as a life bird, as he knew he saw it; whether or not he identified the bird independently is immaterial.
A third friend had three brief questions: Did you see it? Did you learn from it? Would you recognize it again now? If so, that sounds like a lifer to him.
In the end I decided I would enter it into eBird, and count it on my list of birds I’ve photographed (not that I really have such a list), but not on my life list. However, since I use eBird to keep track of my life birds, the Common Murre does show up as species no. 323 on my life list. Mentally, the Common Murre is on my life list, but has an asterisk beside its name. It’s just not a really satisfying life bird, and, unlike my experience with the Glaucous Gull – which I knew I would likely see again at some point – I probably won’t be back in Cape Breton again for a while, and won’t be able to obtain a more satisfying look at a Common Murre any time soon. One friend suggested I go to Newfoundland where Common Murres breed in the thousands. Perhaps that’s the solution: if I go to Newfoundland during the breeding season, find a couple thousand of them, I can remove the mental asterisk with a clear conscience and this all becomes moot!