Sunday, January 31, 2016

Bird Nerd School is In Session!

Birding is a classroom.

Sometimes its birders that are the teachers; sometimes you seek and find the answers through reading and research. Oftentimes, the teachers are the birds themselves.

With a year and a half of birding under my belt, I've learned countless lessons from these often surprising subjects.

I'll share with you some of their secrets...

Lesson 1: Robins are not a sure sign of spring

Source: The Cornell Lab, 2016
American Robin soaking up the sun, January 2016

Many of us, including myself until about a year ago, believe the American Robin signifies spring. While it's true they are migratory birds, they can be found in Michigan year-round. In fact, I've been seeing more of them this winter than I usually ever see! I find them hanging out in small flocks, often near flocks of European Starlings. Maybe I see them more lately because their rusty breasts are easy to identify even on the dreariest, grayest
winter days. So if Robins aren't the best indicators of Michigan spring, which birds are? In my experience, Killdeer and Red-winged Blackbirds take the cake.

Lesson 2: Bird names can be confusing

Q: Those woodpeckers with red heads are called Red-headed Woodpeckers, right?

A: Yes. And no.

The woodpecker on the left is a Red-headed Woodpecker. The one on the right is the much more common Red-bellied Woodpecker. I suppose when it comes down to it, the Red-headed does have more extensive red on the head. Perhaps the Red-bellied should be called the Red-crowned Woodpecker, but don't let me confuse you!
Red-bellied Woodpecker (Melanerpes carolinus)
Red-headed Woodpecker eBird, 2014


Lesson 3: There is no such thing as a sea gull

Gulls are some of the most complicated and confusing birds to identify. Without a scope, lots of studying, and the assistance of more experienced gull-watching birders, identifying gulls becomes overwhelming. My life list shows just a handful of Michigan's species (Ring-billed, Herring, Bonaparte's, and Great black-backed, the world's largest gull). There are many others who visit regularly or casually, including: Black-legged kittiwake, Little gull, Franklin's gull, California gull, Thayer's gull, Lesser black-backed gull, Glaucous gull (for a more extensive list, click here). Still, nowhere in this list is there a "sea gull". Of course, sea gull is just a casual term for these open-water birds. To non-birders, this naming distinction is irrelevant, but say "sea gull" in front of a group of birders and you just might get corrected!

Lesson 4: Sounds can be deceiving

There are birds whose songs exemplify the traditional qualities of a bird song: high-pitched, melodious, and sweet. Song Sparrows, Red-eyed Vireos, Northern Cardinals, and Carolina Wrens are all good examples. Then there are other birds whose songs and calls defy expectations and confuse new birders. Consider the Cedar Waxwing (click video to hear its call) whose single-note buzz sounds more like an insect than a bird, or the Eastern Screech Owl whose call is reminiscent of a ghost or a horse (or maybe a horse's ghost). On the flip side, there are other creatures who can lead to more confusion and cannot be ID'd by any bird field guide because...well, because they aren't birds! Chipmunks and Spring peeper frogs are two such creatures.
Source: YouTube

Lesson 5:  Birding hotspots are everywhere!

Backyard Cooper's Hawk (juvenile)
A secluded path in the woods, a wide open field, a stretch of pristine shoreline; these are all obvious places to look for birds, and will often host many a feathered friend. However, sometimes the best birding can be done right in your own backyard, subdivision, school, or parking lot. I remember last winter I was on the hunt for Snow Buntings when I received a tip about a mixed flock of Snow Buntings, Horned Larks, and Common Redpolls, all three of which were life birds for me at the time. I followed the directions from the tip and was surprised to end up in a subdivision which was under construction. I guess it only makes sense that birds would be closer to home than we think. After all, this land was theirs before it was ever ours. Similar moments include: a Snowy Owl perched on a telephone pole in my work parking lot, a Cooper's Hawk sitting right in front of my deck outside my back door, Bald Eagles flying over a local mall, and Peregrine Falcons roosting on a court building downtown.

Lesson 6: Birding is best without expectations 

I'll admit, this lesson is a subjective one, but it's worth consideration. There are times when a birding excursion revolves around a target species or specific goal (i.e. driving 3 hours away to see a rare duck, or going night birding for Northern Saw-whet Owls). These can be fun adventures and exhilarating, especially when successful. However, these types of outings tend to carry a tension, an anxiety that comes with high expectations and hopes. I think to give up hope, to give up the goal, leads to a much more peaceful, satisfying experience. When you relax, let go of the need to control the outcome, and open your eyes, ears, and mind to whatever is present, the beauty of the moment becomes more evident (whether due to an uncommon sighting, a beautiful common bird, or the peace that comes with a walk in the fresh air). Interestingly enough, it is often just after releasing expectations that a memorable sighting takes place. ABA's blog features a recent post by Lynne Barber, who seems to feel the same. She says, "The higher our expectations of what bird(s) we strongly want to see, the more we also risk our birding becoming a win or lose situation... It is my theory that it is only the people who can stand to 'fail' in their bird chases will keep birding long term" (click here for full article).

Baby Killdeer, Spring 2015
Birding is a classroom,
A field of study from which you do not graduate;
only progress
and learn
and teach others along the way.

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