Easy Birding or How to see birds and not get arrested

Chapter 1  Easy Does It

Just what is easy birding? To some it may symbolize a drive down a country lane from the confines of a comfortable vehicle; to others it may mean a long hike in a flurry of snow or bugs. What is easy to one person may not be easy to another. Easy, according to the fourth edition of the American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language poses no difficulty. The good book goes on to add that easy is undemanding, free from worry, anxiety of pain, not hurried, even gentle. The dictionary also states “causing little hardship or distress,” which gets to the relative angle again. How much is little hardship? How big might little become? Part of the definition for easy birding depends on where you set your standard for making birding easy. If your standard is to identify only the birds that fly in front of your binocs while sipping wine on the patio, then, that is very easy. Even that may depend on how much wine goes down. If your standards are set at a different level, say, to identify the sex or age of the bird you are ogling, then it gets a little harder. Naturally, the degree of hardness or easiness depends on how much you know or how much you want to know about what is filling the vision in front of you. The level of easiness also may depend on comfort level, which we will ease into beyond.

What is easy about easy birding? It is some kind of birding, but is it that it is birding that is easy on the birder or is it birds that are easy to find? It is really a little of both? Each element is relatively easy or difficult depending on experience. Even if a birder has done all their homework, knows every feather of a given species and is completely familiar with audio recordings of that birds moods and behavior, the target bird may not be easy. Easy birds also depend on access, which may equate to strength and stamina. A young Danny McSkunk, an extremely enthused newbie, might find a Himalayan Snowcock in Nevada as an easy bird. It might be if you are hardy enough to ignore the early hour and the difficult hike up into the Ruby Mountains. Young Danny McSkunks have not lived long enough to grow bunions, bad knees and hips and taxable hearts and lungs.

Young and older McSkunks ease in finding a bird depends on location, availability to transportation and your physical abilities. These factors will make a difference whether you find that Belted Kingfisher. It might not be an easy bird after all. I have never seen one in my present neighborhood, but heard them almost daily in a previous residence. Fortunately, I am physically able and have transportation to catch an occasional gander at a Belted Kingfisher. Fast forward and a Belted Kingfisher may not be an easy bird. Even though that snowcock shows up in the same place every August or the Colima Warbler nests just off the trail in the Chisos Mountains, getting there may not be easy. Easy is a relative term that depends not just on knowledge, but on age that goes hand in hand with physical abilities, budgeting money, time and something I cannot think of at the moment. Birders are usually helpful to one another, which helps make like easy. Danny McSkunks should be given every consideration so that they can start early in life, ticking one easy bird after the other.

For the moment, let us pretend we all have the same physical and monetary abilities. Let’s imagine that the only factor to easy birding are the birds themselves. So,? A few years ago, the American Birding Association devised an index reflecting how easy it is to find any one of the hundreds of species found north of Mexico. The index ranges from six, which are extinct species to one, the easiest species to find. The code fives and fours of course include a plethora of species that have strayed to the North American continent maybe only once. Code five birds include about 155 species. Each year that number grows because there are Young Danny Mcskunks out there practicing hard birding. Code five species are often in remote, buggy, sometimes dangerous, and usually expensive places to visit. That is right, and most birders realize that cost is a factor that may decide the relative ease it is to find a given species. Some remote locations are not easy without guides. That costs. Add that to transportation to some place far from an Interstate and stack on room and board, and the total cost climbs into hundreds of dollars a day. That’s not easy to take, and might be impossible for most. No Danny Mcskunk species, without a healthy bankroll, will be easy birds to find. If the money is there, then getting cold, wet, being bug bait and trekking across uneven, muddy, maybe slippery terrain will not be easy. Finding a Himalayan Snowcock, a code 5 species, does not require a large monetary subsidy, that is, once you get to Nevada. So, is a Zenaida Dove, but I saw one in Florida in 1962 while twiddling my thumbs and waiting for Sandy Sprunt to complete a phone call to New York. Heaps of birders saw the Blue Mockingbird in Pharr, Texas, but of course, it was handy to be in the southern part of the state just as it was for me to be in southern Florida. In fact, if you are where the bird is going to be, then seeing such species as a Gray-breasted Martin or a Lanceolated Warbler could be easy. It is all in the wrist, the luck of the draw. When the piggy bank is broken, the temperature is 40 degrees on the side of excruciating discomfort, when one more layer of clothing results in immobility or nudity that might bring a citation from the health department for serving too many bugs in one place, just maybe that code five bird is not such an easy species. On the other hand, if money is not a problem and the environmental factors are a piece of cake or easy as pie, that code five species was easy.

Less than 80 species are code 4 birds, which are reasonably hard to find. Just outside the cabin door in Madera Canyon a code 4, a Flame-colored Tanager, sang. It was an easy bird. The tanager once had a code 5 index, but since many people visiting Arizona have seen the tanager, the ABA realized it was not so hard to find. Finding some code 4 species require sea voyages, what we birders call pelagic trip. Usually the better birds are further away from solid ground, which means several things. First, a longer pelagic trip reasonably costs more. Longer voyages definitely increase the chances for the dreadful symptoms of seasickness and barfing against the wind. That will mean little pity from the fellow sailing birders. In the right direction, that putrid breakfast might gain new friends if it chums in one of the targeted code four species. Many trips are cold; sometimes the ocean spray gets over the rail, soaking optics and optic users. Of course, once a code 4 saunters by on stiffened wings as many seabirds do, it is an easy bird. That is, of course, if you know what you are looking at, which is when onboard guides help? Thank goodness for guides, but they do not and should not provide their expertise free. Once again, some of these code 4 birds are pretty easy. A Falcated Duck has been visiting interior Oregon for years. It especially likes a small pond in an RV park adjacent to Interstate 5 north where the bird has been seen by 100s of people. No, we’re not talking angry drivers here. The Falcated Duck is almost a drive-by bird it is so easy. A Long-billed Murrelet I saw recently was easy since I was already in the area looking at an errant Brown Booby, a code 3 species. Code 3 birds, the 50 or so, are easier to find than code four species, but my chances of seeing a Long-billed Murrelet in northern coastal California were actually better than seeing a Brown Booby there. It is all relative.

Many birders have seen at least a handful of code 3 species, but that depends partly on how hard they were birding. Most birders have seen many of code 1 and 2 species. Most of these birds are easy to find, but not always. A former colleague dressed for a court hearing caught view a bird he couldn’t identify readily. Slamming on the brakes, he essentially dove into a marsh, suit, tie and dress shoes. I don’t recall if those were holey shoes, the clunky wing tips mostly unfamiliar to biologist. Minutes later the cattails began swaying then parting like the Red Sea. My colleague emerged from the putrefying mud. The suit was torn, wet and dirty. The little holes of the shoes were filled with mud; in fact, not a speck of leather could be seen under the dark mud. His red face was decorated with tiny seeds. Rivulets of sweat flowed down the forehead and cheeks, pushing aside the tiny seeds much like a flooding river carving a new channel. Gnats, out numbering hungry mosquitoes, were swarming around a wide grin of satisfaction. I don’t recall the query, but it definitely was either a code 1 or 2. However, it was not an easy bird. Most would find it distressful to ruin a good suit for most species of birds. Distressful doesn’t fit the definition of easy, but some of us might not notice if the unknown bird was a code 5. As an adverb, my marsh birding colleague got off easy. He found the bird and a water moccasin didn’t slither up his torn pant leg. Finding the bird was definitely not easy as pie. Nonetheless, he felt he was on easy street; he found and identified the mystery bird.

What is the real answer to easy birding? Easy birding is not totally a linear idea because it depends on the birder and their location perhaps more than their effort. How much effort depends on how hard we bird. Do we stay in the car or the kitchen, take a quick glance and move on, use binocs, spish or don’t spish that is the question, or look until red eye refers to burned out searching eyes, not the plane you took. Assuming one is in the best place to find a given species, and that the birder is physically up to searching, the species is easy if it’s found in a short time with minimum effort. Yes, but of course, what is a short time? It may vary, but to me a short time to wait for a bird occurs before boredom and the creeping sixth sense that if it hasn’t shown by now, it probably will not. If it is a silent Dusky Grouse, it may never show. Dusky Grouse are not easy birds and are often maddeningly difficult to find. Maybe they are never easy.

Ergo the problem. Forgoing location, what is easy may not always be the same for each individual birder and every species of bird all the time. That’s why we scientist like to say “usually.” However, the subject of easy birds and birding, regardless of how elusive it may be, is a subject worth attention. After all, there are countless pages devoted to birding in difficult places and article and field guide ink set to differentiate similar species. Of course, all those items on hard birds and difficult birding attempt to make it easy. The ABA finding guides make it easy to find Miller Canyon in Arizona. The field guides and numerous articles make it easy to sort out the similarities and differences between female widgeons, flycatchers, sparrow, you name it.

What if you are a beginning birder? Maybe you aren’t ready for the fine points of kingbirding. Maybe discerning the difference between Swamp and Song Sparrows is the new frontier. Naturally, a beginner will probably move on to less easy problems in identification. This is not always the case though. I know birders who enjoy seeing Bullock’s Orioles and Black-headed Grosbeaks, see them on weekly field trips, think two species are absolutely gorgeous and could care less if a Baltimore Oriole or a Rose-breasted Grosbeak showed up. I know East Coast birders who mirror the situation. Such birders don’t want the stress of attempting difficult identifications. They are happy to know a few species, love to see them and, chances are, love the socialization of birding. They may not participate of Big Days or Christmas Counts, but they get out there every week to catch the beauty of birds.

In addition, the beginner and the perpetual beginner, there is the local expert and who is a local native. Moving or taking a vacation, may never be a high priority, and the birder may spend years, decades or even a lifetime birding the same county. Unlike many moving to an unfamiliar locality because of economy, family obligations or personal preference, the local native birder didn’t experience Dad’s business relocating from the east to the west coast. They stayed put. They weren‘t looking for a different job elsewhere and probably didn’t need to move to help parents or decide to retire in Elko, Nevada, perhaps bird around Bend, reside in downtown Burbank, Chicago, New York, Washington, North Carolina, anywhere other than their home turf. Living in Elko, Nevada, would make finding a Himalayan Snowcock an easier bird than in a different place, but seeing a snowcock would be a low priority.

The local expert acquires his or her skills on the local avifauna, frequently knowing every bird and bush in his or her location. These birders rarely make the effort to bird outside their county or maybe their state. It is not because they are lazy. They realize that there is so much to learn about their territory that concentrating in one geographic region is worth perusing. In some ways, it is easier to bird familiar territory. Birders birding residents and migratory species in their home turf are great, contribute tremendously to the big picture of birds, organize counts, conservation organizations and occasionally find something surprising.

Occasionally, one of the surprising birds puzzles a local expert. It may not be any easy bird. Possibly an accidental is unfamiliar to the local birder or they feel they just need backup. Those difficult birds may not be easy for everyone, but maybe someone in the county used to live where this new unexpected waif also normal lives. Some birders do change residences from time to time, and the memory of what was once an easy bird moves with them. An émigré from Arizona now living in Indiana might be helpful in confirming the identification of that southwestern flycatcher spotted in south Chicago. That former Arizonan could make the southwestern tyrannid an easy bird for the Chicagoans. Of course, there isn’t a panmixia of birders, but field guides and other self-help documents fill in the gap. Depending on species, identification might be easy. For example, an Ovenbird showed up to a southern Oregon bird feeder. That should be an easy bird, but the owner of the feeder was concerned that his neighbors would think ill of him if too many birders came to view the bird. What may be easy may become difficult.

Years ago, a professor of physiology would offer to his bored students to recapitulate. He did it so often, recapitulate that is, that the word became part of his caricature. In his honor, let’s recapitulate. What birders regard as easy birds and easy birding depends on the type of birding they practice. Beginning birders may blossom in any one of several directions. Some may become birders who marvel at the beauty of a Northern Cardinal and a Wood Duck, and care little about chasing down something more difficult to identify. Others will want to learn everything they can about the birds in their local region, but have little to no interest in birds beyond their self-appointed border. Both types of birders have plenty of good chances to see easy birds. The mere fact that they do find certain species easily may make it easier for alien birders to find one of their easy birds. That leads to, and leaves the recapitulation part of the message thus far, to another kind of birder. Those are, as previously alluded, the birder trying to find a species that has alluded them, but that may, somewhere, be easier to find in one region other than other places they have birded.

This new type of birder has been around for eons. They are the tickers, checkers, listers, the birders who love to find a new species to add some kind of list. They may have annual county lists, life county lists, state lists, office window lists, American Birding Association (ABA) area (North America north of Mexico) lists, American Ornithologists’ Union (AOU) area lists, hemisphere lists, and all kinds of lists. I even knew someone who had a bathroom list, which of course must mostly be birds heard. I would have had an office list, but my office, on the sixth floor of the east wing of the National Natural History Museum of Smithsonian was architecturally a penthouse. The decades old metal office furniture should dispel any notion of something fancy. Because the office was on the penthouse, my window was set back several feet from the roof over the outer part of the fifth floor. It was not possible to look directly toward the ground. To make matters worse, birding wise, a barrier, about three and a half feet high bordered the edge of the fifth floor roof, thus blocking any view of anything level from my window. I had to stand on my desk, which was usually too cluttered for even one foot, in order to see down toward the mall. Ring-billed Gulls and Rock Pigeons flew by frequently and once I watched a Lesser Black-backed Gull from the top of my desk. All these were easy birds, but if I sat down, they were not easy, they were out of sight. Giving up the office list made since, but joining other birders notching up their various lists was fun. Because it was fun, most of the time it was easy. The bugs, the dizzy heights looking for White-tailed Ptarmigan, the cold, blaring sun, drizzle, ice, did I say bugs, boats pitching and yawing, and more contributed to the difficulty, but the adventure, the chase and finding the target may be too much fun to be admitted as nothing but easy.

It is relative, depending on where you are, what you want out of birding, your age and physical abilities. Some birders are at a loss on how to find easy birds easily. Some don’t want to travel or at least share the air they breathe with mosquitoes and grizzlies. It takes all kinds of birders to see all kinds of birds.

The plan here is to offer some easy suggestions on how to find easy birds easily while keeping in mind what is easy to some may be difficult to others. There are no guarantees against muddy shoes, snakes, mosquitoes, chiggers, black flies and most of the insect world, sunburn or frostbite. A 100% assurance that something unpleasant will not happen isn’t possible. There’s always a chance of thunderstorms, even flash floods, tornadoes, getting lost, becoming an audience of dueling banjos, wandering into a grass field, and I don’t mean prairie grass or needing a rest room in the middle of nowhere. The book will provide an offering of helpful hints to make an outing easy, for example, check the weather, know your music and plants and give your bladder the itinerary.

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