Rain or Shine
Rain or shine, wind, snow, sleet, birders and mail carriers must get through, get out there and deliver the goods. In the case of birders, the goods are actually delivered to us, but we have to be out there to get them. What? The goods are the rewards of our goal, to watch birds. We are all bird watchers, former birdwatchers and now modern birders. We have to prepare for the best and the worst weather. We also ought to know what happens following weather. For example, after a rain, a dirt road will likely be slick, but what else. We need to know. After all, the birds are out there, waiting our scrutiny, no matter what that dark cloud might send to the ground.
Certainly, it might be wise to take heed of inclement weather. It might be prudent to stay in and watch birds at the feeder scurry for the bushes as hail hails from a black sky. That kind of inclemency not only could poke out a bird’s eye, it could poke your eye out. Hail, storms and BB guns, these are just a few of the things to watch out for, but hey, birders, even easy birders are willing to take a few chances, and who knows what you will find. That airy bluster, as harsh as it might seem, with pieces of wind-eroded detritus that could blind you, essentially poking your eye out, might be great birding weather. It depends on where you are and what you hope to find. In addition, some weather that is bad from a human perspective is great for the habitat certain birds prefer. If not all that rain fell, tropical forests and tropical birds would cease to exist.
So, what is the point here? Outdoor activity such as easy birding is not so much influenced by season, as it is weather. During summer, it is possible to experience winter by either going up in elevation or, if you are north of the equator, going to higher latitudes. There are useful routines easy birders may adjust with changes in seasons. These extend beyond shoe and purse color. Here are a few conventions that many know, but may not always practice.
Spring may pound the heads of unprepared birders with almost any kind of weather be it liquid or solid. Be ready for it with some sort of hat or at least a ball cap. Incidentally, unless you are looking through a scope, always point the bill forward to shield your eyes from the sun. This also helps you look smarter and at least appear more alert than being hatless or, if riding a bike, wearing a helmet. Of course, being hat-less is cooler temperature wise and wearing a helmet may actually be just what your pate needs if birding from two-wheels.
If you live in a valley, do your birding there first. The hills and mountains may bring an easy Olive-sided Flycatcher in the afternoon when it is cooler at the higher elevations. If it is cloudy, consider that it might be windy and possibly raining or snowing in the mountains. Maybe it would be best to spend more time looking for valley birds and thereby avoid the inclement weather in the mountains. Whether high or low, keep a jacket and an extra pair of socks handy. Being so cold your teeth chatter blurs your view or your wet feet make sloshing sounds in your boots is not easy birding. Keep in mind that teeth chattering or sloshing sounds emanating from your feet may not only be annoying to well-prepared birders, unnecessary audio may frightened easy birds.
Spring also brings out bugs, so have plenty of bug be-gone in your easy birding kit. Sunscreen is helpful to avoid sunburn screams. Be ready for not just your usual suspect species, but prepare for possible waifs.
It might be confusing when spring end and summer begins. It is not particularly confusing to the birds, which is partly or mostly due to working on a different set of rules than us humans. An easy birder should stay focused and I am breaking the rules. Getting back on track and paying attention enhances easy birding, so once most species arrive then what.
Those birds that are staying over, ones for your particular region that are summer residents, begin the business of setting up housekeeping. That means lots of singing. Easy birders will do better if they position themselves early in the day for the songfest. We all know this, but some of us have a hard time getting up so soon before sunrise. There is no easy solution. One thing to consider is that as the season advances, sunrise becomes earlier and earlier. If you missed a certain easy species in late May or early June, you will have to get up earlier in late June. Waiting to July when sunrise begins to come later will probably be too late for many species. July is not a month for singing.
Fall, the way many birders think, well, maybe the way I think, is the time birds migrate. Actually July, the not so musical month for detecting birds singing is when many species of shorebirds migrate. Fall and migration may continue well into what becomes winter. Like finding birds, seasons are kind of relative too. Anyway, easy birders should know that not only are birds busy either taking care of that late last clutch of offspring, molting or migrating, bugs are gearing up for a blood fest. Yes, some bugs are craving bare skin, so don’t put away the bug-begone just because you think summer is done. Also, always have some good moisturizing eye drops handy, especially during those days staring through a scope at shorebirds on a windy mudflat. Speaking of mud, keep it clean.
Depending on where you live, birding in winter could be difficult. The colder your home climate, the more layers you have to wear. That is a given. One winter behavior I have noticed over my too many years is losing gloves or hat. How many gloves have you found lying on the ground, fallen from the grasp of an untrained easy birder. Don’t lay them down if you need to take them off. Put them firmly in your jacket or coat pocket, that way they will always be there when you need them.
Temperatures will generally be colder during the early part of the day. It may also be the least windy time so do the math with ambient temperature and chill factor. Regardless of real or felt temperature, will the amount of clothing worn allow bending, such as getting in and out of a vehicle, will your glove or mattered fingers allow focusing binoculars? Don’t be surprised when the focus wheel of optics is harder to turn than the car’s engine. If it is later in the day, an easy birder might feel warmer, but it may be windy or windier. That translates to feeling colder. Eyes will likely water. Assuming those tear do not freeze, blot the moisture to prevent them freezing onto the eyepiece of any optics. Not doing so should rank with licking a flagpole on a freezing day. If the wind and cold get to be too much, wear goggles.
The point is to let weather help you. Embracing what weather has to offer and being prepared for it ought to help birders have an easy time birding. If birding is a fair weather sport, remember that each season offers new and easy birds. The more comfortable the birder the easier it is to bird and even a challenging species might feel easy.
The following are a few examples that are more specific.
1. The early birder is a cool birder. The importance of getting started early in the day is so well-known that it would seem normal to never see anyone birding after noon. Most of the birds, land birds, the singers, vireos, warbler, finches, flycatchers and so forth are the busiest in the morning. You know, getting the early worm as well as early gnats and seeds. It is a time for singing and foraging. Some species start their day earlier than others do, and it helps to have some idea of which do what, depending on the species you hope to see and hear. As morning passes, temperature rises and birds become less active, and so does easy birding.
Depending on where the birding is, the heat of the day may drive the birds to near silence and most birders indoors to a welcome air conditioner. The easy birding day does not have end though. If you have some water birding to do, dog some reservoir birds. If your birding terrain happens to include both valleys and mountains, start birding in the lowlands and work your way up. That is a good way to elevate your day list and increase your chances of birding in the cool afternoon comfort of the mountains. If you want to hear Mountain Quail calling, head for the hills first. That goes double for catching the strains of the morning chorus of the hinterlands. Even so, the cooler mountain air will likely produce more bird activity than a hot afternoon down in the valley. For flat-lander birders, who do opt for a mountain morning, take a jacket.
Another cool part of the day may be near dusk. Temperatures often drop then and some species may increase foraging then. They do not like to go to roost hungry. Frequency of singing may likewise increase.
2. Taking the heat and keeping warm or considering more temperature stuff. When it is really really hot, you can take off just so many clothes and remain socially acceptable while birding. Well, maybe not. There must be nudist bird clubs somewhere, but for the sake of getting to the naked truth, lets cover those who don’t want everything showing not to mention being available as bug chowder. Let’s say there are birds to be seen where it is hellishly hot. Actually, there are such places. Salton Sea comes to mind. Once you pass the smell, birding the Salton Sea is a delight, but it is definitely hot, usually. First, the easy birder knows not to expose too much skin and what is exposed is under the protection of sunscreen. Now, for the secret too few people realize. Wear a cooling vest. Yes, this was in another chapter, but since no one seems to grasp that these vests really work, it is worth repeating the message. Cooling vests absolutely work wherever it is hot, whether it is arid or tropical. Check the computer. There are several manufactures of cooling vests and hats. All that is required is a few minutes of presoaking without refrigeration before wearing. The water evaporates and cools. The vests are far better than hyperventilating from panting. Also, keep a battery-operated fan in you birder vest or some pocket to help cool off. Finally, maintain hydration. In the event of a flat tire or worse, always have more water with you than you know you will drink.
As for extreme cold, everyone knows about layering. Birders should take some hints from hunters, especially duck hunters. They use some very cool warming tricks such as electric socks and more. One company even sells thermostats, with a lighted switch for articles of clothing. No kidding.
Sometimes shedding is unavoidable, but that presents a problem. What should one do with the extra scarf, jacket or shirt? It is not cool for a steamed up birder to have these extra items flapping in the breeze. An easy birding solution is carry a backpack to stow your sweaty layers. Doing so will also keep both hands free for easy birding.
Speaking of socks, good boot socks are a must and may become musty. Keep an extra pair in your vehicle or day pack. Also keep a plastic bag to hermetically seal the musty pair. This is for your own protection. Use tub socks. Why? Putting on tub socks does not require the annoying task of lining up the designated heal section of the sock with your own heal. The advantage of tube socks are many. You can slip on your tube socks in the dark, thereby not disturbing anyone nearby from need a pesky light. If you are in a birding group and sharing quarters, your companions will not feel the need to sock you for waking them. You have therefore avoided breaching birder etiquette. Tube socks are also easier to put on if you have put on extra girth.
3. Take advantage of frozen mud. Early in a winter morning, many of us will have to button up for subfreezing temperatures. Plan a winter day of birding by taking into consideration the time when visiting different locations. What might mean a muddy trail may have frozen overnight. Ask yourself, will there be a thaw today? Will that frozen mud become muddy ooze caking every pore of your boots from the sole to the laces? Probably. Here’s the trick. Bird the frozen trail while it is still frozen. Other, less muddy, areas are places to be once the morning temperatures have risen above freezing. This will save lots of time and mess, and make birding easy.
4. Rain helps dampen footsteps. If you plan some forest floor birding, do it after a soaking rain. The formerly crisp and crunchy deciduous leaves will have soaked the moisture from rain or melted snow. The soft and nearly silent ground covering will allow you to sneak through the forest. An American Woodcock doesn’t stand a chance.
5. Snow trekking. The crunch crunch of trekking across old, often frozen snow is noisy and frequently more slippery than a freshly fallen snow. And, when it comes to falling, falling on that old hard and crystalline surface may be hazardous to your health. Walking and falling on new snow produces little noise and fewer curse words. When or wherever falling, always fall uphill. No kidding. In doing so, there is less distance between the unforgiving substrate such as the ground and your birder head. Learning to control a fall, to tumble uphill, not downhill will not only likely your binoculars, your head and maybe even your life. Avoid certain slopes covered with snow. A snow avalanche puts a completely new meaning to feeling under the weather. If you are careful, quiet and lucky, a ptarmigan is helpless as an easy birder softly tracks and checks off an easy bird.
6. Thunderstorms. The middle of a thunderstorm never seems a good place to see some easy birds. Unlike some humans, most birds know when to come out of the rain, or at least take some kind of cover before all whatever breaks loose. The deal is the aftermath of a thunderstorm might be a good time for some easy birding. The birds seem relieved as they come out; maybe sing a few bars and forage. What is really going on is the males must make sure their boundaries are intact and enforce the border crossings. They must also get busy eating. After several minutes huddling under a leaf or whatever is handy, they’ve gotten hungry or, more accurately, hungrier. Birds are always hungry. To people, time is often money, but to birds, time is food and territory. After the meteorological onslaught, they have to get back to work. The birder also can get back to work assuming you were not deep-fried in your own fat, a form of greased lightning.
Don’t be fooled by a lull in the storm. Remember that lightning generally seeks something sticking up above the surrounding terrain such as a tree or a standing birder. Incidentally, lightening is more likely to strike a male than a female. In addition, depending on where the thundering and lightening is taking place, it is a good idea to check your back. You don’t want to try to return to the trail head if the storm washed out your path or set it on fire. In fact, check in all directions for possible lightening caused fires. If there is a fire, get away as quickly as possible. Once again, it is an avoidance of frying in your own fat. Get to your vehicle and drive, cautiously, to safety. Report the fire as soon as possible, ideally before you leave the scene. Provide GPS data either from a GPS or the firehouse may be able to key in on your phone, assuming you can get a signal. If you are in a desert, get away from streambeds. In fact, even if the storm was far away, those distant clouds could have dumped enough water to fill the dry stream bed you are walking. What could happen? You could be surged away in a flash.
7. Dark weather. The Hippy Dippy Weatherman, aka George Carlin, reported, “Tonight it will be dark.” Darkness is not exactly a meteorological event, but, by George, it is up there with cloudy or clear skies. Night may be dark or not so dark. Dark is good for looking for owls and a few other nocturnal birds. Whether the moon is full and shinning may or may not make a difference. Personally, I prefer moonless nights. Of course, owls may see you even then. If we think we can out sneak birds, we need to go back to the first chapter of this book. If there is a moon, the few night shadows may make owling less of a stumbling event, but not necessarily better for actually finding owls. A serious easy birder should consider reconnoitering the potential owl site in the daylight since owls are not usually easy birds. Moonlight may help avoid falling into a gopher hole, tripping over a rock or colliding with a tree, but because we can see, we may be moving too quickly and definitely too noisily. Owls use the stealth of night and so should the easy birder. Take slow and deliberate steps, stop and listen frequently and listen some more.
An important consideration for birders owling is that any owler worth their salt will be thinking, in addition to owls, their personal safety. Before owling, ask is the location safe. Odds are that if there are doubts about the location during the day, the place might not be safe for hanging out in the dark. Also, check the ground, not just for used human detritus, but also for footing. Falling is something easy and uneasy birders have in common. Human anatomy tells us it is inevitable that gravity will take us down, but a check of the surroundings in daylight may help avoid big rocks, tree stumps and roots, slick mud, barbed wire fences, quicksand and earthquake fault lines. Tripping over or falling into any of those anti-easy birding impediments will not help make owling easy.
Assuming good balance, cat-like eyes and lack of other interruptions, beginning owlers need to practice good birder etiquette such as not talking and other practices annoying to owls.
8. Wind and stiff breezes. If the weatherman predicts wind, breezes, gusts, small craft warnings pay attention to speed and direction. Generally, air movement is going to make a difference not only in your day but also in the life of birds. Southerly winds on the Gulf Coast are helpful for spring migrants laboring across the Gulf of Mexico. Those same stiff breezes will mean fewer migrants seen by grounded birders. On the other hand, or wing, a northerly wind may produce some great coastal birding, with warblers, vireos, tanagers, and hummingbirds piling on the first vegetation they are lucky enough to locate in the few remaining coastal havens. Spring migrants facing a headwind use the coastal vegetation to rest and eat before continuing north. This may be when easy birding, those days of pooped passerines and other bushed birds, practically fall in front of your face. It is great fun, for the birder, but lots more birds out there are not seen by the birder. The invisible birds are those the norther wore out. Those birds become fish food.
Aside from migration, wind may hamper birding by shaking the vegetation so much that detecting moving birds becomes nearly impossible. Strong winds also tend to ground birds. Species that usually flit from perch to perch may either stay put or get deeper into the vegetation, thus remaining undetectable. That, of course makes that grain of sand, the one feeling like the former planet Pluto, the one grinding your eyeball, seem moot. Even if you could see, would there be anything to see?
However, wind may be a friend to the easy birder. Generally avoid hurricanes along with tornadoes, typhoons, dust devils, and other unseemly whirlwinds and cyclones. It is not so much what is blowing in the wind, but what blew in the wind. After the dust settles, check the aftermath. As with many things, it is in the timing. Look for pelagics blown to land after a hurricane has past. Not before. Check the beaches, everywhere, but first make sure your birding presence is not going to interfere with anyone dealing with the aftermath of a damaging storm. Local authorities sometimes frown on what are often called looky-loos. Definitely stay clear of electronic or furniture stores with broken windows. Your search for avian hurricane victims might not help avoiding being arrested. Reader: make a note, danger in post-hurricane birding, enter in chapter, “How to Avoid Being Arrested.”
Some wind is helpful to birds. Shearwaters and many other pelagic birds need wind to help glide over the water. Hawks and vultures use wind to hunt and migrate and gulls seem just like sailing breezes. Whether they do or not, they, and some other species may spend hours sailing in the breeze. Let it work for you too.
Therefore, after listening to the weather forecast, what’s an easy birder to do? First, it is not a bad idea to let someone know where you are going in the unfortunate event you can’t take care of yourself. Second, know your comfort level; be prepared for it and for any changes. If you remove the sweater, will someone be embarrassed or pleased because you forgot an inner shirt? If you experience a big fall-out of migrants, don’t feel guilty. You didn’t cause the wind to blow from the north. Enjoy the easy birding and contribute toward saving habitat for the remaining migrants. If the weather is really terrible, stay home, seek shelter and don’t get in the way of would be rescuers. No matter the weather and its aftermath, keep your shirt on, and wait for tomorrow.
Wait. Here is something forgotten, that did not make it to the list of a birder’s behavior that might produce some easy birding. Okay, it is impossible to think of everything at the right sequence, but this is it: Use your scope before the temperature rises so high that those little wavy heat-waves get between you and some distant shorebirds. If you can see those pesky waves with naked eyes or with binocs, it usually is too late. Get out there and embrace your stint at shorebirding early in the day. Other concerns on using telescopes such as wind and tides are somewhere else in these pages. Sorry, but, as stated above, it is impossible to think of everything.