Very Miscellaneous Tips to Easy Birding
1. Don’t expect to see all the birds you expect to see. You might see more than bargained for, but chances are after the birding foray, the list will be shy of a few species. Local birding may produce most of the species one could expect, but if you have a list of target species inhabiting somewhere you don’t live, be prepared for both disappointment and birder discontentment. While birding Rio Grande Valley, southeastern Arizona, and winter in Maine, Florida in spring, wherever, you will see many great birds, but not all of the target species. In fact, be happy with 50%.
For those not suffering from list fever, for someone wanting merely to see a Winter Wren or Pacific Wren, a Wood Thrush, Chipping Sparrow, or as many spring warblers for the day, all the birds you might have wished to see, usually, are not going to reveal themselves. If they did, would it be fun or unexciting. There is easy birding and too easy birding, translate boring birding. Nonetheless, a local foray or a home region warbler count will usually turn a day positive, and maybe a few surprises will show up.
2. Chasing accidentals is in the timing. A species that is found somewhere out of its range, probably has never been seen there in the past and will not likely occur there again except before the next 100 year flood is called an accidental. It was an accident the waif got off course. In addition, it was an accident the bird was found. Once an accidental is reported, birders from all over flock to the scene. Keep in mind that when an accidental has been reported, but not found the next day, it might be a good time to stay home or go out in your own neighborhood and look for your own accidental. If a waif is reported more than one day, a chaser might have a chance, but don’t dally too long. Accidentals don’t stay forever, that would spoil the whole idea of seeing something rare. Winter accidentals seem to hang around the longest, with a few staying put for the entire season. Accidentals seen during migration are likely to be gone before you can check the map and fly or drive there. Some places are better for finding accidentals, especially migrant ones, than others. St. Lawrence Island and many of the outer Aleutian Islands offer landfall to lost birds. Accidentals are often found at some coastal sites along the shores of California and Newfoundland. Accidentals sometimes stray to Florida from Caribbean islands and European vagrants, more likely in winter, are sometimes found along the more northern Atlantic coast. The sky is the limit. A mango, a Mexican hummingbird enjoyed a feeder in Georgia for longer than it probably expected. Keep on the alert, be ready to go, but don’t jump the gun. Make sure the accidental is likely a repeat performer for more than a day before making the trip.
Although some accidentals are repeatedly seen for days at the same precise location, don’t count on it. A Falcated Duck in Oregon decided to vacate the pond it was always seen the day I drove 400 mile round-trip to see it. Back home, I heard that on my ill-fated day, the bird had ducked to another pond. The next winter, the Falcated Duck was at the original and more accessible pond.
Just how accidental is a Falcated Duck returning to the same location the following year? Perhaps the duck was not so accidental. Some individuals of species travel out of the range frequently enough to be deemed casual. These are not nonchalant birds, birds out on a lark, that were of course because they didn’t care where they ended up. At least, that is the likely story. Birds considered casual in occurrence are casualties of doing the norm. In fact, the AOU Check-list regards Falcated Duck as casual to North America.
Whatever the shade of gray, be it accidental, casual, very rare or rare, birds ranked by such infrequency are not going to be easy birds. Many easy birders will eventually try for the brass ring by rarely to accidentally seeing some of the seldom seen species. Practice easy birding in the meantime, prepare for the not so easy species. The experience will help easy birders identify an accidental albatross, causal curlew or rare robin. You may have to work at it, but all that work, which should be fun, will make identifying anything new easy.
3. Motion eating and drinking may be dangerous. Driving and distractions don’t mix well. Driving and fulfilling hunger don’t either. Find a flip top lid to fashion a pez dispenser for your jar of peanuts. Keep one hand on the wheel, both eyes on the road and peanuts in the mouth. Don’t try sloppy-joes at 60 or at any speed. Soup might be doable with a straw—the chunks will wait for the next rest stop. At least while on the road, use the water bottles with the pull out nipples vs. a screw lid. Lids have a habit of skipping to the floor and are not worth the search no matter your speed. Try putting one of those sports drinks in one of the nippled bottles. Between water, sports drink, soup by straw and peanuts by pez, a person can drive a long ways. If you have a partner, ask them for food and water.
4. Rest stopping might be unrestful. The only reason to stop at a rest stop is the rest room and maybe a good stretch to make sure all your joints will work when they are needed. Stopping also helps avoiding blood clotting in your legs and buttocks. While at the rest stop, avoid conversations, especially while standing at a urinal. In fact, if you are a guy, pick a vacant urinal as far as possible from any other urinals in use. Don’t talk, smile, and try not to touch anything, especially any handles including door knobs. For women, it might be OK to engage in minor conversation, but it is best to get in and out as quickly as possible. Once outside, wipe the bottoms of your foot ware in some reasonably clean looking grass so not to be wearing what was on the restroom floor. One way to lessen the number of rest stops is avoid caffeine. A good cup of brew is sometimes necessary to jog us awake, but eventually the caffeine will awaken certain unavoidable urges. See chapter on How to Avoid Being Arrested. Keep in mind where the next rest stop is located and think about the easy birds at the birding destination.
5. Paying for nothing is not always good business. While birding, it is possible to run into individuals that ask for help. The subject here is not someone traveling a kingbird highway, but for the likes of someone who “just ran out of gas” and “can you help me.” Approaches for gas take place in parking lots of motels, more commonly outside and even in lobbies of fast food establishments, rest stops and more. Although seemingly cruel, the recommendation is just say no. Refuse to refuel. Nil, zilch, can it. The empty gas can is often carried by someone without a car. Witnesses report seeing someone receive enough cash to fill a can, but the person with the can asking another mark just as soon as the first one was out of sight. Sadly, there are too many legitimate panhandlers, but as with every population, poor or otherwise, there are good and bad. Whatever you do, be careful. Beware of “can you jump my vehicle.” Naturally, situations vary widely. A lone person on a deserted road, particularly if it’s daylight, may deserve the help. Use cell phones to get help. Don’t turn your back on strangers.
6. Beware of strangers bearing drugs and other illegal substances. It is too bad easy birders have to worry about legal matters beyond getting a speeding ticket. However, there are people out there who aren’t interested in birding getting in the way of their favorite activities. Smuggling drugs and people across the U.S. southern border seems to never end. Some favorite birding sites could be closed for reasons of national security and authorities and even birders warn citizens to avoid certain border regions. So what to do if you come upon drug use, smuggling, illegal border crossings or any other criminal activities? Treat the situation as volatile. Pretend not to notice, look at a bird up in a tree, even if there isn’t one there, be busy birding, don’t show fear, get to your car slowly and then get the hell away. If birding one of the alleged dangerous areas stay alert, bird with other birders and don’t go owling there. Lone birders, who sense potential danger, might like a companion to join them. Introduce yourself and be careful, together.
7. Motels may be good, bad or ugly. A reader might think that verbiage on motels would be in one of the chapters about traveling. Such a conclusion does seem logical, but that would not serve the goal here, that is that the whole book would be read. Therefore, just like a catalogue sans index or in the same spirit of rearranging a grocery store, being on one’s toes is important. Think of it as training. After all, birds do not fly by a birder in taxonomic order.
Anyway, choosing a place to call temporary home usually is fairly easy. However, not all motels are created equally, and some evolve in different directions. Although recommending a motel or motel chain is beyond the scope of this tome, a few hints might make birding and birding life easy. First, find lodging convenient to where you are birding. Second, franchised motels are usually a better choice than privately owned, mom and pop motels. A motel of a chain in one area should be similar to one elsewhere. That is usually the case, but sometimes franchised motels secretly go private and sometimes one might be burned, or more accurately, bugged. It’s true, bugs and mites might bug your night. My mouth dropped when a well-known network news anchor twice discussed the population explosion of bed bugs across the country. Now, to be fair, many privately owned motels are wonderful, sometimes out competing big brother motel franchises by their rates, cleanliness and amenities. A small refrigerator with a freezer and a microwave are good amenities. More and more motels have them, and if you are traveling on a budget, you can cook meals and recharge your blue ice blocks for the next day. Of course, cooking and cleaning may not be so easy. A nearby eatery might be better, but will cost more than a do it yourself meal. Something with a pool is also helpful after a hot day of birding.
8. Be careful what you say. No, this is not a repeat of other chapters although being careful what you say is also mentioned under other chapters. For example, it is not polite to be insulting, it is no fun being smacked for some comment, being arrested, maybe insulting an officer and slapped in a slammer. It cannot be stressed enough, since humans like to gab, be careful what you say. As for easy birding, don’t rankle a fellow birder. Bad things to say might include “That’s no Northern Cardinal.” Most birders that announce an identification of an easy bird, especially something as easy as a Northern Cardinal are likely to become perplexed. Stating you just witnessed five species of Empidonax flycatchers while parking your car at Wal-Mart is not a good idea. In fact, try, really try, to keep identifications to yourself until you are relatively sure you are correct, or at least qualify your identifications. That looks to be a Greater Blankety-blank, but I can’t see its back. Then say, if there is someone close by, “Did you get a look at its back?”
“That Blankety-blank, at 10 o’clock.”
For those who have not completely embraced the digital age, we know that 10 o’clock is somewhere left of center. Some may not understand.
“Huh? It’s already 11:30, and I didn’t see a thing at 10.”
Whatever you do, don’t yell out “Left of center.” Be liberal with patience and try something else, perhaps offering a Seeing Eye dog.
Some people are not careful what they say, but think they’re keeping it to themselves when mumbling badly chosen utterances. “You digitized idiot, don’t you know the meaning of 10 o’clock?” Be careful, some birders have better hearing than one might think or they have one of those special birder hearing aids, you know the ones that are digital.
Finally, sometimes what you say may trigger a conversation longer than your easy birding schedule will allow. Because people, or many of them, like to talk, beware of eliciting conversations that cannot possibly be life changing let alone be momentarily entertaining. Certainly be polite but don’t be autobiographical. If you see a birder with the same kind of binocs, the same kind of car or same state or province license plate, don’t be rude, but don’t expect an evocation of a kind of brother or sisterhood. Sure, two strangers driving Edsels might want to hug, but think twice. Releasing an outpouring, causing a perpetual motion of lips that do not know when to hang up may require edging into uncomfortable firmness that some might think disrespectful. “Shut up” could be appropriate, but not respectful and unsettling to Emily Post aficionados. Knowing that their dog, that they thankfully left home, “just loves birds” or that their uncle races pigeons is not something everyone needs to know. No one wants to be impolite, but sometimes enough is enough. Otherwise, that kite just flew over, the one that would have been an easy bird, is long gone.
9. Know the names. In another chapter, a word or two is devoted to why some birds are named as they are and how these names have become birder language. Here, a few more examples provide and emphasize the importance of knowing what names to use. Knowing the correct name bodes well toward the emotional health of the easy birder.
Novice easy birders have it, well, easy. It is not necessary to sift through old lexicons shelved in the folds of even older brains. The novice starts out with a set of common names of birds that is easy. As far as the novice is concerned, Gray Catbird and Northern Cardinal have always been Gray Catbird and Northern Cardinal. Unless they talk to older members of the birding clan, or are stuck with an outdated field guide, they won’t know that the very same species were officially recognized once as simply Catbird and Cardinal. The change, made when many of us were not looking, came about because realizations of other species of catbirds and cardinals. The names had to be modified. We have catbirds that are spotted, green, and black and one called White-eared. Cardinals come in yellow and various reds, but there are no “Southern” Cardinals although there are species of cardinals found south of our Northern Cardinal. Sometimes the names make since, sometimes they don’t. Not to worry. Birders should stick with the prevailing nomenclature. Who needs a checklist of babel? Nomenclatural confusion could make birding embarrassing. For example, older birders may blurt out Three-toed Woodpecker when they are thinking Northern Three-toed Woodpecker that is currently known as American Three-toed Woodpecker. Alternatively, they might have meant Black-backed Three-toed Woodpecker, which, as if the birds grew a fourth toe, are now called Black-backed Woodpecker.
Birders have a tendency to shorten a name for some species. I don’t mean Sharpie for Sharp-shinned or sapper for all the species of sapsuckers; I mean bluebird, meadowlark and others. Which bluebird? If you live east of the Mississippi, bluebird most likely will refer to Eastern Bluebird, but out west bluebirds come in three flavors, Western, Mountain and, for southern Arizonians, Eastern Bluebird. Birders announcing they heard a screech-owl might mean more than one species, more than likely Eastern Screech-Owl or Western Screech-Owl, but possibly Whiskered Screech-Owl. A few more species of screech-owls give a hoot south of the border. Incidentally, there’s a Great Horned Owl, but not a Tiny, Lowly or Awful Horned Owl. Go figure. The important job for the easy birder is to stay current with the nomenclature. Blathering an obsolete name won’t make birding easy.
10. Go with the flow. Moving along at the speed of others while group birding has two benefits. First, by progressing, whether it is abilities to identify, walk a trail or drive a freeway, helps keep you from falling behind. When you are in a group on a trail, walking too fast leaves the group behind, and too slow, you are behind. Birding caravans should mean motoring near the same speed as others will keep you from being rammed or honked from the rear and avoid obtaining a speeding ticket. Keeping up with the group’s identification abilities will offer reinforcement to your own capabilities. Lagging behind and where is the challenge. Being ahead and it is possible to find yourself over your head. That’s not to say to avoid challenge. Just how much challenge you care to take on may also impact just how easy your birding day goes.
Naturally, as one birds and birds and birds, birding will become easier and easier. Well, that is not entirely true. Luckily, avifauna for any given area shifts with location and time. The more you bird, with more birding in different places and times, the more you know and the more you discover you don’t know. A time will come when birding is too easy or when you realize the challenge requires help. Male ducks may be almost too easy, but identifying the sandpipers on the shore is too difficult. It might be a time to look for a more advanced birding group or birding buddy.
If you happen to be or think you are more advanced than birders near you, it is prudent to go with the flow for several reasons. One, someone may have said you are such a good birder that you believed it and became a victim of the Peter Principle. If so, an embarrassing fall is imminent. A so sure, smarty-pants identification could turn out to be wrong, and the whole group, be it one or more, knows you screwed up. Two, you really are Peterson reincarnated. This is a great chance to teach, maybe even pick someone from the pack to mentor. Three, you think you don’t have time for others and trek onward, blowing past the radar of a trail, ignoring someone fumbling at sorting out Waterthrushes while reaching for the brace ring, perhaps a rare waif, maybe your 800th ABA species. Meanwhile, your two eyes strain, while back down at the lagoon, the groups, with collective eyes have it, the bird of your dreams.
On the other hand, if you really know your stuff and want to help others, work gradually into leadership. Don’t ignore the established leader, even if they are not finding the birds you know are available. Remember that group birding is also a social event and that an established leader could be a beloved father figure to the masses. Don’t be a smart alack. Be respectful.
Let’s review. Each time a birder goes birding, there are expectations. If all the birds we thought or we wanted to see were found, we’d get bored. If all those birds perched for optical perfection, there would be no challenge. Chasing vagrants and accidentals is a crap-shoot, and the ones not found are the ones to look for tomorrow. There are around 10,000 species of birds worldwide. Several birders are either actively trying or dreaming of checking off all species of birds of the world. It has never been done and doubtfully will ever be accomplished, but imagine, once you’ve done it, what then. Who has the money and time? While trying, and that’s the fun part, stay on the road, don’t be arrested, be respectful to the environment and to people while making a few human friends along the way. While you are at it, try to get your nomenclature correct, but don’t worry if you call something by the wrong name. Try not to become upset, uncomfortable or distressed. The idea is to make birding easy.