Traveling, Part One
Whether you are a beginner or a veteran birder, whether you are a westerner who just wants to renew acquaintances with once familiar Northern Cardinals or an easterner thinking of adding California Gnatcatchers to your list, you will eventually find the need to travel. You might be having a midland crisis, and suddenly have a chance to go off to the western coast to see Least Storm-Petrels and unheard of shearwaters. Maybe living in Rhode Island requires a trip to central Colorado and the good providence to gaze upon Gunnison’s Sage-Grouse. On the other hand, if you live in Colorado and are bored with Gunnison’s and yearn for Bicknell’s Thrush half way up New Hampshire’s Mount Washington, you will somehow have to beam yourself there. Maybe you are tired of boobies in Florida and need to, once again, refresh a childhood memory of Varied Thrushes and Mountain Quails in the Pacific Northwest. That’s correct, you need to see those birds, whether you have ever seen them or not, you crave them. Reminisces of old friends or hunger for something new, these are the foundations of birder wanderlust, not to mention wonder lust.
Traveling itself fulfills some desires, but wondering what is around the next bend, sitting on the bush around the corner, what will fly by, may be joy, or it might be difficult. It should be great; it doesn’t have to be difficult. There are some ways of making travel easy, some are obvious, and some traveling points are not so apparent.
Get Ready, Get Set
Two important aspects to consider, besides budget and time, are where and when. That will depend on what birds you hope to see. Generally, certain places such as High Island on the coast of Texas, McGee Marsh in Ohio and Cape May, New Jersey, are great for songbird migrants, especially warbler. People wanting easy hawk watching should consider Hawk Mountain for starters. Shorebirding has several, albeit too few, locations to see migrants. Alaska offers some accessible regions to experience breeding shorebirds. Herons may most easily watched in southern Florida. Anyone looking for a specific locality for lots of easy wren watching might be out of luck. Finding specific species of birds is best explored through the many state finding guides.
Once you know, or think you know where you are traveling, it becomes necessary to decide the mode of transportation. Traveling methods usually encompass either private or public means. Private usually requires some sort of polluting internal combustion unless you have lots of time and stamina, then you can walk or pedal yourself to birds. Less healthy and faster private means requires usually an automobile or perhaps a motorcycle. My weapon of choice is the four-wheel variety of monoxide maker. If the distance is great and the time is small, birders resort to even worse modes of transport, the avian copycats, a passenger plane.
There are few things you might do to make traveling by automobile easier. First, have a handy place for your optics. My smallish SUV happens to have enough room under the driver’s seat to stow binoculars and a small scope. Not only are the optical cheaters easy to grab, but they are also hidden from view of a wanna-be thief. Yep, be careful where you put what. Not all vehicles have room under the seat, so pick a useful and safe place. Wherever the place is, you should be able to quick-draw them for roadside birds. Next, at least one good field guide should be reachable by the driver or at least a passenger. Most vehicles these days have a place on the inside of the door to hold a field guide as well as other important items such as finding guides and bills you forgot to mail.
Speaking of paper stuff, it is important to access your vehicle’s registration quickly. This is because birders often exhibit suspicious behavior such as using binoculars and stalking through bushes and wary cops don’t have time for and may be unkind to someone fumbling for their papers. For related information, see the chapter on Avoiding Being Arrested. Also, be able to access quickly any park passes, such as, if you have the wrinkles, a Golden Eagle Pass. Keep your wallet, with driver’s license on your person, just in case something goes wrong. A friend, driving with the windows open, was hit in the head by a Bullock’s Oriole, causing the driver to lose control. Actually, at the time, the bird was a Northern Oriole. Anyway, the car rolled. No, it didn’t explode, and the driver lived. The oriole was evidence at the accident scene, but the wallet of my unconscious friend went missing. He had placed it on the dashboard. When the car rolled, the wallet flew further than the oriole. You never know when your wallet contents might help avoid uneasy situations. Some of those uses might include tipping, but not too much, someone such as your food server, maybe a gratuity for pulling you out of quicksand, saving you from a cougar attack or some other danger that might than poke out your eye.
Keep plenty of snacks available inside your vehicle. A variety of foods high in fiber and protein such as a jar of dry peanuts, especially unsalted or lightly salted variety, poured into a waiting hand will keep you going. An empty anti-acid bottle with a flip-top lid makes a great peanut pez. Tuck in a handy corner near the driver’s seat a six-pack of protein/diet drinks. Limit the number of perishables. Pack an ice-chest with a small block of cheese, some hard-boiled eggs, even lettuce for a salad or whatever suits. Besides those blue-ice packs, throw in a couple of completely frozen bottles of water that may be drank later. The rest is obvious, such as having a good map, flashlight, blankets, and all the stuff your dad or AAA told you to pack. The AAA will recommend extra AAA batteries to power any gadgets in tow. Digital cameras have an appetite for batteries. If you bring a recording device, such as a tape player or comparable device not yet invented, you might use it to entice some reluctant species, maybe a Flammulated Owl. Like the owl, many species may go unnoticed without calling them in with a recording. However, it may be prudent to not bother a bird by making it thank one of its own species is challenging its territory. Sometimes it is best to be easy on the bird. That also applies to photographing birds. Do not be a pest, but if you must, do not miss the chance of a good photograph by being cheap at the battery store. As for batteries powering a playback device, that brings up a whole issue of birder ethics. Keep in mind that using playback at some localities is also illegal. Ethics aside, you might have to fumble for your vehicle registration and possibly not avoid arrest, which would negate the idea of easy birding.
If traveling outside the contiguous United States, consider packing all that stuff, the food, the books, the optics, whatever, in a way that border agents can check easily at international crossings. Placing the items in clear plastic containers is helpful. Except for the ones in use at the time, I place all the extra checklists, field guides, finding guides and other books and papers in a clear plastic file box that I stow in the back somewhere between the used socks and the peanut butter jar. Likewise, extra batteries, food, everything is in easily accessible and identifiable containers. I do keep the plastic food wrap and a roll of toilet paper in latched compartment of the rear door. So far, no border person has ever checked there. The point is to facilitate an inspection of the vehicle without disrupting the contents and the state of mind of the person doing the search. Smile a lot, answer questions, but do not ask questions or volunteer information unless requested. If you have anything to declare, be ready. Declarable items may vary depending on time and possibly mood of an agent and checking days in advance of a crossing might be prudent. Smile a lot. Do not stow your stuff so that it is difficult to identify readily. It might look like your hiding something. Also, pack so that everything looks like it has a place. That way, unless you get a jerk, the inspector will return containers where they found them. Your vehicle won’t look like a cyclone hit it. Even if that happens, smile a lot. You may prefer hamburger, but eating crow may get you on your way. How thorough the search may depend on the country entered. For ABA birders who must cross borders between Canada and the U.S., crossings vary. I once experienced a remote entry into the state of Washington from British Columbia that tips the scale of officiousness, out shadowing Panama to Texas by leagues. On the other hand, all of the preparedness outlined above may seem a waste of time. International crossings in ABA land may be a simple greeting such as do you have a gun and or fruit on board. It is apples and oranges, but prepare for ugliness. By expecting worse and experiencing what is likely better will make any crossing will be easy.
There are some extra hints that are useful. One important one is to mark your vehicle so that other people know you are a birder. In doing so, nonbirders, when you are in your vehicle, will know that you are not about to commit a crime. That helps most of the time. Nonbirders occasionally like to tell us where to go, nicely that is. Always listen attentively, even if the information is not helpful. If someone ends the directions by “you can’t miss it, “ chances are you will. Birders often like to know if other birders are around. Passing on the location of great birds to others is one of the altruistic things most birders like to do.
“The yellowthroat is on the right at the first bend of the trail.”
“Thanks, we’ve been searching for that one. Did you see the Ivory-billed Woodpecker near the parking lot?”
This is also a time to appear interested, even though you are sure the woodpecker must have been a Pileated or someone has consumed too much alcoholic brew or smoking yellowthroat feathers. Even so, do not dismiss any clues to finding birds.
Anyway, the idea is to let people know what you are doing. My vehicle, and some might think this is arrogant, has front and rear bumper stickers reading “ABA Birder.” No, I have yet to return to my parked car to find a list of rare birds placed under the windshield wiper. However, I have met a few interesting people responding to the bumper stickers. Because vehicular travel is hazardous to one’s health, marking your carriage with reflection tape, especially on the bumpers might just save your doctor some valuable golf time. Use the red and white striped kind on the rear. Truckers, who also use similar tape, seem to appreciate it. Maybe they think you are a retired trucker, a kindred spirit. Whatever the reason, the tape increases your visibility, particularly at night. Check break and signal lights. Periodically recheck them. After all, we make sudden turns and frequent stops. Use your hazard lights when you think you need to. If in doubt, turn them on. Being rear-ended is embarrassing and cuts into easy birding.
My older, previously owned, little SUV has the basic dashboard meters, the ones that tell distance, speed, relative amount of gas and temperature of the engine. I added to the right of the steering wheel a thermometer for outside temperature and an altimeter, incidentally for outside elevation. Both instruments are moderately easy to read while driving and provide useful information about the birding environment. The hand-held and seldom consulted GPS is sometimes helpful and falls in with the cell phone in being something to use when pulled safely off the road. Do not forget that good map packed within easy reach.
Birds may be the most important reason for looking through the windshield, but other vehicles, the road, people and other bothersome impediments must have first priority while driving. And, don’t drive and drink. Imagine an inebriated birder driving. Look out Ivory-billed Woodpecker! Concerning wildlife in the road: hit the brakes and if all else fails, hit it. That sounds mean, but swerving into an oncoming car, a ditch or stationary object such as a redwood is far less mean than running over or hitting an unfortunate animal. Imagine that a swerve could end any semblance to easy birding, possibly forever. Avoid fidgeting with any gadgets, especially cell phones, the peanut butter knife and the lost lid to the water bottle.
Flying in the Wind
Traveling when someone else is doing the steering creates some different problems. There is not much to prepare for here except it is usually less expensive to get your ticket months earlier than the trip. Also, try departing and returning in the middle of the week, say Tuesday or Wednesday. It is cheaper. Those days may not always be the cheapest days to buy, so watch for sales that might occur any day. Sign up for airfare alerts.
Packing for a flight doesn’t require the time it takes to ready the surface vehicle. You fill a suitcase and go, but getting on the plane requires finesse as well as trying to keep up with the rules of engaging airport security. All that checking is apparently for our own good, so we end up essentially examined inside and out. It probably is for our own good, but according to sources, certain government agencies furtively slipped fake explosives (whatever that is) and bombs past airport security personal at several different airports. These sneaky people were alarmingly successful. The percent of their success rate, along with reports about airport security missing real ka-bum explosive stuff gives one pause. If the following hints about airport security seem unpatriotic to some, it isn’t, it is the opposite, and may make for some future easy birding and don’t forget to smile a lot.
All those snacks normally packed in your own vehicle must now stay behind when someone else is doing the driving. Why? It is relevant of safety, and what those folks say goes, no matter how hungry, thirsty, tired, cranky or sick you feel or look. It doesn’t matter, so attempt your best to make running the airport gauntlet as easy as possible. That will mean leaving food and the bottled water to wash it down in a trashcan on the unsafe side of the security line. Peanut butter and water might be dangerous to National Security. If your blood sugar dips, you may have to tough it out. Try not to faint, the security people will not any take light headiness lightly. You might appear suspicious and be whisked away, thereby missing your flight. They might call 911 paramedics and you might miss your flight. Maybe you just need some dangerous water and peanut butter. Assuming there are no medical mishaps, definitely leave the socks with the holes in the toes at home. Be ready to take off and put on your shoes or boots (I usually wear mine since they take too much suitcase room) from a standing position. Chairs for anyone staggering or aged are not part of the checkpoint. Because the passenger procession might be moving, the location in the conga line where the first removed shoe (or boot) is usually a few feet from where the second removed shoe. That means carrying one shoe while removing the second, watching any carry-on luggage you might have, your ticket, and having your identification such as a driver’s license at the ready so that, if asked, again, to display it, you will be able to get a gold star. Identification holders, with a clear plastic front fastened to a string makes a good necklace and eases some of the hassle. Try not to moo like a cow. Follow answers with sir and mam when appropriate and when sure of the gender addressed. Have you medicines in their original bottles. Maybe your doctor can prescribe something that will keep the blood sugar up before fainting. It wouldn’t hurt to have a letter signed by your doctor listing any medications. This might be especially useful when crossing international borders. You never know, security staff seem to be allowed a, as they say, fair amount of discretion, individual interpretation or haven’t learned the training manual. They may or may not care about a letter from your doctor or even check prescriptions. And, just what is a fair amount? How much is an unfair amount? So far, taking optics through the security gates has not been a problem. Might be a good idea to have a bird book near them to provide some legitimacy to why you have binocs and a scope. Tripods may problematic. Check ahead to make sure you have a leg to stand on. Clean underwear is a must but thus far, unless you fit the profile, no one is going check beyond a full body x-ray or copping a feel as any good frisker might partake. There are three rules to follow while practicing good friskeeship. 1. Do not look into the eyes of the frisker. 2. Do not look angry. 3. Do not offer your phone number. Whatever you do, don’t get excited. Do not smile a lot, especially while the frisker is near certain anatomy. After all, why would anyone enjoy frisking and the security gauntlet? Avoid arrest by faking normal emotion from so much attention. Stay calm. It will be over soon so just enjoy it and feel safer.
Once it is all right to come over, across the magic line, you are free to move about the allotted space. That is when, while waiting after the hurrying up, a welcome snack would help recovering from low blood sugar. In larger airports, a snack is usually available, but for the price of a couple gallons of gasoline and fast approaching a motel bill. This might be the time when driving the car seems ever so desirable.
One way to avoid some of the difficulties inherent in flying is to mail a package to yourself. Find a post office where you can send some of your belongings. The package could include certain nonperishable snacks, extra cloths and anything that might come in handy. Send the package far enough ahead and be able to confirm its arrival before you spend the hours in the airport. Also, include an address label to attach to the box when you return your stuff home the day before entering the homeward bound chapter of airport travel. That way, you can keep the nail clipper, with the deadly one-inch file.
Now that you have gotten ready and gotten set, the only thing left is the going. Traveling from point A to B may be wonderful. On the road
The car or whatever contraption you drive is fully packed, you have figured out where to place your stuff for accessibility, and you are ready for a safe and easy journey that gets you the bird, or birds you hope to find. This is the easy part of travel. It requires no further explanation except don’t over stuff. Your icebox should contain perishables for consumption in a day or two, possibly more. Those nutritional canned drinks, once guzzled, the lettuce, the canned tuna or chicken in the plastic bin behind the seat are replaceable at most any grocery along the route. Stocking up on heavy canned items decreases gas mileage from the extra weight and unused delicate produce ends up spoiled and inedible. Why waste the money?
While keeping the budget down, enjoy and learn. Bring along some tapes or a CD or two of bird songs. Learning the sounds of the birds at your destination will make birding easy. Forget about lawn mowing, mail collecting, phone calls missed, after all you had the mail stopped, killed the grass, and told everyone you could not be reached and to leave you alone. Think landscapes, new horizons, the beauty of the color and pattern of the bug splattered on the windshield, think birds. Do not drive so long each day that you arrive exhausted. Life can be great.
On the Flight Path
The going part of flying is somewhat of a different story. When flying, the most important consideration is, will what I have on my person pass the muster of Transportation Security Administration? Will agents of TSA not take away my nail clippers or worse, my binoculars? Experience reveals that the smaller the airport, the more, well, diligent is the screening. Experience also reveals that most agents will not stop birders and their paraphernalia so long as you do not bring sharp objects or dangerous plastic bottles of water across the line from normal activity to that of secure flying.
Here are a few useful hints on making TSA happy. Use clear plastic bags in the event they want to ascertain you have extra underwear. As for stuff in your pockets, one easy way to expedite to avoid having your stuff stuffed in too many pockets. In fact, put everything in a pocket of your birder vest and then throw the vest on the conveyor belt. Afterwards, you can place all that stuff in the appropriate pockets of your pants and shirt. Wear pants that are tight enough around the mid-zone that will not fall down in the event you are asked to remove your dangerous belt. If almost losing your pants has not happened yet, it could. Do not use words that begin and end with a b. Remain calm and polite. Do not smile, especially if your pants are falling off.
Once, finally on board a plane it is obvious that you usually are able to get from point A to B faster than by surface travel. While feeling eternally stuffed in a cramped flying casket, rub your legs to avoid gangrene. Seriously, blood clots formed in sardine legs that migrate to the lungs or brain is not conducive for easy birding. A short flight, but with vanished luggage and lost reservations at the car rental agency might suggest keeping your wheels on the ground. If possible, carry on and double-check those reservations so it is possible to carry on. To fly or not to fly is a decision that could plague humankind, especially birders, for centuries.
No matter the mode of travel, birders sometimes must cross a border to see what is on the other side. Customs agents and their strictness vary with locality and mood. Check ahead about border crossing requirements, especially when entering your own country. Regardless of terseness, answer questions truthfully and politely. Stay in or on your vehicle unless otherwise asked. Don’t volunteer information. Chances are they don’t want to hear or they might think it is a ruse to throw them off track. Take off your shades, have your papers ready, smile, but only barely as showing teeth might be considered threatening. Thank the agent so you can get on with birding.