Travel, Part Two, the Destination
Speaking of reservations for a rental car, anyone who has ever seen Jerry Seinfeld’s episode, The Alternate Side, should know that the car picked up at the agency might not be the one you so thoughtfully and carefully reserved months earlier. In addition, it will probably cost more than you thought, but getting beyond that, you are at your destination and ready for some easy birding.
Enjoy and don’t believe everything your parents told you about strange and new places. Of course, sometimes what to take seriously, that is what information is worth tolerating seriously, has to square with how much time you have and whether wading through an alligator infested swamp is worth the birds you hope to find. Chomping by an alligator or a distant reptilian relative injecting poison while engaging in some easy birding could thwart having a good time. Additionally, you do not want to have to tell the folks that their foreshadowing nags about reptiles might have been correct. Avoiding any munching or fangs may lie with the hope that nearby scaly animals are experiencing reptile dysfunction and will be unable to cause problems. The reptiles, quicksand and things that could poke your eye out might prevent future adventures in easy birding. It all depends on what might be easy. After decades of birding, neither alligators, snakes nor other animals that my parents told me to avoid have punctured skin and all those thorns, cactus needles nor pointy sticks blind me. Sometimes, after dodging fangs, teeth and other sharp objects, the bird you have in mind is easy to find, easy on the eyes and makes the whole adventure seem easy. That is the point, but being cautious to a degree is always something to keep in mind.
With some caution and forethought, drive to birding sites, step out your vehicle and be appropriately attired for whatever biological, geological or meteorological spirit might impair easy birding, be it mud, dust or slippery rocks, rain, sleet snow or cougars, the birder must go on. Besides the attire, know what plants might make easy birding hard. Poison oak, ivy and sumac are the common culprits in some North American habitats. If you are allergic, stay away. Exposure may change some behavior such as urgent scratch going down the trail. If you do have to wipe your eyes or anything else you might expose, be careful since your hands may bear the fruit of the poison bush. Basically do not touch yourself. Biting, stabbing and gnawing invertebrates are at least mostly avoidable by clothing, netting and repellents, such as DEET. That funny sounding repellent is not a brand name; it is short for N ,N-diethyl-m-toluamide for those who were awake in chemistry 101. Insect haters invented DEET about 60 years ago and now we use it to ward off blood sucking insects and hope not to melt the plastic on our optics or cameras. The nastiness of DEET may put off some easy birders from putting it on. There are aniti-bite-me substitutes. Whatever you use, it should keep your skin protected and most importantly, not interrupt looking for birds. For older male birders and fewer female birders, it is possible to use less insect repellent. This requires some planning and I apologize for not mentioning natural methods earlier. It is simple. Let those ungainly nose and ear hairs grow to their maximum length and density. The more hirsute you happen to be the less likely any insect can penetrate the maze to one of your unsuspecting orifices. If you are of the age when only peach fuzz is budding from nostrils or ears, wait. Those hairs will eventually reveal themselves like a good wine. Additionally, for males, and again, fewer females, many insects will simply flee if they spot a big bushy beard. Sturdy boots and thick pants might thwart the proboscis of some insects although doubtfully the fangs of a viper. The best defense is to stay on trails where possible and be observant. If you have to bare anything below the waist, but aren’t sure about a snake attack or anything that might crawl up the wrong place, check out your surroundings and hope for the best. Of course, try holding that thought until locating an appropriate environment such as public restroom, otherwise see the chapter on How to Avoid Being Arrested.
Assuming no major natural assaults while on the trail of birds, bring water, a snack and any other gadgets that might make birding easier. A camera might be the first gadget of choice. The well-stocked birder vest will have most everything else possibly needed.
Another handy item is a set of trekking poles. The poles help hikers balance get from place to place whether it is dry ground or walking over snow and ice. Used properly, the poles will take some of the pressure off your legs and feet and put distribute it to your arms and shoulders. After all, we evolved from four-legged creatures so why have those arms flailing uselessly about when they can hold trekking poles. It is possible to stop and point your binocs at birds without disengaging the poles. They will hang off your wrists while you identify all kinds of easy birds. Remember, however, that the poses will be hanging over your feet. If you removed the rubber tip and exposed the metal points of the poles you could stab your feet. Although easy to do, doing so would end an easy day of birding.
Where exactly is this place, full of snakes, chiggers and quicksand? It might be almost anywhere. Locations that have great potential for animals with menacing mouth parts or the quickest of sand are rare, but… Be cautious, but don’t worry. Be easy on yourself. Always bird with as little stress as possible. Bear in mind that some of the great locations for easy birding are also easy to access and are not considered life threatening. In fact, most places are life renewing.
Our birding destination will most likely be attained by some sort of vehicle with wheels. Look for a safe place to park, such as a parking lot. If there isn’t a lot, be sure to be off the road far enough so as to not impede traffic. You don’t want to cause an accident or to be victim of arrest. When you park along the side of a road be sure there is no broken or unbroken glassware (e.g., beer bottles) or other sharp objects hidden in the grassy shoulder that might puncture a tire. Avoid parking in a construction zone as workers tend to loose nails that often are attracted to rubber. Of course, be sure the place you are parking is not muddy or otherwise causing you later to have a sinking feeling while unsuccessfully extricating your vehicle.
Once you have parked the idea of where to place your vehicle, you are almost ready to go birding. However, is your vehicle, I mean all of it, going to be there upon your return. While a few dozen people searched for a wayward Wood Sandpiper in Oregon, several other birders stood guard in the parking lot. That was because unknown pranksters were stealing whatever they could get their hands on and if the vehicle was empty, they were removing catalytic converters and other body parts. Will you be able to drive home? Will your day of easy birding become uneasy? Additionally, if the area is safe during the day, it might not at night. Finally, police frequently will warn people to remove from your parked car anything valuable. If you are doing some cross-country birding, you might need a couple of grocery carts just to make sure your vehicle is free of anything valuable. Now that you are scared stiff that you may have to walk home, go birding.
There is plenty of easy birding to enjoy in most National Wildlife Refuges. If you like waterfowl, marsh birds such as rails, Sedge and, of course, Marsh Wrens, and many other species, National Wildlife Refuges are the place to visit. Duck in at the refuge headquarters where staff there will likely hand you a map showing where to drive or hike. For peak numbers of ducks, geese and perhaps swans, pick months coinciding with migration. Sometimes, staff will have detailed information on where to find certain species of birds. Ask. For the easiest birding, driving dike roads will likely maximize the number of species and individuals of birds. In fact, walking those same dikes would likely decrease the number waterfowl seen. Vehicles make great blinds, not to mention all your snacks and water are handy. If walking is required, which of course is great exercise, especially after eating so many snacks, go for it.
Parks may also offer some easy birding opportunities. Some national and state parks, a few county parks and private preserves are often birding hot spots. Before hiking anywhere, ask about the condition of trails. Is it relatively flat and even or is it rocky and steep? Ask yourself; is there a hole in my shoe? Ask is my aching back today planning to sneak up behind me and the ever popular question, where is the nearest rest room? If the trail requires huffing and puffing so much that vision becomes blurry from either lack of oxygen or sweat or both, perhaps this is not the easy birding trail of dreams.
Audubon Societies and the Nature Conservancy preserves harbor many acres of prime birding habitat. Of course, in the planning stage, it is a good idea to check about locations and access to such properties. If open, advance permission may be required. Contact the appropriate places before showing up at their doorstep.
Other good places to bird are discussed in the chapter Birding Cemeteries and other likely places. Birds might be almost anywhere, and the likely places are usually the best.
The Rockies and Westward
There are too many specific easy birding localities to list here. Well-planned birding trips will include the best locations for the needs of the birder. For example, in the Rocky Mountains Gray Jays and Mountain Bluebirds are easy birds. More species that are difficult might be rosy finches and White-tailed Ptarmigan. As for those little grouse, perhaps the best place to find White-tailed Ptarmigan is westward, in Mt. Rainier National Park. Beware that most of the park trails into ptarmigan territory are not necessarily easy. Although finding a ptarmigan on a mountain slope is a lung inflating experience, there are other birds for those not wishing oxygen starvation. There might be all kinds of things where you parked the car. Fox Sparrows, perhaps a Pine Grosbeak, Steller’s Jays and affable Clark’s Nutcrackers may be easier easy birds.
The Pacific shore
Luckily, state parks in California, Oregon and Washington provide easy access to some of the finest beaches and estuaries along the Pacific shore. Western Gull might be just one of the easiest birds to see. Heerman’s Gull is another easy species to identify. For birders who want easy birding, avoid identifying most gulls, especially those pesky subadults, those brown and motley taskmasters of the shore. On the other hand, easy birding ought not be boring, so perhaps a stab at identifying gulls of all ages might just be what the doctor ordered. Whatever you do, when looking up at a swirling frenzy of gulls waiting for you to throw them a piece of bread, keep your mouth closed. Why? Holy crap, the answer is obvious. While you are at it, give the shorebirds some a taste. If it is spring or fall, there will be plenty to entertain. Not all shorebirds look-alike and not all species are foraging on sandy beaches. Find a mudflat, but don’t let getting muddy become a hard lesson. Also, check rocky areas, especially those between high and low tides. There are some good starter species such as Black Oystercatcher, Surfbird, and two species of turnstones. Pay close attention to whether the tide is incoming or outgoing and remember an incoming tide might surprise you by making you an outgoing birder. Watch out for sneaker waves, those that are shockingly bigger than those waves before or after, which is an uneasy feeling.
Some great Pacific coast watching is possible up and down the coast. Some localities are known better than others are. San Diego shores are great for a myriad of species including those Heermann‘s Gulls mentioned earlier as well as several species of terns and of course, California Gnatcatchers. Skipping to the other end of the state, Arcata Marsh in northern California has easy trails for easy views of occasional Marbled Murrelet and many more shorebirds including the easy Marbled Godwit, egrets, and landbirds. Further up the coast is Bandon Marsh National Wildlife Refuge with easy views of shorebirds gathering yards from a boardwalk. The south jetty of the Columbia River where Lewis and Clark came to the end of the trail has been good for easy birding and not so easy birding. This is an easy location to see Thayer’s Gulls during winter, but practice your gulls first. Beyond the parking lot and the tidal pools are sand dunes that provide a not so easy walk but in fall and winter may provide sightings of longspurs, Snowy Owl and more. Washington has several good gulling and shorebirding localities, as does British Columbia.
Interior refuges and parks. Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge is a good place to take a break from driving I-5. The refuge is full of waterfowl in the winter, including the large and dark White-fronted Geese that represent a subspecies. The people at headquarters certainly recognize the big one as different from the other white-fronts. Yes, sometimes refuges let you see birds so easily you might be able to identify different subspecies. The refuge complex of Tule and Lower Klamath at the Oregon and California border are noisy with dancing grebes, sawing Yellow-headed Blackbirds and buzzing Marsh Wrens in the breeding season. Thousands of migrants pass through the refuge each migration. Malheur National Wildlife Refuge teems with birds. Many rarities have been found at this oasis in dry eastern Oregon. In the parks, Gray and Steller’s Jays are easy birds to find, often coming almost too close if you are picnicking. Clark’s Nutcrackers are also park beggars along with chipmunks and bears. Boreal habitat in parks such as Crater Lake and especially Mt. Rainier provide the easy birder with roadside glimpses of woodpeckers, grouse, Mountain Chickadee and other mountain species.
Southern California, if you dodge the traffic, has some great and easy birding sites. One of the best and worst is the Salton Sea. It stinks, but the birding does not. The putrid water and dead fish, not to mention broiling temperatures make up for the areas great birds. Only some of the birding areas are within the Sonny Bono Salton Sea National Wildlife Refuge, so check in at headquarters. In addition, as with most birding localities, check bird finding guides for more details. Another wonderful, to put it mildly, birding locality in the Southwest is southeastern Arizona. There are numerous easy birding places there, many that require sitting while hummingbirds fan the air. Other areas may require a little more rigor, but after the rocky drive or the laborious hike, it might be easy to see species you only dreamed. Bring water.
East if the Rockies
The coasts. Birding along the Gulf and Atlantic coasts is not quite the same as birding on the West Coast. Far fewer areas are accessible on the east coasts, with regions being privatized, dotted with commerce and residents regardless of vulnerability to frequent storms. Some of the best places, once again are refuges and parks. Aransas National Wildlife Refuge along the coast of Texas is the easiest place to see Whooping Cranes, but during the winter only. By April don’t plan to see them; they’ve gone to their summer home in Canada. Outstanding along the coast is Everglades National Park. Be ready to share some blood with mosquitoes or worse, with a hungry alligator. The extremely flat terrain of Everglades National Park is easy birding at its pinnacle. Herons, egrets and spoonbills, oh my. Troupes wade by in review, models fishing for affection or just fishing. Don’t forget Lake Okeechobee, Snail Kites, the Keys and, if you are lucky, an Antillean Nighthawks.
Up the Atlantic Coast, swing away from the North Carolina mainland to Cape Hatteras. You never know what might be flying around Kitty Hawk and pelagic trips ferry birders to the Gulf Stream. Brigantine National Wildlife in New Jersey might be a stopping point. Farther north, try down east and visit Acadia National Park, where crossbills and Spruce Grouse might be easy birds. Go there in the winter but bring a coat. Alcids and maybe a Great Cormorant might dress up your life list. Easy birding during winter is mostly hampered from frozen tear ducts.
Interior locations. The first place coming to mind east of the Continental Divide is Big Bend National Park. It is off the beaten track but worth every Phainopepla, and they are easy birds to see through a windshield. Many of the other species are easy by submitting to short trails. Big Bend means Colima Warbler to most birders, but normally these summer residents require some rigorous uphill hiking. The warblers may perch and sing near the trail. Once you are in their domain, Colima Warblers are easy to see. These birds also require some rigorous downhill hiking, so check your shock absorbers, your knees, before climbing for Colimas.
There is a plethora of birding localities in Texas, and most of them are easy, provided you are ready to battle insects and heat. After Big Bend, trails in Texas are very easy and so is seeing the birds. The numerous guides on finding birds in Texas should be consulted for the best places to bird Texas.
Easy birding might provide an observation of the introduced European Tree Sparrow, a weaver finch and relative to the House Sparrow. Try for a layover in the St. Louis, Missouri, for this species. Parrot watching in southern Florida may provide a new species to count for their life list.
For some easy raptor watching, interior Pennsylvania’s Hawk Mountain is not to be missed. Unfortunately, it is so popular that the site is often crowded with humans during fall migration. Stay a couple of days or more for a good cross-section of species migrating down the mountain ridge. You could see more hawks than imagined and glimpse migrating jays, flickers and others on their way north or south. Farther north and earlier in the year, a drive up New Hampshire’s Mount Washington could produce an easy opportunity to hear if not see Bicknell’s Thrush. On the way up there are warblers, tanagers and other easy birds.
Easy birders, even those not interested in life lists, may want to try something new or revisit an old tropical haunt, a new island, a new continent. Happily, there are field guides, birding finding guides and people guides for almost all of the countries of the world. There are some 10,000 species of birds out there, and someone has to see them. Maybe no one will see them all, but many birders will enjoy seeing what they can, either from the ease of a tour vehicle, from a rented veranda while lying in a hammock, huffing up a mountain, slogging through a marsh or chilled to the bone from polar wind. Whether marveling at the color and patterns of a tropical hummingbird or fathoming the browns and blacks of a pelagic bird skimming riled ocean waters, what seems easy, what puts us at ease is relative. Birding is fun, educational and challenging. It is good for the mind. It is not difficult. It is easy.
Even with the best of field guides and other literature, even a personal guide, with ideal weather, with all parameters being perfect, easy birding is possible only by avoiding pitfalls. The remaining chapters provide hints to avoid trouble and help construct situations for easy birding.