Birding Big Year (Birder's Log 2/1/2020): Mr. Bird Miss Behaving: When Good Birds Go Bad
They know they are messing with us…you know…birds. After hundreds of years and billions of bird records, well-respected ornithologists have amalgamated and synthesized the data into field guides. From Roger Tory Petersen’s 1934 A Field Guide to the Birds to The Sibley Guide to Birds (2nd Edition, 2014) man has attempted to describe the appearance and behavior of birds. Field guides provide various illustrations of a species to show everything from sex to age, and habitat to distribution. Field guides tell us how to separate a Hammond’s Flycatcher from a Dusky Flycatcher, or an Eastern Meadowlark from a Western.
What field guides don’t tell us is what birds are thinking, and why they go rogue. Just when science gives us comfort in understanding birds (what they look like and where they live) suddenly conventional wisdom flies out the window. Mix in a generous dose of leucism, albinism, and hybridism and you can toss the field guide to the back seat. And what are Harris’s Sparrows thinking when they decide to fly the coup and relative comfort of Nebraska’s Great Plains for the cold-hearted sagebrush of Idaho’s high desert in December. I have a theory.
They are messing with us. And its not just a species or two. From Blue Jays to Eastern Bluebirds, Mockingbirds to Red-shouldered Hawks – they are showing up unannounced like Cousin Eddie in National Lampoon’s Vacation. They know that just when a birder becomes confident in their identification skills, it’s time for an eastern bird to pay a visit. Since they are not coming as some religious splinter sect, but a solitary joker, how do they decide who gets to pull the prank?
I’ve been birding Idaho for 22 years, and until last Sunday, I had never seen a Northern Mockingbird in this western state. Serendipitously navigating downstream of the Minidoka Dam, a “Mocker” perfectly timed his convergence. He posed long enough to be photographed (who would believe me without the photo?), then departed with what I swear was a self-satisfied giggle. Yeah, I see what you did there. Maybe the time has come to write A Field Guide to Birds Gone Bad.
Birding Big Year (Birder’s Log 02/08/2020): What Birders Really Want
I’m no expert on the wants and needs of other birders, but I know what I really want, and so I extrapolate. What we want is perhaps quite different than you might expect. Here’s the top five:
1. Frequent pull-outs. I do most of my birding from the Jeep these days, so I want to be able to pull over, and quickly check that bird on the power line. It might take a bit of research, but before the transportation department builds a road, they should do a 5-year study of where birds are likely to be, and then build frequent pull-outs in the vicinity. I would love to help with that study. If this seems unreasonable, forget the study and just build a birder’s lane. If they can do it for bicyclers, well then…
2. Wi-Fi binoculars with feather recognition. I want to be able to confirm my sighting by switching on the recognition software and aiming the binocs at the bird. Once locked on, I can activate ebird and the Audubon app with my eyes to view range maps, bird songs, and other interesting facts right there in the barrel. What? They already have that technology?
3. Another Lifer. In previous logs, I have explained that a lifer is a bird being observed for the first time. All subsequent views are fodder for the lists that a birder will obsessively make the rest of his life – such as Big Year lists, state lists, backyard lists, and my favorite – list of birds seen while keeping one foot inside the circumference of a randomly-placed hula-hoop for 12 hours. But as entertaining as lists are, nothing compares to adding another bird to the life list.
4. Wackadoodle Birding Partner. I want a bird fanatic who will do most of the driving, keep the trip list, knows exactly when to stop 1 second before I holler “Bird On!” (a variant of “Fish on the line!”). I want a partner who appreciates and makes ample room for a box of donuts in the front seat, and most importantly enjoys hearing my stories of epic birding….for the third time.
5. To be retired. Let’s face it, all those years of “working for the man” have been endured so that now in retirement you can wake up at 4 a.m., and decide…”I think I’ll go see a blue jay that’s being reported 2 hours from here.” All my birding friends are retired. I hate that (want that).