Archive for the ‘birding philosophy’ Category

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Spoiling the surprise?

March 9, 2006

A Great Black-backed Gull spent a few days on Rist Benson Reservoir here in Larimer County last January, and on 1/20 I digiscoped several decent shots of it in very good light, with the idea that I might submit a report of the sighting to the Colorado Bird Records Committee (CBRC). Well, a couple days ago I finally did submit a report of that sighting to the CBRC. Whether my report and accompanying photos will be good enough to merit confirmation by the committee remains to be seen, although I suspect they will. In any case it was an important step for me in my continuing evolution as a birder, to make a concerted effort in documenting my observations for the benefit of others.

I’ve written several times on this topic of personal evolution now, noting how differently I approach this hobby of mine from how I did several years ago. At some point I hope to tire of it, and devote my writing energies solely to the subject matter itself, but during the process of submitting that report I was struck by one particularly sharp contrast between “then” and “now”, which is actually kinda funny, but also one that I think is interesting to explore.

Part of the CBRC record report form requires delineation of differences between the bird species you think you saw with those of similar-looking species; i.e., how did you know it was a Great Black-backed Gull and not some other gull. In the case of the GBBG, similar North American occurrences include other rarities like the Slaty-backed Gull and the Yellow-footed Gull, neither of which I’ve seen before. But I took the time to investigate them, especially in the Olsen/Larsson book on Northern Hemisphere gulls. It was then that I made an amusing realization about my evolution as a birding enthusiast.

As recently as 4 years ago, I would never have taken the time to study a species of bird I’d never seen before. That in itself isn’t necessarily unusual or damning – beginners or novices don’t often take the time for indepth study of unfamiliar birds. But in my case, it wasn’t that I didn’t have the time, or was confused enough just learning the birds that I had seen. Rather, it was that I purposefully didn’t want to spoil the joy or surprise that comes from beholding a bird when you encounter it for the first time. I even felt that knowing its name beforehand seemed to pollute the sense of wonderment.

Where did this bizarre conception come from? I recall a highly formative experience back in 1998, shortly after I moved from Davis, California (where I went to grad school) to the Bay Area (where I started my first job). My first social bird experiences were with the Sequoia Audubon Society on the Peninsula, and at one of my first meetings there was a presentation from someone who went to Alaska and the North Pacific. He had some terrific pictures of species I’d never seen or heard of before, and I was enthralled. Kittlitz’s Murrelet, Red-faced Cormorant, Spectacled Eider…it was exciting to think of all the great bird species out there that I had yet to learn about. World birds were like the candies in Willy Wonka’s factory – magical and brilliant, mysterious and alluring.

But I then perceived a risk to my future experiences of seeing new birds – that of knowing too much beforehand. I feared that the magic, brilliance, mystery and allure of these birds would be diminished if I’d read too much or seen too many photos of them in advance. Wasn’t part of the thrill of exploration not knowing what lies beyond the next bend in the river, or on the other side of the mountain? In that vein I think I subconsciously resolved to put the blinders on, to not to delve too deeply into bird guide books, and instead to just wait for the birds to reveal themselves to me. I didn’t want birding to be a science – I already was a scientist, and birding was an artsier side-interest. I wanted to adhere to this aesthetic, an almost-romantic notion of what it meant to be on a journey of pure discovery – even a forced, false one – in which the discoveries would be not for furthering the knowledge of posterity, but solely for my own feeling of bedazzlement.

And it was easy to accommodate this desire until recently, because for various reasons my birding was still a very solitary activity. I did actually yearn to join bird clubs and go on group outings, but my work schedule made that quite difficult, and besides, birding was more personal therapy than an effort to contribute to the broader birding community knowledge base. But after moving to Colorado, where I had gobs more time and a youthful, active birding community to join, my objectives changed fairly rapidly. I think I did continue to bask in willful bird ignorance for a short time; but the newness of the area and the feeling that I had external expectations on me from locals because of my claims of being an avid birder inspired me to give up this phony notion of “not wanting to ruin the surprise” and actually start to have some real idea of what I was talking about.

At this point I freely admit that I haven’t really foregone the joy and wonder in seeing new birds when I study them before actually seeing them. What I’ve realized over time is that the ideal I was hoping to uphold after that Sequoia Audubon meeting in 1998 has been sublimated to a different form of gratification, one derived from the sharing of knowledge and the unraveling of mystery, and not in simply pretending that me not knowing something constitutes a state of purity to be cherished. Furthermore, I now recognize that learning what I can about birds beforehand just accelerates me to the next mysteries, like “What is that bird doing here this time of year?” or “How has convergent evolution made this species so similar to this other one on another continent?”

What it comes down to is that I now trust that I won’t run out of things to be amazed at. Nature seems to do a good job at presenting conundrums, and learning what you can when you can about it doesn’t diminish its marvel or grandeur. And maybe it’s silly that I had to come to this understanding in such a roundabout fashion; but looking back, how could I have arrived here any differently?

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Stricken

February 13, 2006

It was on my list for almost 12 years. But as of tonight, it has been removed. Cassin’s Sparrow is no longer a Life Bird for me.

I’ve been doing some background prep for planning a trip to SE Arizona this coming May. This means creating a target list, as well as revisiting sightings on earlier visits. I have very good recollections of most of my sightings, but was piqued by Bird #83, a Cassin’s Sparrow observed sometime in March of 1994 in Tucson. Unlike the other birds I recorded on that trip, I have no memory whatsoever of when exactly I saw that bird, nor where.

In the case of Cassin’s Sparrow, I find that problematic. For a number of years after I began birding, I relied pretty heavily on bird range maps in Peterson’s Guide to help me determine what bird I was seeing, in cases where there were 2 or more competing possibilities. That’s not a practice I believe in anymore, but I have to admit that it played a fair part in several IDs I thought I’d made in years past. I’d already corrected most of those (e.g., Hutton’s Vireo), but this one had remained.

I try to be very careful in tinkering with my lists when it comes to revisiting very old observations, and I am cautious not to overly second-guess my IDs. But I am aware of how my identification skills have grown over time, and I honestly don’t think I could have truly known for sure that I’d seen a Cassin’s Sparrow in lieu of, say, a Brewer’s, based on the way I know I used the Petersen’s Guide at the time, and my awareness (or lack thereof) of the likelihoods of seeing certain species in certain locations. It may well be, of course, that I did in fact see one, even if I don’t remember when or where. But it troubles me that I supposedly made such a careful ID of a tricky bird at a time when I really wasn’t attuned to such things, and that I remember nothing about the sighting; and knowing that I’d now have trouble picking one out of a sparrow lineup, I just don’t feel comfortable leaving it on my Life List. So, I removed it tonight, lowering my Life, AOU, and ABA totals by one.

I do feel confident that I’ll be able to put it back sometime this year. I just want it to count, to identify it from its characteristics, not from deductions or extrapolations from likelihood. Yet another manifestation of how I’m changing as a birder.

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Birder Envy

January 25, 2006

Time for a little birdblogger navel-gazing. One thing I’ve noticed a little bit lately is how it is almost anathema among birding company to admit to any human foible or confusion when it comes to bird identification. Some of this surely stems from the kind of credibility issue that BINAC pointed to some weeks back, but I think there’s something more going on here, although I’m not sure what.

A few weeks ago I mentioned at an Audubon meeting that while looking for an unusual bird early one morning in the area, I made a silly error when I heard some Cedar Waxwings in some nearby trees, but thought they were American Goldfinches for a short time. Of course, after about 15 seconds, I realized that I was in fact hearing waxwings, and saw them soon dart off to the horizon squealing as they do. I figured I was just plain out-of-it that morning, having just rolled out of bed and gone birding, and didn’t ascribe much deeper meaning to it than that. If anything I thought it was kinda funny. But when I casually mentioned it at the meeting, I got a comment from someone to the effect of, “I wouldn’t tell anyone that!”

Now, I make every honest effort to identify birds to the best of my ability, but I also feel unashamed of the occasions when I most definitely screw up. I figure that it happens to everyone – we’re only human, right? Sometimes, you forget what a particular species sounds like, and you may miss seeing an interesting bird because you assumed that you were hearing something more mundane or commonplace? Or on some other occasion you watch a bird high up in tree branches, struggle mightily to observe some characters, but when all is said and done (it flits away mysteriously) you still don’t know for sure what you saw, because maybe you focused too much on plumage and not enough on morphology or bill shape?

Or is it the case that, perhaps, of all the people who consider themselves avid birders, I am the only one who makes these kinds of pedestrian, embarrassing errors? Could that be?

I’m serious here. I make mistakes. Probably plenty. I do think I get it right most of the time, but I’m not so full of myself to want to hide the times when I mess up. I guess I’m a little surprised at the reticence of some birders to say what they do wrong. I find it especially odd because most of the time I find the people I bird around to be very cordial and pleasant. Must we be so concerned about maintaining our credibility and image that we suppress any inclinations toward honesty about our occasional failings?

Yes, I want others to take me seriously and believe me on the occasions when I tell them I saw an unusual bird in such-and-such place. But personally, I think it enhances my credibility to admit that there are times when I mess up, because if anything, it means that I am capable of questioning my own judgment, of recognizing when my initial thoughts or expectations have deceived me. It also means that I don’t mind learning that I was wrong, and that I am more beholden to the truth of the matter than I am to maintaining an image of personal rightness, which I could easily do in matters like this by just keeping my trap shut.

If, as birders, we value accuracy and at least some measure of objective reality, why not allow ourselves to admit our own mistakes – even the ones we made just yesterday? It shouldn’t be a secret. Birder envy just compounds the original faux pas.

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The Birding Year in Review

December 31, 2005

It’s the last day of 2005. What a great birding year I had – I learned a ton and spent more time than ever in the field actually birding. Imagine that! So what all happened?

By far, the most important aspect to my birding year was that I just had more time to do it. With the luxury of tiempo libre, I began to take birding more seriously than I ever had any previous year. Sure, I’d kept a life list and read bird books, but I never went out with anyone, attended functions with other birders, or even organized my efforts to look for new birds in any way. For various reasons I had done birding more as a personal therapy than as any contribution to the field at large. But with all the new-found time I had this year, I devoted much more to birds, and did it more socially and more academically even. I’ll explain what that means toward the end of this post.

This was a big year for listing. With the help of trips to Peru and Costa Rica, my Life List grew by 213 birds, by far my best Life year ever. It easily beat out my 2002 total (which included my first trip to Costa Rica) of 163. But what really made this year stand out was the number of new birds I saw right here in Colorado. 40 of my new lifers were seen in CO.

Back in April, I was inspired by Cole Wild to start a separate Colorado life list, my first state list. (This link is from my other blog, which I started long before FeatherWeather, and is now reserved for non-bird topics.) Already, it’s clear that the impetus for this kind of listing is from my increased social activity with other birders, through Audubon, etc. – I think that as long as it’s done in the spirit of increasing knowledge and fostering interest in conservation, it’s fine to compare lists and engage in the ‘sport’ of birding. For me this was a revolution in my approach. Oh, and the totals for 2005? 225 Colorado birds. Not quite the 350-400 achieved by Nick and Cole, but a good start, better than I expected early on.

I’ve even started other lists, which you can see here. One important development with my basic life list was to take the time to make a taxonomic version of it as well. In years past I was reluctant (and well, too lazy) to learn the orders and families of birds, but finally this year I came to understand the insight that can be gained from learning bird classification, in all its idiosyncrasies and controversies. After a couple months of family-name immersion, I felt like I’d really learned something substantial about birds – their origins. What a great way to feel closer to them.

Another inspiration I got from Cole was to buy a new SLR camera in early September, a Canon Digital Rebel XT. I’ve already posted several shots from it here on FW, and am very happy with the results so far. It makes for a nice complement to digiscoping, which can be quite difficult and hard to do alongside regular birding (at least with my current digiscoping setup). Bird photography as a whole really took off for me this year, and I’ve renewed my interest in expanding my ‘portfolio’. My goal isn’t so much to take publication-quality shots (although I try to take as many quality art-ful shots as I can), but just to document what I see and have a nice collection for the sake of remembrance. What’s really great is that I can now find enjoyment in going out birding even if I don’t see anything new or interesting, as long as I come away with a few new pictures. It makes every trip feel rewarding and worthwhile, and that’s always a Good Thing.

Chestnut-mandibled Toucan, Rara Avis, Oct 2005Peru in May was a great experience too. Even though that wasn’t specifically a birding trip, I picked up another 120 life birds there, 134 total. I did however make a birding-specific trip to Costa Rica in late September, my first such trip ever. I went for a week to Rara Avis, a private forest reserve on the Caribbean slope. For the trip I saw about 48 new life birds, 104 total, and increased my Costa Rica life list (another new listed started this year!) to 228, which yes, is still larger than my Colorado list.

More importantly though, that Costa Rica trip was a great chance for me to feel better about my abilities in birding tropical rainforests. The first couple times I’d ever done it proved frustrating to me, for it was very different from how I’d imagined. This time I went in with better preparation and expectations, and I found it much more rewarding and enjoyable. And by the way, anyone interested in the topic of Neotropical birds is encouraged to read Hilty’s Birds of Tropical America, which I discovered during my trip. It was so great to read something that validates all my experiences in tropical birding – his descriptions and experiences are just spot-on and quite informative.

Trips to Florida were fruitful. I visited my Dad 3 times this year, in February, October, and December. I was able to make excursions to the Everglades and the Keys, and saw a number of new birds on these trips. 20 of my lifers this year were seen in Florida.

I participated in my first-ever CBC, for Loveland, CO, on Jan 2. It was organized by my neighbor across the street Nick Komar, a well-known name in Colorado birding circles. (I have to mention that we had no idea in buying this house who our neighbors were – that one would be a big-time birder as well as a great guy was a fortunate occurence.) Through this experience I got an introduction to great birding locations in Larimer County and southern Fort Collins, with all its lakes and prairie. I also learned what it meant to do a ‘census’ of birds, which was something I’d never done before.

Mississippi Kite, Cottonwood Canyon CO, June 2005In late June I went on a crazy 36-hour trip to northeast and southeast CO with Nick, his son Nick Jr., and Cole, looking for a variety of migrants and other rarities. I got quite sleep-deprived, but I saw a lot of cool birds, including 9 lifers. One of them was this Mississippi Kite, digiscoped at left. That trip served as the inspiration for another shorter one I did in mid-September on my own to Prewitt Reservoir, to look for the Curlew Sandpiper (which I did see). That trip was another first – it was the first time I’d gone on a trip on my own to look for a recently reported rare bird.

Now, to the academic approach. In June I did a 4-day course with the Rocky Mountain Nature Association, on Rocky Mountain birds, led by Dr. Richard Beidleman. In November I took a 2-day class offered by the RMRP on raptors, taught by Program Director Judy Scherpelz. That was also excellent, and will be a class worth repeating in the future. Having these occasional seminars which take a somewhat more formal tack toward bird-learning was a nice addendum to all the self-learning that I usually do.

Speaking of self-learning, I’ve recently been reading Gill’s Ornithology, a common intro-level ornithology textbook that I checked out from the CSU library. Reading a textbook on birds – now that’s something I wouldn’t have done just a year ago. It epitomizes the way my interest in birds seems to be heightening (or in Cindy’s opinion, careening out of control). To me though, it’s all good.

And wouldn’t you know, just as I wrap up this post, I can hear a Townsend’s Solitaire outside our family room, my first (yard) one of this winter season. What a wonderful and welcome bird. I already am very excited about 2006, about the birds I’ll see, and the things I’ll learn about them. Isn’t that what this is all about?

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The Birder I Am

November 24, 2005

I recently went on a birding trip with my neighbor Nick and a few other area zealots. We drove down to the southern half of the state, to Pueblo, CaƱon City, and South Park, looking for Red-throated Loon, Red-necked Grebe, scoters, and swans. Lots of birding chatter in the car all day, and often in scenarios like that, I get a little introspective. I found myself a little envious of these other guys and their exploits, and their bird ID knowledge. And in my usual self-deprecating way, I began to compare myself to them, unfavorably. I wondered when my skills would ever be as well-honed as theirs, and to have the confidence to call in an ID on virtually any bird I saw, and not be afraid of being wrong.

But later it occurred to me that my evolution as a birder is such that I will probably never feel “comfortable” or “adequate” in this way. The confidence I refer to above is one borne of complacency, of thinking that I will get to a point where I know all that I’m interested in knowing. And that doesn’t describe my approach to birding or birds at all. Every year or 2-3 year period of my birding life has been markedly more intense than the period before it, which leaves me with the feeling of being far more interested and focused on birds than I was just a couple years before. For example, back in 1999, I bought a Kowa spotting scope (with a fluorite-coated objective) for the purpose of IDing wading birds in the marshes of San Francisco Bay and around Pillar Point Harbor in Half Moon Bay. My life list reflected the purchase too, as I found my first Brant, Long-tailed Duck, Red-breasted Merganser, and Pelagic Cormorant with its help. For me, this was a statement of how serious of a birder I was becoming, and that I wanted to be able to pick out those birds way out on the water. I didn’t think along those lines back in ’97 or ’98.

In 2002, I went to Costa Rica for the first time. I bought the Skutch and Stiles Field Guide to the Birds of Costa Rica and studied it in preparation. I read the bird descriptions, habits, and distribution info intensely when I was there, which helped me in many cases, like in nailing down the Green Shrike-Vireo, Red-faced Spinetail, and Yellow-bellied Elaenia. And even though I got frustrated at times with the challenges of birding in tropical forests, I realized I was taking a step forward in my birding life. I just felt so much more…serious, and intent than I did just a couple years before.

Now, in 2005, with all the free time I’ve had, my birding life grew again by leaps and bounds. My life list finally grew up, and I took the time and trouble to learn bird taxonomy and sort all my lifers appropriately. For the first time I actually did my birding with other people, which gave me a chance to see how confident I was in IDing around others. I went on frantic bird trips with Nick and others, and my life list grew substantially. Cole inspired me to start other lists, like a Colorado list and a year list. Trips to Peru and Costa Rica had me starting lists for those countries as well. And I’ve joined two different local mailing lists to share and get info on local rarities that pop up and now and again. I just feel so much more…serious, and intent than I did just a couple years before.

So the cycle continues, and I now think that in a couple years, I just may feel the same way then as I do now. In any case, even if I’m not quite as astute and sure of myself as those other guys I went with a few weeks back, I’m probably the kind of birder now that 5 years ago, I’d have been fairly impressed with. For a normally self-deprecating guy, that’s a welcome admission of self-esteem.