Sunday, June 24, 2012

Advice From One Very Bad Birder to the Others

(Copyright 2012, Dee Fairbanks Simpson, originally published in SCAS Limpkin)

Recently, I was going back through my birding journals of the last ten years. I have been given a lot of advice since moving to Florida a decade ago. Some of the advice made me laugh at the time, but in hindsight, despite the fact that I am still a Very Bad Birder, I am not nearly as bad as I was when I started. I thought I would share with you some of the wisdom that has been imparted to me.

On my very first trip to Merritt Island, I was looking at a bird in a bush, having no idea what it was. A guy pulled up behind me and asked if I knew what it was. I told him no. He then proceeded to introduce himself (Doug Johanssen) and tell me what the bird was (Prairie Warbler), and then he had me follow him around the refuge. We were somewhere out on Haulover canal when a Tern came along, at which point, Doug said, "Wait for a minute, another Tern will come along." I of course, took the bait and asked him how he knew that. To which he replied, "Well, everyone knows one good tern deserves another." That day, Doug taught me about birds, he put me in touch with Travis MacClendon (and hence the IRAS), and he also taught me that birders are capable of terrible, terrible puns.

At my very first IRAS meeting (before we became SCAS) I brought in a photo album I had put together of my bird pictures. I proudly showed it to Travis MacClendon, and asked if he could help me identify the birds therein. The sage advice that I received from Travis that day was, "That's a Laughing Gull. That's another laughing gull. That's another laughing gull. That's another laughing gull. That's another laughing gull. etc" It turned out that I had about 75 pictures of laughing gulls (young, old, winter, summer, breeding.) I had no idea that they changed color throughout their lives. The lesson learned from this experience was to buy Sibley's Guide to Birds, which I don't leave home with out now. (I also learned that Travis has the patience of a saint!)

After joining Audubon, I started birding regularly with Pat and Bill Meyer. I have learned a lot from them over the years, but I think the advice that has improved my birding the most was when Bill told me, "Palm Warblers pump their tails when they perch." From this I started to notice how important behavior, not just color and shape is to identifying birds. I was able to add the Dowitcher (sewing machine bird), Ruddy Turnstone, and many others to my life list once I started to notice behavior.

One fateful day at an IRAS meeting, some insanely handsome guy came in and said they needed volunteers for the Cocoa Christmas Bird Count. I knew nothing about counting birds, but hey, I figured, this really cute guy needs volunteers, so I signed up. A few days before the count, I was a feeling a bit apprehensive and called my dad for advice. The advice he gave me was, "The easiest way to count a flock of birds is to count their eyes and then divide by two." I guess this wasn't so much a birding lesson as a life lesson; I learned that insanity runs in families.

Eventually, I started dating that cute guy from the bird count. One day, before we were married, David and I were out birding. He pointed out a bird to me and asked me what it was. I don't remember exactly what I guessed, but it was something along the lines of "Little Blue Heron?" David looked at me incredulously and said, "You are not getting back into my truck." I knew I had said something very very very wrong. I opened my Sibley's and started searching. That day I learned how to identify Blue-grey Gnatcatchers, and he finally let me get back into the truck. To this day, they are one of the few birds that I don't get wrong. Ever.

Despite getting lots of advice, I eventually came up with my own ways of identifying birds. I tend to anthropomorphize a lot, or to find objects that birds look similar to. Belted Kingfishers, to me look exactly like the cartoon character Bart Simpson -- I can always tell one on the wires remembering that. I kept this to myself for the most part though, as I assumed that real birders don't need to associate birds with something else to remember them. One day, while birding with Travis MacClendon, he pointed to some birds and said there was a Chimney Swift in the flock. I asked him how he knew, and he replied, "Chimney Swifts in flight look like cigars with wings." I was so relieved to find that "real" birders use less than scientific descriptions too. Eventually, as part of the Florida Master Naturalist course, I developed a presentation on Non-Scientific Birding that, although quite silly, seems to strike a chord with other bad birders.

After I'd been birding for a while, although I was enjoying it, I was still pretty self conscious of the fact that I just wasn't very good at it. One day, Carroll Holland gave me some advice that I think has really made all the difference to me: "If you want to see more birds, have a few drinks before you start birding, that way you will see two of everything." I laughed at the time, but it also made me realize that I was taking birding way too seriously. I learned from Carroll the most important birding advice: just because it's a scientific endeavor, it doesn't mean it can't be fun.

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