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Imagine, if you will, a typical local bird club outing. Picture it in the second weekend of January. How many folks would attend such an outing? Maybe 5–10 on a day with so-so weather? If the weather’s really nice, maybe 15–20 or maybe even 25 attendees?

Not all that long ago, that’s how it was with the Boulder Bird Club’s annual outing to the Valmont Reservoir complex in Boulder County, Colorado. I remember a Valmont outing six or seven years ago with lovely weather: bright blue skies and a forecast high in the low 50s. Nearly 20 birders showed up for that outing. And I remember another Valmont outing when it was overcast and not even 20 degrees. As I recall, we had seven or eight folks that year.

Fast forward to the year 2011. To be precise, Saturday, January 8th, 2011. That was the date of a recent outing to Valmont Reservoir. Care to guess how many folks entered their names on the sign-in sheet?

Two hundred twenty-seven.

That’s right. We had 227 sign-ins, plus a bunch more who declined—for whatever reason—not to register. I’d say we had 250 birders, maybe more, at the 2011 outing to Valmont.

How on earth did that happen? How did we go from a typical local bird club outing with somewhere in the neighborhood of 10–20 participants to a major regional natural history event?

 

01 GatheringTed Floyd and Marcel Such (perched on Bryan Patrick’s truck) address several hundred birders at the Jan. 8, 2011 outing to Valmont Reservoir, Boulder County, Colorado. Photo by © Bill Schmoker.

 

One of the outing’s co-leaders, teen birder Marcel Such, explores the matter—and provides superb analysis—in a recent post to his blog. I’ll post a link to Marcel’s blog below. First, here are two thoughts of my own. One is rather particular. The other is more general. Here goes:

 

1. Five years ago, we changed the outing’s start time from 8:00 a.m. to noon. If you’re a non-birder, that may not seem all that surprising. Indeed, it may seem entirely reasonable. But if you’re a birder, you know that’s a huge change. Why, it’s messing with tradition. It’s ornithological sacrilege. Noon? That’s outlandish. That’s so late, so decadently late. It’s etched in stone somewhere—isn’t it?—that all bird club outings shall commence no later than one hour after sunrise. As every birder will tell you, it’s essential to go birding during the morning hours. That’s because birds are most active at dawn and shortly thereafter. By late morning, the birds have become inactive; by late morning, it’s time to call it a day, head for the diner, and work up the group’s checklist.

I don’t think I’m overstating the case. Birding, like everything else, has its traditions. You don’t dare mess with those sacred traditions: college football on Saturdays, baseball in the summer, Christmas on December 25th. You simply don’t fool around with those things. Bird outings start in the morning. The earlier, the better. That’s just the way it is.

What can I say? At least with regard to the annual Valmont outing, we’ve bucked tradition. Which brings me to my second point.

 

2. Question: Why? Why did we do that? Why did we change the start time from 8:00 a.m. to noon?

One reason is because, contrary to all received wisdom, the birding at Valmont is better—much better—in the afternoon. First off, because it’s the middle of winter, there is no “dawn chorus” to speak of. That happens in spring and summer. In winter, though, birds are active throughout the day. That’s especially so with the avian clientele at Valmont—ducks, geese, grebes, cormorants, herons, coots, and so forth. Those aquatic species are active round the clock, and they’re just as easy to see at midday as at sunrise. We see lots of raptors at Valmont, too, and they’re actually easier to observe after mid-morning. Raptors tend to be most active after it’s warmed up a bit. And now for the real kicker: gulls. Thousands upon thousands of gulls. We see so many gulls at Valmont. But only in the afternoon. The birds fly in from mid-afternoon till sunset. In the morning, you might see fewer than ten gulls at Valmont; come back a half hour before sunset, and you might see close to ten thousand.

 

02 Watchers
On the dikes at Valmont. Photo courtesy of © The Boulder Daily Camera.

 

But there’s another reason, and this one is the biggie. We changed the start time so as to accommodate all the folks who are not plugged into the quaint birding tradition of rising at (or often well before) the crack of dawn. Now, speaking for myself, I consider it the most “normal” thing in the world to rise well before sunup. But the rest of the world doesn’t see it that way. Most other folks—especially folks under the age of 40—would rather sleep in till 9:00 a.m. on their day off, then catch a leisurely breakfast, then surf the web or do some chores, and then finally be ready for an outdoor activity around noon.

Our goal was to reach out to all those folks. Our goal was to make the outing work for them. Starting at noon was the biggie, but there was more to it than that. For example, we’ve made the outing accessible to folks with limited mobility: If you’re a dad pushing a baby jogger or a senior on a motorized scooter or just not as fast as you used to be, this outing is for you. You can easily get around on the concrete dikes at Valmont. We’ve made it quite clear that we welcome everybody: teens, parents with young children, beginners, curiosity seekers, anyone. And we carry through with that. I myself had to bite my tongue when a first-cycle Thayer’s Gull flew by during the outing. That’s because, honestly, most folks would much rather be shown a drake Hooded Merganser through a top-of-the-line spotting scope. I let the gull go. Instead, I showed a young birder the Hoodie. Note to self: “Good call, Ted. You did the right thing.” Finally, we’ve been reaching out via the “new media” venues that so many “normal” people are plugged into: We promoted the heck out of this outing with Twitter, Facebook, and so forth.

End of story?

Not quite. Y’know, I’ve picked up a few rumblings of discontent about how we’re now handling this outing. In a nutshell, I’m hearing the birder’s equivalent of Yogi Berra’s famous lament: “Nobody goes there anymore, it’s too crowded.” If you want to see proof that that outlook is alive and “well,” look no further than the pages of Birding magazine. In the May 2010 issue, several folks have letters complaining about all the people who go birding at Magee Marsh in Ohio. “If gregarious, shoulder-to-shoulder birding is your lot, then you will enjoy a May weekend on the Magee boardwalk,” writes Tom Kemp. “To me,” he continues, “it’s rather unpleasant.”

 

03 Magee“Shoulder-to-shoulder birding” at Magee Marsh. Photo by © Kenn Kaufman.

 

In a reply to those letters, Kenn Kaufman hits the nail on the head. I can’t put it any better, so I’ll just wrap up with Kenn’s exact words:

“[T]here are places like Magee where you can bring in a lot of birders without damaging the habitat or disturbing the birds, and […] these places can be used to recruit and inspire more birders. The boardwalk at Magee is practically my backyard, and it would be cool to have it as my own private birding reserve, but I’ll gladly give up my solitude in return for all the benefits of getting the public excited about migrating songbirds. More birders should equal more support for bird conservation, and we can’t possibly have too many.”

Oh, and don’t forget to check out Marcel Such’s blog.

 

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Ted Floyd

Ted Floyd

Editor, Birding magazine at American Birding Association
Ted Floyd is the Editor of Birding magazine, and he is broadly involved in other programs and initiatives of the ABA. He is the author of more than 100 magazine and journal articles, and has written four recent books, including an ABA title, the ABA Guide to Birds of Colorado. Floyd is a frequent speaker at birding festivals and state ornithological society meetings, and he has served on the boards of several nonprofit organizations. Mainly, he listens to birds at night.
Ted Floyd

Latest posts by Ted Floyd (see all)

  • Andrew Haffenden

    Later start birding is not just for winter. Unless you’re actively wanting to listen to a dawn chorus, then a later start is just as productive as an early one. I couldn’t say how many times I’ve been on an outing, with the obligatory 7am start, with a 5.50 or 6 or 6.30am sunrise and spent the first hour or so poking around for anything we could find. Cold birds, cold insects, not much going on. By the time the sun starts hitting the trees, the insects start moving, birding also heats up. I don’t believe, in the US, I’ve ever been on an early start outing where we haven’t seen after 8.30am everything we saw before, often more as feeding flocks have amalgamated and made birding easier. After about 11am, it’s time to move on to the water and mudflats to look for waders, waterbirds and gulls that don’t care about the time. But this is not the only myth. We all have the car park (or lodge) experience, when after a couple of hours birding the best birds were seen by some accompanying friend who sat in the carpark and read instead of going out on the trails. In many circumstances walking miles along trails, or even just doing circuits, is not necessary. In areas of mono-habitat, out of the peak breeding season when only breeders remain on their territories, selecting a prime area – nice cover, bit of sunshine focusing down onto one edge, preferably a little bit of water nearby, then a comfortable chair, thermos of coffee, water and patience will likely produce all the species seen by those intrepid walkers, sometimes more and better views, as 5 or 10 people sitting quietly and unobtrusively doesn’t scare birds off as does the same group tramping along a trail, and the birds often approach more closely, spend more time, and show more behaviors. So here’s the heresy: get there late, get comfortable, enjoy great birding.

  • Some of the best birding experiences I’ve ever had have been in the hour or so before sunset.

    Great post. Great event!

  • As co-founder of the Crack O’ Noon Birding Club and someone who does a lot of outreach to entry-level and not-yet birders, I heartily endorse this. We do our share of oh-dark-thirty field trip departures, especially in spring and summer, but SABO’s two most popular activities are midday gatherings to watch Sandhill Cranes and late afternoon hummingbird banding sessions.

    As Andrew points out, birds don’t always get up early or go into hiding by noon. On spring walks in the Huachuca Mountains, we often find as much or more activity on the way back down the trail as we did on the way up.

  • Suzi plooster

    Fun article. It’s great to have this wonderful place to bird watch. Wish i could have been there. Thanks….
    Suzi

  • I for one applaud the change in strategy to a later start for the same reason Ken Kaufman states. He gets it. I think people can get into birding different ways and accommodating as many people as possible is the right approach for an event like this. I’ll liken it to getting into the water at a local swimming hole, some people just jump right in without testing the water, while others have to sort of ease into it nice and slow. Ultimately, they all just like to be in the water and enjoy it. As for Tom Kemp…bah! He doesn’t get it. But I also sympathize with where he is coming from. I like to bird alone or with a partner most of the time, but once in a while it’s fun to be with a big group and let my love and excitement wear off on others.

  • JoAnn Hackos

    Where should we tell people to gather? I’m announcing the event to the Evergreen Audubon group. They’ll want to know where to park.

  • Ted Floyd

    JoAnn is referring to Gullapalooza 2012. Come on out this year, and help us exceed 250 participants! It’s one of the biggest local birding trips in the USA. Indeed, are there any other local birding trips that are known to have drawn more than 200 participants? Of course, certain birding events (e.g., some CBCs, some festivals) draw more birders, but I’m talking about 200+ birders all on the exact same field trip of a local birding club.

    Gullapalooza will begin at 12:00 p.m. (noon) on Saturday, February 4th. Parking–on a first-come, first-served basis–will be at the main entrance to the Xcel Energy plant on the west side of the Valmont Reservoir complex, that is to say, off 63rd Street in Boulder. Do think about public transportation, car pooling, biking, or just parking a few blocks away and then walking. If you arrive at, say, 11:57, you will not find parking.

    Can’t wait to see all of you on February 4th!

    Jan. 2nd-3rd, Valmont Rez had 3 Lesser Black-backed Gulls, 4 Thayer’s Gulls, and a Trumpeter Swan. If we get a prolonged cold spell in mid- to late January, Gullapalooza 2012 should be memorable indeed.

  • Hi, everybody.

    Gullapalooza-2013 was a “perfect storm” of ridiculously nice weather and a bit of proactive promotion–both old media (thanks to the Boulder, Colo., Daily Camera for coverage) and new media (Facebook, Twitter, etc.). The result: We clicked in three hundred fifteen (315!) participants at start-time. And Gullapalooza host Dave Madonna (with Xcel Energy) tells me that late arrivals were still straggling in for quite some time thereafter.

    There were many highlights from Gullapalooza-2013, held February 2nd, but here’s one that stands out. At one point, one of our co-leaders, Amar Ayyash, got our group on an adult Lesser Black-backed Gull. It was a lifer, and a long-sought one at that, for one of our brilliant young birders, 9-year-old Topiltzin Martinez. (Re: “long-sought.” You know. He’s been seeking it for weeks. That’s an eternity for a 9-year-old birder.)

    Anyhow, Amar got Topi on the bird, and Topi was jumping up and down, practically screaming, “This bird is so BEAUTIFUL! ABA CODE 3!!” The grown-ups weren’t sufficiently impressed, apparently, and Topi demanded that we all proclaim the beauty of this gull.

    What can I say?–We agree with you, Topi. It was great being out there with you and hundreds of others.

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