Ten Ways to be a Better Birder
by Ted Floyd
During the past several weeks, I’ve had the opportunity—more than that, the joy and the privilege—of having nearly constant interaction with the birding community. I guess it’s been a “perfect storm” of speaking gigs, field trips, workshops, panels, what have you.
Many of my interactions these past few weeks have been with folks who haven’t yet penetrated the inner sanctum of the elite birding community. That is to say, I’ve spent a lot of time with newspaper writers and television camerawomen, with the odd politician and quite a number of curiosity-seekers. And I’ve spent a great deal of time with folks whom I’ll refer to simply as beginning birders. They’ve caught the bug, and they’re ready for more.
Through it all, I’ve been picking up on two very basic themes. Folks keep asking me the same two questions. First, what got you interested in birds in the first place? Second, how do you take it to the next level?
I’m going to bypass that first question for now.
Which brings us back to the second question. How do you take it to the next level? How does one crank it up a notch? What sustains us, year after year, decade after decade?
Below I offer ten strategies for being a better birder. They’re in reverse order of importance. The stuff up front isn’t as important, in my mind, as the stuff at the end. Could you do me a favor? If you find yourself getting a bit impatient with, or even slightly ticked off by, the stuff up front, could you just scroll down to the bottom, and then work your way back up? Thanks.
And here’s another thought: I consider the following enumeration to be provisional, to be a work in progress. Think of this enumeration as a conversation—as has been the case with me for the past several weeks. Picture yourself talkin’ birds with a journalist or a bus driver, with a random passerby or a longtime birding chum. The interest in birds is already there. The seed has been planted. The spark has been lit. Now what comes next? How do you get better at birding? Here goes:
10. Have good eyes and ears, and a good brain. At its most fundamental level, birding involves seeing and hearing birds, and then processing the visual and aural input to the birder’s brain. Unquestionably, it helps to be blessed with good vision and good hearing. And you need a good brain—alert, responsive, and fast—to do something with the sensory input. So it is with any human endeavor, really: playing the piano, performing surgery, breaking a tackle, you get the picture. It helps to have the goods. If you’ve been endowed with good genes, good for you. If not, eat fish oil (brain), get Lasik surgery (eyes), and stay away from AC/DC reunions (ears).
But there’s a lot more to birding than having good sensory apparatus.
9. Start young. Walter Payton and Jim Brown played football as kids. As a young teenager, C. Everett Koop, aspiring to be a surgeon, taught himself to be ambidextrous. Glenn Gould listened to Bach and Mozart while in his mother’s womb. I think you can see where I’m going with this.
Bird ID expert Will Russell, in response to an interview in the January 2009 issue of Birding, said, “I’m certain that becoming a skilled birder, as with most pursuits, is more difficult if you begin as an adult or even a late teenager.” And this: “I’ve known only one person who began after twenty and still became a first-rate birder.”
(Right: Young birder Hannah M. Floyd records bird sightings. Photo by © Kei Sochi.)
8. Don’t get cocky. I was birding the other day with the superb teen birder Marcel Such, who will soon have a license to operate a motor vehicle. Teen drivers have great eyes and ears, fast reaction times, and superior spatial reasoning ability—and they have a knack for wrapping their parents’ cars around utility poles. It’s the same basic idea with a lot of teen birders, who, despite brilliant sensory and neural apparatus, are eerily capable of mistaking a common Savannah Sparrow for a mega-rarity Baird’s Sparrow.
It’s wonderful, I have to say, that one encounters the exception to the rule, increasingly so, it seems to me, these days. Contrary to expectation, there are a handful of teen birders who are examples to us all of the virtues of modesty and restraint. Go birding with Marcel’s kid brother, and you’ll discover that Joel Such, although possessed of almost superhuman sensory ability, is cautious and responsible about practically every field ID. In the past year, it has been a delight for me to interact with teen birders Benjamin Van Doren, Sarah Toner, Maia Paddock, and others. It’s not just that they’re highly skilled birders; they’re also wise. They’ve figured out that bird ID depends as much on judgment as on seeing and hearing.
7. Stay with it. Yo, teens. None of you—that’s right, not a one of you—knows as much about birds as I do. And nobody of my generation knows as much as Will Russell or Guy McCaskie. The longer you bird, the more you learn. And that’s just the tip of the ice berg. The longer you bird, the better you learn. Yes, teenagers and children are more facile at absorbing information and acquiring skills. But deep thinking—holistic and syntagmatic (hi, Rick!)—requires years of discipline and experience. Now don’t get me wrong: Last time I birded with Will Russell (he was ID’ing flyover Oreothlypis warblers by their flight calls) or Guy McCaskie (who was aging distant shearwaters before I could even see the birds), their senses were as sharp as those of any teenager. But there was more to it than that: Those two had achieved a level of understanding that I never will.
6. Question dogma. There’s a danger in getting old. You begin to subscribe to what my old birding pal Jack Solomon refers to as the “G.O.D. Theorem,” namely that everything was better in the good ole daze. In other words: If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. Don’t mess with things, the G.O.D. theorists tell us: Don’t mess with the ABA the way it used to be, with Birding magazine the way it used to be, with state records committees the way they used to be. Definitely, don’t mess with birders’ checklists the way they used to be! And, to be serious about it for a moment, don’t mess with old power structures, with old biases and prejudices, with old fiats about the way things oughtta be.
I take the view that, all else being equal, progress is good. I wouldn’t want a doctor to practice 19th-century medicine on me. I wouldn’t want to learn linguistics or statistics the way it was taught a century ago. I don’t want a society that longs for the way things used to be. (Racism, anybody?) Same thing with the subculture of birding. Do you have new paradigms for bird ID to share with us? A new approach to species concepts? A different model for bird records committees? A different conception of the birding community? Bring it on. I want to learn more about it. And I want to be involved in the effort to put your ideas into action.
5. Know S&D. I’m shifting gears now. I’m moving from the realm of philosophy and outlook, into the arena now of specific skill-sets. Case in point: knowledge and application of—and appreciation for the importance of—avian S&D, shorthand for “status and distribution.” All the time, I run into birders who know the millimeter-scale differences and shades of gray that distinguish the various sandpipers or flycatchers one from another—yet who don’t know what month or through which states those selfsame sandpipers and flycatchers migrate. That information makes a huge difference in the bird identification process. Orange-crowned or Tennessee? Cassin’s or Plumbeous? Blue-winged or Cinnamon? Tell me the state and month, and I may well be able to tell you which one you’re looking at. Better yet, give me the county and the exact date. That info can be every bit as important as—more so, in many applications, than—the prominence of a trans-ocular line or the exact shade of grayish–yellow or yellowish–gray on the crissum.
Need a few practical tips regarding knowledge of S&D? Subscribe to North American Birds. Join your state ornithological society. And start doing eBird.
(Above: Is it an Orange-crowned Warbler? The first thing to determine is your date and location. Photo by © Brian E. Small.)
4. Learn vocalizations. Of course you know the difference between an adult male Indigo Bunting in breeding plumage vs. a Painted Bunting in the same plumage. And of course you can separate an adult male Lazuli Bunting in breeding plumage from a Varied Bunting in the same plumage. Indeed, a great many birders can readily distinguish among the relatively drab females. But do you know the buntings’ songs?
Okay, male Passerina buntings are easy in breeding plumage, so I can see how a birder might never learn their songs. But what about comparatively harder groups?—vagrant kingbirds and Myiarchus flycatchers in eastern North America, vagrant “spot-breasted thrushes” in the West; pipits, peeps, and so many warblers, practically anywhere; and empids of course.
As we all know, such birds are more readily ID’d by voice than by sight. Yet the first instinct of a great many of us is to strain for a problematic view of the inner webs of the rectrices, or to obtain a subjective read on primary extension—even while the bird is vocalizing, loud and clear, for all to hear. Why? Why do we that? Why do we persistently ignore the overwhelmingly important aural cues that we get from so many birds in the field? In my opinion, it’s because of a psychological block, even a deeply entrenched cultural bias. Oh. I’ve already written about that, here.
3. Understand behavior. The Gray Flycatcher, in addition to being a very cool bird, is easy to identify. Now, before we go any further, think about how odd that is. For starters, the Gray Flycatcher is one of those notorious little buggers in the genus Empidonax. And it’s gray, for cryin’ out loud. Some of the empids actually show a fair bit of color and pattern—as is with the case with a decent number of Hammond’s, “Western,” and Yellow-bellied flycatchers. But many Gray Flycatchers are just plain gray. So how do you ID the Gray Flycatcher?
In most instances in my experience, the initial ID is based entirely on the bird’s behavior: I see an empid in shrubby habitat; the bird is active, “nervous” if you will; it flushes, staying pretty low to the ground; it swerves suddenly, snatching in mid-air an insect a few inches above the ground. Already, I have a pretty good feel for what the bird is. Then the bird alights. Immediately, it engages in “tail dipping”—a downward flick of the tail, then a flick back up to the resting position. (Click here to see what I’m talking about.) The bird is a Gray Flycatcher, unambiguously so. Most of the time, the whole process I’ve described is done entirely with the naked eye.
Which brings me to my next point.
2. Go naked! I got the idea from Ted Eubanks. Well, okay, from Ted Eubanks, and also from my mother. Long ago, when I was first really getting into birding, my mother wouldn’t buy me binoculars. You might think it’s because she was cheap; or because she thought I’d break them. But she had a different reason—one which I didn’t really believe at the time, but which, thirty-plus years later, I’ve come to accept as gospel truth, as a sort of fundamental theorem of birding. It’s a truth, honestly, that I think a great many of us never discover. Here goes: I think the use of binoculars, all things considered, hinders birding.
Unquestionably, binoculars have their place and purpose. I think of binoculars in the same manner that I think of cars. For sure, cars help us with birding. They get us places. They enable us to cover a lot of ground. In the dead of winter, you’ll see a lot more Red-tailed Hawks per hour from a moving car than just by walking or standing around. But imagine if you always stayed in your car while birding. Most of the time, I would say, it’s good to get out of the car. And most of the time—indeed, almost all of the time, I would say—it’s good to leave your binoculars behind.
A few weeks ago, I enjoyed a “bare-naked birding” outing with folks on an Iowa Ornithologists’ Union field trip in Winneshiek County, northeastern Iowa. Clothing optional. Binoculars prohibited. Soon enough, we came upon a delightful wave of warblers. First up was a Black-and-White Warbler, instantly identified by its tree-creeping ways. Wait. Wait a sec! Half the group had been completely unaware that Black-and-whites are tree-creepers. You see, you don’t necessarily notice that stuff when you’re birding with binoculars. The bird came in closer and closer. We could easily see that it had an entirely white throat and a pale “ear patch” (or auriculars). So that made it a female and/or an immature. I’ll be honest with you: If you had asked me, not all that long ago, how to age and sex Black-and-white Warblers, I couldn’t have told you. With binoculars in hand—or, rather, jammed into my eye sockets—I would have told you that the bird has black and white stripes, and that’s all you need to know to slap a name on the bird. What can I say? I’m glad I read Ted Eubanks’ article. I’m glad I’ve rediscovered the wisdom of my mother.
Back to the warblers in that wave: the Chestnut-sided Warbler with its cocked tail; the Magnolia Warbler with its wheezy flight call; the Common Yellowthroat skulking unseen at the water’s edge; the Northern Waterthrush with its jerky tail motions; the Tennessee Warbler that wandered nearly to within arm’s reach; the trio of American Redstarts spreading their wings so as to flush insects; the Nashville Warbler flitting nervously at the edge of a shrub; and the Blackpoll Warbler—probably a first-cycle female, we determined—methodically working the upper surfaces of the low-hanging leaves of a tall basswood.
I’m serious about this. If we’d been birding with binoculars, I think we’d have missed a few of those warblers. We’d have been chattering and pointing and making a general ruckus. And I’m certain of the following: If we’d been birding with binoculars, we wouldn’t have learned nearly as much.
(Above: Bare-naked birders study warblers in Iowa. Photo by © Diane Porter.)
1. Have fun. Birding doesn’t promise a cure for cancer. Birding doesn’t provide a clear path to world peace. We go birding for fun. Oh, sure, birding leads many of us toward greater environmental sensitivity, toward “greener” lifestyles. For some of us—increasingly, and felicitously, these days, for many of us—birding can lead even toward livelihood, as teachers, researchers, and so forth. But, honestly, we go birding mainly for the fun of it, don’t we? What sustains us is that birding is good clean fun. 'nuff said; end of story, right?
I’d love to see a cure for cancer. I’d be thrilled by the prospect of world peace. But there’s more to human happiness, in my reckoning, than ridding the planet of disease and warfare and other bad things. We seek fullness in this life, right here and now, even in the midst of strife and suffering. John Riutta, writing in the May 2010 Birding, tells the story in “Birding for Life,” of how birds buoyed him through cancer and depression. Thomas Dove, in his “Birding in Iraq” in the November/December 2008 Birding, recalls how bird photography kept him going during the most violent phase of the war in Iraq. David Rice, in a disarming and ultimately heartbreaking piece about the onset of dementia in an old friend, affirms for us all the importance of sharing our birding experiences with one another. (Look for David’s piece in Birding next year.)
Birding is fun. Birding sustains us. Birding keeps us going. Birding gives us great joy in this life. And that’s the point. That’s the whole point.