Open Mic: Recourses for a Displaced Birder
by Nate Swick
At the Mic: Zachary Loman
Zachary Loman is a PhD student in the Agricultural Ecology lab at Mississippi State University, Department of Wildlife, Fisheries & Aquaculture. His work has focused on conserving songbirds in disturbed and working landscapes, including working with Golden-cheeked Warblers for three years in Texas. Currently he is researching synergies between biofuel feedstock production and wildlife conservation in the south's plantation forests. When not working on research, Zac chases Mississippi state and county birds with Kenny Bostick-like aplomb.
I’ve very much enjoyed ABA blogger and Texas megabirder Lynn Barber’s recent sharing about transplanting herself from bird-rich Texas to the considerably less birded state of South Dakota. Reading her posts, I’ve found myself empathizing with her quite a bit as I recently faced a very similar dilemma. Two years ago I finished my Master’s degree in Biology at Humboldt State University in Northwest California, and about a year and a half ago I began a PhD program in Wildlife and Fisheries at Mississippi State University in Starkville, Mississippi.
Conventional wisdom suggests leaving Humboldt County, California, for the flatwoods of rural Eastern Mississippi is not the way to enter the pantheon of birding glory. The former locale has records that would make any ABA birder salivate, while the latter is perhaps the most under-birded region in the eastern US. Despite being a committed birder living in Humboldt on and off for three years, I made this highly improbable move.
Mississippi doesn’t hold a candle compared to Humboldt as far as birding is concerned. Humboldt’s county list is peppered with vagrants of the highest order: Lesser Frigatebird, Common Greenshank, Bar-tailed Godwit, Little and Red-necked Stints, Brown Shrike, Rustic Bunting, Oriental Greenfinch... The list goes on and on. Birds so lofty that I’m starting to get light-headed. The kinds of vagrants that keep California birders staring at willow thickets for decades in hopes of birding immortality.
To be fair, Mississippi has some nice regional specialties: Bachman’s Sparrow, Red-cockaded Woodpecker, Swainson’s Warbler and Swallow-tailed Kite all come to mind, and it is situated along a major flyway. There are some humblingly good birders in this state too, even if they are fewer and father between. Let’s also remember that Starkville, Mississippi, my newly adopted hometown, has North America’s one and only record of Citrine Wagtail. But let’s be honest, the odds of another Wagtail showing up here are no better than anywhere else (and probably considerably worse than plenty of other places in America), and ticking these handful of regional specialties is manageable on a short Spring vacation to Florida or Texas, both of which would likely net a lot of other juicy ABA checks that are not found in this neck of the woods.
So what’s an ex-California birder, reborn as a Mississippi birder, to do? Roll over and die, cry to mama, quit birding? I don’t think so. Birders aren’t the type to give up. Birders freeze their rears off in the dead of winter, exposed to the wind on elevated platforms over saltmarshes as the sun sets, in the off-chance of picking up a Short-eared Owl when their day list is one species shy of a nice round number. Seasick birders on pelagic trips who appear to quite possibly be dead, Lazarus themselves up and lurch to the gunwales because a new species has been spotted flying in from the horizon. Birders drive for days to chase vagrants. They abandon common sense, jobs, financial responsibility, safety, logic and whatever else it takes to pursue feathered novelty. Lynn Barber’s approach has been to fall back on her wheelhouse and do another big year, but what about the rest of us birders without the means or personality to handle that kind of birding? What can we do when we find ourselves swept away to some birding non-mecca, a migrant trap-free environment?
Well, for me, I’m focusing on five things, all of which have helped me embrace the idea that having a bigger life list doesn’t necessarily mean being a better person, or even a better birder.
1) Filling knowledge gaps
It’s impossible to be a birder and not learn about ecology, behavior and identification. Although having to rely on your own know-how to go out and find rarities changes things up a bit. In an underbirded place like Mississippi you lack some luxuries available in Humboldt or Cape May to help you find and ID birds. You don't have crutches like birding hotlines, bird atlases, or a phalanx of top-tier birders scouring the local patches. If you want to see good birds, you have to be self-reliant, and that means being smart and knowing your stuff.
I hate to think that the training wheels are just now coming off, especially nearly a decade into this obsession with a life list encompassing a meaningful chunk of the birds in this hemisphere to boot. More and more though, I’m realizing how much I’d relied on the hard work and accumulated knowledge of others. It’s one thing to have someone tell you, “here’s a haystack, find the needle, and, oh by the way it’s in the lower left corner and its shaped like a Wood Sandpiper,” and something else entirely to have to find your own haystack, figure out if it’s worth looking in, then try to determine if your needle might just be a funny looking Solitary Sandpiper after all. When you do find a rarity you better be sure of what you’re seeing. There won’t be a swarm of birders descending in minutes with digiscopes or super telephoto lenses to document and confirm or deny the veracity of the ID. There’s not much glory to revel in, or gloating to be had, that you picked out a 1st cycle Lesser Black-backed Gull at the local wastewater treatment plant, when few people, if any, are coming to look.
The flip side is that in places that are birded extensively there is a very complete ornithological record, and it’s harder to feel like you’re contributing to any sort of distributional or seasonal understanding of local bird life, a popular justification that we use for playing the listing game (although often it seems to be swirled in with a healthy dose of ego). Contributing checklists to eBird in counties with few or no checklists helps fill in the gaps, and like it or not, you now become the primary source of widely available information about distribution in that area. That definitely underscores the importance of knowing your stuff and being careful to get those more subtle IDs correct, and it makes your sightings more valuable.
2) Learning regionally common species and ecotypes
Learning birds is not necessarily about picking up lifers. Anyone who has worked with birds as a field technician knows that you learn a great deal in a field research context that is essentially impossible to accrue through birding casually. Going out to the same places everyday at sunrise for months on end, tracking down the same territorial individuals, monitoring the progression of nesting phenology, banding adults and chicks, mapping territories, measuring habitat vegetation structure and floristic composition, conducting behavioral observations, performing field experiments, studying plumage and sonograms are all part of the field research agenda. These activities provide the data that are used to fill our bird books with the information we use all the time.
The process of accruing this information first hand, however, creates a connection with a particular species or habitat type that is hard to otherwise come by. Careful reading of Birds of North America accounts or old issues of The Auk could probably give you a lot of the same information, but having that embedded in your brain through personal experience is without parallel.
For example, one of the most thrilling opportunities for me has been to get an in-depth look at one of the lesser encountered genera of sparrows: Ammodramus, A surprising number of my colleagues are working on research projects that involve conservation of habitats that seem to be packed with these secretive yellow sparrows. In the past year I’ve had the privilege to volunteer on four of these projects and accrue an incredible understanding of Grasshopper, Nelson’s, Seaside, Le Conte’s and Henslow’s Sparrows. These experiences combine to create a depth of knowledge about this genus that I wouldn’t trade for anything, and that has absolutely nothing to do with ticking off lifers.
3) Connecting with birds
After a year and a half of birding in the deep south I’ve learned that leaving a hot-spot doesn’t fundamentally change the birding experience. I still go out when I can, typically looking for seasonal or regional rarities, and still get the same tangible and intangible benefits from being in nature and enjoying the search. Arguably, I’ve had some measured success, not megas, but nothing to sneeze at either: Black-headed Gull, Northern Saw-whet Owl, Scissor-tailed Flycatcher, Mourning Warbler, Alder Flycatcher. I still twitch others’ rarities: Tennessee’s Hooded Crane, for instance, and coastal Mississippi’s long-staying Painted Redstart being a couple of the better birds I’ve managed to see.
More of the enjoyment I’ve been getting from birds lately has had less to do with a big or complete list for the day, county or state, but has been in the chance encounters or from observing interesting behaviors. Recently, I had a sleeping Yellow-rumped Warbler startle awake and fly into my hair. The next day I watched a pair of Mottled Ducks copulating. Afterwards he did a bizarre sort of victory lap where he swam around with his bill open looking like Jaws trying to eat Roy Scheider off the deck of the Orca. Both experiences were really phenomenal, and both had nothing to do with rare birds, twitching, or keeping a list.
4) Sharing the joy of birding
Birding sells itself. The experience of seeing that spectacular spark bird that defied expectations has sent more fledging birders into lifelong obsession than anything anyone could say. I get a tremendous amount of pleasure trying to help others get a sense of that joy that birding has given me over the years. I think it’s a really valuable experience to be able to connect with others through sharing our passions. This sounds a little sappy I’m aware, but I think you can really make the world a little better place when you give people the opportunity to come together and share a lens through which you view the world (pun intended!). If that coming together brings more people into the world of birding, so much the better. Watching someone light up when you help them find a nemesis bird, or helping them to appreciate a subtly beautiful bird like a Le Conte’s Sparrow is a great feeling. What could be better than knowing you’ve helped some appreciate the beauty of nature? That’s pretty awesome.
It’s not that I couldn’t spread the birding gospel in Humboldt, but here in Mississippi there are fewer emissaries for birding, and the pastime is both less widespread and a lot less understood. To me, this means there are more opportunities to introduce people to and encourage them along in a really rewarding endeavor they might not have thought about otherwise. I teach an ornithology lab here at the university, and whether or not I’ve passed on the joy of birding to my students is debatable, but teaching has been a great way to keep my knowledge fresh, and pointed questions from students are fantastic for finding and plugging gaps in understanding. An added bonus is that for an hour and a half each week I get a captive audience whom I’m actually expected to talk at about birds. This greatly alleviates the urge to bombard my non-birder friends and family with bird chatter, something I’m sure is appreciated.
5) Keeping new kinds of lists
Being in a new state of course means starting a new state list. County listing, year listing, and adding ABA ticks are all things you can do essentially anywhere, and regardless of whether or not you’re finding new lifers. Much of the drum beating that the eBird team has been doing lately to encourage birders to get out and fill in occurrence data in the blank spots on the map (including a visit to our small local Audubon Chapter from eBird and birding wunderkind Marshall Iliff), has encouraged me to flip the typical formula around: go out and look for the same birds in new places, instead of looking for new birds in the same old places.
Even more so than this, I’ve started keeping different kinds of lists. Let me qualify what I’m about to say: the citizen-science aspect of birding, learning distribution and species status information, getting people interested in conservation and preservation through birding, all are undoubtedly important, BUT the listing part of birding is essentially a game. Who is at the top of the eBird top 100 for a county or state, or who saw the most species in a single day or year, really has little or nothing to do with science or conservation. However, the listing part of the game, with its codified rules and scoring system, is something that many (or most) of us find very satisfying. We really like birds and we really like making lists.
Just because the ABA has a list of guidelines for what’s a countable bird when we play “birding,” doesn’t mean you can’t play other games with lists of birds. A lot of people out there are making all kinds of other lists. Many California birders keep NIB (no introduced bird) lists. Others tick both established and non-established invasives. Bird banders keep lists of every species they’ve held in their hands. World birders tick families. Why not tick identifiable subspecies, or sexual or age specific plumage aspects too? A little creativity goes a long way. The idea is just to have fun with it, lighten up a little and not get to caught up with worrying that other birders have a bigger list than you. There are thousands of birders in the world, someone will always have a bigger number than you.
I’ve started keeping a few other lists. One of my favorites is: birds I’ve identified while in bed. It’s a tough list to add new species to, but I like to camp a lot, and that certainly helps. I tend to sleep in more than I should too, which also helps. As you’d imagine, a sizeable chunk of the list is owls and nightjars. I’m still debating whether Parauque should count because I was sleeping in my car at the time.
So as 2012 rolls on and I face the very real possibility of an entire calendar year without a lifer, I’m not worried. True, it’s unlikely that I’ll see any Asian vagrants or an Ivory Gull in Mississippi this year, but who knows what other interesting encounters I’ll have. After all, birding is about life as much as it is about life lists.