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Birding is Easy and Hard

About a year ago, my ABA colleague Greg Neise wrote in this space that birding is hard. I get it. Flight calls and preformative molts, empids and Thayer’s Gulls—those things are hard. Just a few weeks ago, though, Greg seemingly had a change of heart: He wrote here that birding is easy. Yes, I can see that too. Cardinals and chickadees at the feeder, ducks at a duck pond, Painted Buntings—those things are easy.

The takeaway, surely, is that birding is what you make of it. Hard or easy, it’s your choice. As in: Coke or Pepsi, Coors or Budweiser, tea or coffee—it’s your choice. Um, can I have both? Okay, Coke and Pepsi, Coors and Budweiser, etc. But you can’t really have hard and easy, can you? They’re mutually exclusive, aren’t they?

The other day, I had occasion to reflect on how birding can, in fact, be hard and easy, at the exact same time. It was a Saturday morning, overcast and mild, and I had a couple hours to kill. So I went to the park at the end of the street.

 

The first birds I encountered were a flock of seagulls. That’s right, seagulls. It’s a great word, descriptive and evocative. I proudly say seagull. Not all seagulls live by the sea, I well realize, but many of them do. Not all meadowlarks live in meadows, by the way, and not all sandpipers live on the sand. I smile when I see a flock of sandpipers twisting and turning above a salt marsh, when I drive past a meadowlark on a fence post, when I hear gulls squealing by the seashore. Birding is easy.

This particular seagull is a definitive alternate Thayer’s Gull.

This particular seagull is a definitive alternate Thayer’s Gull.

One of the gulls in the flock was a Thayer’s Gull—in definitive alternate plumage, to get technical about it. The Thayer’s Gull, Larus thayeri, is perhaps the emblem of hard birding in the ABA Area. I got a few photos, including one of the bird, well, defecating. If I had wanted to, I suppose I could have gotten a DNA sample. Birding is hard.

After a while, the birds put up, a swirling mass of tertials and rectrices, orbital rings and gonydeal angles, “crescents” and “mirrors”—birding is hard. At the same time, at the very same instant, the flock was mesmerizing to behold, like a snow globe, as another colleague, Bill Schmoker, has put it—birding is easy. In the same breath, in the same heartbeat, I marveled at seagulls and pondered a Thayer’s Gull—birding is easy and hard.

 

Everybody knows a seagull. Everybody likewise knows a dove. There are several kinds of doves in my neighborhood, with the most common sort being collared doves. The name makes sense: The birds have a ring around the collar. If you see a dove with a ring around the collar, it’s a collared dove. Birding is easy.

This dove is an African Collared-Dove, whose status along the I-25 urban corridor in Wyoming and Colorado is not well understood.

This dove is an African Collared-Dove, whose status along the I-25 urban corridor in Wyoming and Colorado is not well understood.

While at the park that Saturday morning, I photographed a dove that clearly qualified as a collared dove. Ah, but which species of collared dove? Was it a Eurasian Collared-Dove, Streptopelia decaocto? It sure looks that way, but it’s not. Check out the outer web of the outer rectrix, entirely white. This bird is actually an African Collared-Dove, S. roseogrisea, present in small numbers along a 200-mile stretch of the I-25 urban corridor from Cheyenne, Wyoming, to Pueblo, Colorado. Birding is hard.

Wild-type African Collared-Doves are difficult to pick out—birding is hard. They look just like Eurasian Collared-Doves, and I wonder how many of them I miss. But they sound quite different—birding is easy. I had a small digital recorder with me, and got diagnostic audio (listen to the recording, below). It’s funny: The two species’ songs (and flight calls, too, for that matter) are distinctive, yet decaocto vs. roseogrisea is a cutting-edge ID challenge for birders in Colorado and Wyoming—birding is easy and hard.

All my life, I’ve known about doves and seagulls. I’ve also known about sparrows. Especially sparrows. Gulls live by the sea, I would have told you long ago, and doves live in medieval depictions of the Holy Ghost. But sparrows, I’ve always known, live just beyond the front door. Simply step outside, and you’ll see sparrows, those little brown jobs in the driveway. Birding is easy.

05 Calvin & HobbesSparrows, like gulls, delight and vex the birding community. We birders very soon discover that there’s no such thing as an “ordinary” sparrow. Some present fiendishly hard ID conundrums: Cassin’s vs. Botteri’s, Nelson’s vs. Saltmarsh, and so forth. Others aren’t all that hard to ID, but nevertheless challenge us to contemplate species limits, local adaptation, and what have you. “All” Margaret Morse Nice (1883–1974) ever did was observe the Song Sparrows in her back yard—as a result of which she achieved some of the greatest ecological insights of the twentieth century. Birding is hard.

One of the Song Sparrows in the park was singing its head off. The songs of the Song Sparrow are notoriously variable, but this particular individual was singing the “classic” song: three or four vigorous notes, then a trill, then two or three weaker notes. I’ve known this song from my earliest days as a birder—birding is easy. I audio-recorded the bird, made a few spectrograms when I got home, and noticed something curious: Each bout of singing was essentially identical (see spectrograms, below), contrary to expectation. The experts are sorting it all out online—birding is hard. It’s a paradox: a song I’ve known forever, and something I never knew about it—birding is easy and hard.

One of life’s simple pleasures is listening to the outpourings of a Song Sparrow; and one of the frontiers of modern birding is spectrographic analysis of the musical offerings of Song Sparrows and other species.

 

Late that Saturday afternoon, I had an errand to run. Literally, run. And the run back home took me through the park and past a few robins. What could be easier than a robin, that great harbinger of spring, Robin Redbreast himself? I tarried with one of the robins and got a few photos. You can see in the photo that the bird has broad primary tips and lacks molt limits, making it an “ASY” (After Second Year) bird. The alula is notably dark—what’s up with that?

Robin Redbreast, lacking molt limits, is an ASY; note the broad primary tips and dark alula.

Robin Redbreast, lacking molt limits, is an ASY; note the broad primary tips and dark alula.

I adore robins. I love their exuberant caroling. I’m on board with those who profess that the American Robin is The Greatest Bird. And even though I know they’re not really harbingers of spring (they’re here all winter), nothing else says “Spring!” quite like a robin. At the same time, I am drawn to robins for the challenge of trying to age them, figure out their subspecies, and sort out their various calls. A robin is as easy as Robin Redbreast, as hard as an ASY with an aberrant alula.

I got back home and entered an eBird checklist, one day’s chronicle of the experience of birding: a simple walk in the park, and pleasant encounters with familiar birds; the satisfaction of working out hard IDs, and the greater satisfaction of unanswered questions; seagulls and sparrows, Thayer’s and spectrograms; science and recreation; and, more than anything else, easy and hard.

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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

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