American Birding Podcast




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.