American Birding Podcast



It’s OK to Talk to Strangers – at Least if They Have Binoculars

dog and horse old highway 85 belle fourche sd july 27 2015 dpf-5163

Strangers who became friends, north of Belle Fourche, SD, July 2015

I was desperate to find another birder, but generally speaking there are few to be found in the Black Hills. Yes, I had eBird, BirdsEye, printed resources, maps, but there is no intelligence like recent, local intelligence. It was late July, and I was scouting for a South Dakota tour planned for summer 2017, and would have loved to know how the locals worked the area, and where which birds were best found.

Finally, at the Iron Creek trailhead I met a couple with binoculars. They also had two dogs, one an athletic, leggy Brittany. I leaped out of my rental and walked over to introduce myself. We made small talk, I said I was from out of town, they gave me a couple tips, but the Brittany wanted to run, so off ahead of me they went.

After finding an American Dipper in the creek and a recently fledged juvenile “White-winged” Junco (the Black Hills race), I encountered the couple on their way out, the Brittany was tired, and we conversed some more. I asked simply, “Where else should I go?” This is a fine question when encountering local birders in a far away place; another tactic is to keep a list of your target birds on your phone or in your pocket, so you can drill down to some specifics.

These fine people put me onto a little known dirt road running north from Belle Fourche, where the very next morning I found birding conditions akin to a sparrow fallout in Cape May – except the birds were Lark Buntings, Vesper Sparrows, Chestnut-collared Longspurs, Lark Sparrows, and more.

bunting, lark juvenile old highway 85 belle fourche sd july 27 2015 dpf-5229

Recently fledged juvenile Lark Bunting north of Belle Fourche, SD, July 2015. Parents of many of the grassland birds here seemed to have brought their fledged young to the gravel road to feed them – and the Prairie Falcons had picked up on that, by the way.

I invited the couple to Cape May, and hope they accept so I can begin to repay the debt I owe them for an incredible morning of birding.

grouse, sharp-tailed harding road belle fourche sd july 27 2015 dpf-5387

Sharp-tailed Grouse are not the easiest birds to find in late July, unless recent local intelligence helps you know where to look. North of Belle Fourche, SD, July 2015.

I’m lucky enough to live in Cape May, NJ, where there are lots of local birders, and lots of birders who are not local but come here regularly anyway. When we meet up, we always chit-chat, sharing news of friends and birds. We all know each other, so when a new face wearing binoculars comes up the trail, most of us make eye contact, smile, and say hello.

It is absolutely amazing to me how often such action gets little or no response, and no conversation ensues. We birders know each other as a sharing, caring lot, and a birder in a new place has so much chance to profit from local knowledge, as I did in South Dakota. Trust me, if in Cape May you want to to talk to Mark Garland, Michael O’Brien, Louise Zemaitis, Richard Crossley, Kathy and Roger Horn, Warren Cairo, Karl Lukens, and many other folks, maybe even me – and we will share what we know freely.

shrike, loggerhead old highway 85 belle fourche sd july 27 2015 dpf-5096

Loggerhead Shrike with prey, Belle Fourche, SD, July 2015.

So talk to strange birders when you travel, or at home – we are all a little strange after all, and perhaps the next stranger you meet will be your next birding buddy.