Saturday, May 18, 2013

It's Either A Dunflap Or A Whimbitcher


It's May again, and regular readers know what that means around here. It means the kitchen is crawling with Windex-scented ants, the chickadees are parked in the birdhouse waiting to see which one of them an egg will drop out of, and I've just come back from my Birdathon trip with the team "The Murre, The Merrier." This is my second year with the group, which qualifies it as a tradition. In a Birdathon, an individual or team tries to spot as many different species of birds as it can in a given period, even though many of them already come spotted.  For this effort, good people, friends, beloved blog readers, and resigned, annually-hit-up family members part with cash for the Audubon Society and its conservation work. Thank you!

Of course, I suck at this. My bird-identification skills are not good enough to nail down a seat in a respectable birding van, so I bake cookies. Everyone else is better than I am, and some are certifiably freakish. Watching them nail down bird IDs is like watching the Rain Man recite the phone book. We were going for 100 species. The team record is 108.

A note: the rule is, it only counts if two people identify it. And hearing its song counts. Real birders are very good at that because they know the language. For me it's like going to a bazaar in a foreign land, with people crammed in elbows to armpits and all hollering in a whole different alphabet. I can't make out a single word. The birder can stand in the center of the plaza with her eyes shut and pick out the one fellow who's hawking ground yak balls, and tell you which stripey tent he's in, too.

If you see a "life bird," that is, a bird you haven't seen before, you are expected to execute a "life bird dance," hopping from one foot to the other with arms flapping. If you're rhythmically challenged, a "life bird wiggle" will do. If you're the most inexperienced birder in the group, you can be doing a lot of wiggling. If you're forgetful on top of it, you can get three life bird dances out of one bird. It's downright aerobic. I was thrilled with my first life bird of the day because I'm not likely to forget it: the lazuli bunting. Not so any of a number of speckled mud-pokers on the coast. For me, discerning whether it is Greater or Lesser, Semi-Palmated or Full-Bore Palmated, or Long-Billed or Short-Billed is hit or miss, more or less. I couldn't tell them apart if they were standing in a police lineup with the measurement dealie behind them. "Is that a life bird for you?" my teammate will ask. Sure. It will be next year, too. It just doesn't take. Hell, I've looked up the female red-winged blackbird in the wrong section of the field guide at least fifty times now. No offense, but I'm not going to remember you if I meet you, either.

Don't think of this as a walk in the park. It's cutthroat. There are other teams out there. We've got people who say things like we'll pick up the tits in the parking lot and score the rail on the way to the coast to knock off the peeps and the rhinoceros auklet, and then we have people like me, who just like to hear that kind of talk.

We always do our best, but this year there was the added incentive of a challenge from Patty's team, The Paddywagon. (The Red-Breasted Wine Suckers were not considered a serious threat.) The mysterious Patty texted us throughout the day with updates. She was decent enough to give up the location of the coveted Red Knot and we reciprocated with her missing Kingfisher. We were holding our own, were even a little ahead, and then roared to a finish with a record-smashing 119 birds as the light began to fail. We posed with 119 fingers aloft, got back in the van, and rounded up to 120 by bagging a merganser from the vehicle as we hurtled back home. Fists were pumped and high-fives negotiated, while a fascinated kingfisher kept pace out the left window. Then Patty texted in with a final tally of 121.

Shit.

The Murre The Merrier: photo by Max Smith
Even in the interest of public safety, we didn't need the big warning Birdathon sticker on the outside of our vehicle. If you see a van weaving down the highway for forty miles with all twelve heads craned out the windows looking for a kestrel on the wire in the dying light, you know enough to give it room. You just know.

68 comments:

  1. Congrats on your bird day. You out-did your goal expectation. So what if Patti texted 121. I bet there were no cookies left. :)

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    1. You got that right, sister! The Paddywagon probably only had chips. Humph.

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  2. I'm going to start a new hobby: Bird Spotter Spotting. I've already decided on several species to watch for -- the Binocular Skygazer, the Lifebird Wiggler, the Mysterious Patty, the Vanweaver Crane..... But I don't know whether I'll try to "pick up the tits in the parking lot and score the rail on the way to the coast". Sounds like I might get slapped.

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    1. Maybe you can compensate by aiding old birders. They're the ones whose necks got stuck in the up position while looking for warblers, and they could use a hand crossing the street.

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  3. Wow! You and your adversarial team are great! I sponsored, or whatever it's called, a friend's count and her team only came up with 46. It was in WVA and my friend is a very experienced birder. I wonder what happened...

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    1. Gawd, it must have been pouring down rain. She should have scored big time in WVA. Unless they have finally finished removing all the mountaintops over there.

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  4. I'd be with you, wiggling my butt off! Love the bird pics, Mr. Owl and Pretty Boy....

    So, May is ant season out there? Here too. I'm ready to throw in the towel and let them have the house. Can someone remind me again --- Why did God make ants?

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    1. So are those the ants God made for your neck of the woods or ones that got imported from somewhere else. Native ants mostly don't bother us but spend their time aerating the soil and growing fungus and other helpful things like providing themselves as food for horny toads and flickers. Of course some of them do raise aphids on our vegetables.

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    2. Can we name an example of any introduced species that has worked out well for us? Marilyn?

      And May is merely the middle of ant season, which begins in March and peters out in July. Don't tell anyone, but we're actually having a mild year of it.

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    3. Honeybees! They were introduced to N. America by early settlers, as I understand it. Of course, now THEY'RE not doing so well, so I guess nothing ever works out well indefinitely.

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    4. I think the ring-neck pheasants have done fairly well here in the midwest. I think I heard that they were imported from China. My dad used to hunt them. I refused to eat them.

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    5. If you eat them you'll be hungry in an hour anyway.

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  5. That's a very respectable count, even if you didn't quite win. I would have payed good money to be with you to see the long-eared owl and the lazili bunting. But I did see my own lazili bunting yesterday - am am planning to get pictures during the breeding season - and am researching the best places in which to find long-eared owls while I'm at National Bison Range.

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    1. I've never seen a long-eared owl. They're a little skinnier, right? This is a great horned owl. Taken from a great distance with an itty bitty point'n'shoot.

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    2. Check the small trees in the fencerows near Ninepipe National Wildlife Refuge.

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    3. There you go, Marilyn. Birders communicate through me. I'm like a medium.

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  6. "The Murre, The Merrier"? Your team is named after you? Your cookies must be awesome :)

    Your enthusiasm is contagious. Maybe it's the cookies AND the enthusiasm. Sounds like a good time.

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    1. No, it wasn't named after me, but I think I got invited because I'd be a good mascot. Can't think of any other reason.

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  7. I love this!! We were so happy to have you back again. It is definitely a tradition now. No backing out!

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  8. You all sound like the kind of partiers I could hang with. If you ever get close to the Golden Gate will you give me a shout and we'll do lunch? Or pomegranate juice, or Peet's...

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    1. Y'all do have Imperial Pale Ales down there, don't you?

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  9. It sounds like a fabulous day and something fun to witness. I like the pictures too.

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    1. Now that I think of it, I always loved scavenger hunts when I was little. It's the same thing. Or when my sister, a geologist, would stop by a rockcut and say "we're looking for THIS," and show me a picture, and I'd have that chance of being hero of the day.

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  10. I'd be the one not recognizing most birds, but I do think I'll try some beyond-the-backyard birdwatching after we're done with Grandkid Daycare next month.

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    1. I'm not even that good at that. I am really working at it, though, if by "working at it" you mean staring hard and flipping helplessly through the field guide.

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  11. And I thought I was the only clever one to have Windex scented house ants. humph.

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    1. Dave discovered it on his own when he was Windexing to get rid of the formic acid ant odor trail and the live ones perished immediately.

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  12. Thanks for you work on this. I love the birds even though I can only identify the most common. Are you as funny on the trek as you are on the blog?

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  13. Oooh. And aaah. As a rapidly becoming obsessional twitcher I loved this post. Cookies would be a bonus, but the feathers win my heart every time. And here you would rapidly learn their language. Our birds are very rarely musical. The gang-gang (and there is a name for you) is our cities emblamatic bird. And it sounds like a rusty metal gate squeaking open. The cockatoos shriek, and the kookaburras laugh at us...

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    1. I WANT to see and hear them. I did enjoy the fan-tails next door--or do you have them too?

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  14. Whiskey Tango Foxtrot?

    For all I know you might have invented all of these names.(The owl I recognised, but I feel a complete drongo about the rest )

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  15. Ha! Your birding adventure sounds like it was a winner, even if you didn't get the MOST, you got a LOT. Plus you created a blog post that was a winner, and nobody else did that, did they? :-)

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    1. God, I hope not. I like having no competition. Kidding!

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  16. What a happy group of birders. Although they nest off the coast of Labrador we were lucky enough last year to be able to watch a flock of gannets hunting in the deep narrows on one side of our oceanside park. That was a jump up and downer for me.

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    1. Oh man, great video, thanks. I love the bait balls the best. There's a captive bait ball at the Newport aquarium. I could watch for hours. It's an underwater murmuration.

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  17. I want you to film the dance and put it on your blog.

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    1. Oh! You're the kind who likes to watch!!

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  18. Congrats on your 119 (that's my usual annual list lately).

    This is the sort of birding I run a mile from but if people enjoy it that's the important thing and all credit to them.

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  19. Well, that's my secret--I don't run a mile from anything. I hate running. That means I have to find my joy wherever I am. I have to bird with other people anyway: I only know about twenty birds!

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  20. Never had much of an interest in birds until we went to Costa Rica in 2004. Now I kind of get it.

    We have three bird feeders on our front porch and I like seeing the little fellows hanging sideways off the perches.

    We're going to Kenya next week and I hear the birds there are fabulous. I'm taking a camera but not a bird book.

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    1. Yup: the secret to being interested in birds is beginning to observe them. It's a habit that can be acquired. They're plenty entertaining if you give them a chance. Also: BINOCULARS!

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  21. When I spotted a new chick in the hen's nest I did the "life bird dance". Does that count as bird watching?

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    1. It sure as heck qualifies as an Appropriately Exuberant Response To Life. Wiggle on, sister.

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  22. Always thought you were for the birds. No reason for you to have to prove it.

    Blessings and Bear hugs!
    Bears Noting
    Life in the Urban Forest (poetry)

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    1. Well yes. I AM for the birds! (Tater, stay indoors.)

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  23. I remember being wildly ticked off as a child that somebody else had already named all the birds. I actually saw a bell-shake bird today and did an ecstatic hand-clapping, foot slapping dance because heretofore I'd only ever heard one. Don't tell me it's a Troglodytes Aedon. It makes a sound like little bells being shaken so that's what it is - a bell shake bird. See how simple life can be?

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    1. Sure! Just like there's Murr's Old Bird, Murr's New Bird, and Murr's Other New Bird.

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  24. I like birds and I'm happy when I see some, but I suck at recognising most of them. I know a magpie when I see it, also a sparrow and a kookaburra. I can even recognise the pink and grey galahs!

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  25. You guys didn't have enough fingers to see 121 birds. You need more fingers next year.

    Do crows and starlings count, too? I mean, they're so frisking common as to be virtually invisible.

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    1. They totally count. We would have counted your parakeet if we'd seen it. No, we wouldn't've.

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    2. Back in the forties, the Forrest Circus - um, Service - did an inventory of the types of trees in Cascades. I think it was mostly educated guesswork, but they could look up a map quadrant and tell approximately how many Cedars, Douglas Firs, White Pine, Sugar Pines, etc were there. My favorite was the quadrant which included Suttle Lake, because it lists one venerable apple tree grown from a core tossed by an early pioneer.

      I hope you DO see a parakeet next year!

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  26. Congrats on your 119! I must look for a birding group around here - sounds like great fun (especially with cookies). I tend to only spot the bigger birds because most of my bird-watching is done through a car window at 100 km/hr, but one of these days it would be fun to actually go looking. They'd probably elude me just for spite, though. The little buggers know when you're watching...

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    1. Whoa. Do they have kilometers where you are?

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    2. Yeah. But I grew up before we had kilometres, so I usually call 'em miles. It's just that the local gendarmes get testy if I try to drive at 100 mph.

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  27. Haha, this was a cute post. I would be the one doing a wiggle as I can't dance!

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    1. You know, a lot of your standard wiggle looks just like a hippie-girl dance circa 1968. So, yes, that means you can't dance.

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  28. Hey Murr! Having mixed with various "enthusiast" groups, I can confirm that most are freaks. You are, of course, an honorable exception. Roth x

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    1. Ha! You don't know that. But thanks anyway.

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  29. That is an impressive day! More than 120 would have meant the shoes come off. I'm not so sure that would be a good idea.

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  30. A birdathon. Sounds like more fun than a marathon.

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  31. This should be published in Bird Watcher's Digest!

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