Saturday, May 19, 2018

Notes From A Lesser Birder

The Murre The Merrier: photo by Diana Byrne
Somebody has to be the worst birder in the Birdathon van, and I for one am not afraid to step up.

I had hope that things would be a little different this time. I've made strides. I pick up a little more knowledge every season. A few years ago, I was astonished when our fearless leader, Sarah, pointed up to some frantic dots halfway to the moon and said "Vaux's swifts." Whuh? How? And yet now I not only recognize them by sight, but also by voice. (They sound like photons swapping secrets.) I was ready for Vaux's swift.

And three years ago I thought she was making things up when she pointed out the Lesser Goldfinch, which, as it turns out, is totally a thing, and not a value judgment. In fact I now know it as one of the commonest birds in my yard, and I know its song, too. I was super ready for Lesser Goldfinch.

And, most significantly, I recently shaved a whole thirty seconds off my personal-best identification time for the female red-winged blackbird, a.k.a. that brown bird that's the only other thing in a marsh full of real red-winged blackbirds. The first time I saw it, I paged through the entire field guide looking for it, finally determining that it was a previously undiscovered species, which should excite other birders, but it doesn't. Anyway, I snapped off that ID in under a minute this time. I know--I'm amazed, too.

So off we went, and while the team was slurping coffee and easing into the day, I shot my arm out and bellowed AMERICAN CROW. Yeah, baby, in the bag! Mark it down and ink my initials next to it. I'm going to take a nap now.

But I longed for more glory. At our first stop I bounded out and squinted into the fog, but one by one, my aces in the hole showed up in someone else's hole, no offense. Anna's hummingbird, bushtit, black-capped chickadee, even Wilson's warbler, which I considered to be advanced--all of them quickly fell by the wayside. By the time I've got a bird in my binocs and a good read on it and am just about willing to go out on a limb with it, someone else has nabbed it right off its limb. Discouraged, I mentally reviewed easy and gigantic birds yet to be found, to no avail. Turkey vulture, red-tailed hawk, great blue heron, bald eagle, all of them landed in someone else's eyeballs before they landed in mine.

Pigeon Guillemot. Sure.
Meanwhile our other fearless leader Max glances at a featureless horizon and says "pigeon guillemot" and, when I look distressed, kindly says "Here, I've got it in the scope for you," but I still can't make it out. The only thing holding Max back from identifying all the birds is the curvature of the earth.

I've come to understand that we're not all possessed of the same talent. Sarah and Max and everyone else in the van have been able to sweep arcane details about birds into their brain pans and fry them up until they're crisp and accessible. Most of my bird details get accidentally tossed off the cutting board and down the garbage disposal before I get the burner on. We can't all have the same skills, and I'm freakin' deadly at Bananagrams.

But there was glory yet in store for me. Per my usual method--see where everyone else is looking, and look somewhere else--I spotted something interesting and hopped up and down squeaking ("See something, say something") until someone lumbered over with a spotting scope, found it in the sights, and identified it as a black-bellied plover, which I'd never heard of, in spite of which I went ahead and took credit for it. Loudly. That was my black-bellied plover, on account of how loud I was about it, and consequently they gave it to me and they can't take it away from me. Boo-yah.

We never did see a lesser goldfinch.

40 comments:

  1. After years and years of watching the birds, only this year did I, too, identify the female red-winged blackbird. I was amazed that in all these years of them coming to my yard and bathing in our pond, I had never really seen them before. That camouflage must be working really well for them.

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    1. They're ALL OVER THE PLACE. And they don't look like ANYTHING.

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  2. I don't have any swifts around here that I have noticed. I do see some not-so-swifts and some downright slows. I also have swallows, but no regurgitates. Sandhill cranes have been coming around for the last 10 or 15 years along with the warming climate. Congratulations on spotting the black-bellied plover first! Good eye!

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    Replies
    1. You were having yourself some fun there, weren't you?

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    2. I was. I did put some of my local warblers on my blog today so you know I have an honest side.

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  3. What is that blue/brown/green bird in the photo and did you see it?

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    1. Found it! I think it's a violet green swallow. My goodness, it's gorgeous!

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    2. I'm coming in late. Off the grid, you know. It is, as Un Me says, a violet-green swallow. I belleve that's one we Westerners get to have to ourselves, to sort-of make up for the warber scarcity.

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  4. Ah, if only you'd have lived in Bend in the mid 50's, my uncles would have taken you snipe watching.

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  5. We have many lovely birds in our yard. Many passing through and a few staying for the summer. I can ID most, but never by song!

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    Replies
    1. I get a few in the old noggin but most of them don't stay put.

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  6. I was startled to see an indigo bunting in my yard this week. No pic tho.

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    1. Nice! They don't belong here but we had a solitary one in a wildlife refuge here a few years back and people came from great distances to see it. I, however, had just come from West Virginia and we'd been taking the windshield wipers to them, so I didn't get all worked up. They are beautiful.

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  7. Your talents also include pianny playing, cutting cloth to bits and stitching it back together, and writing awesome posts, if I'm not mistaken . . .

    The more I learn about birds, the more I realize there is to know. I don't think my brain can do it. I've got too much other stuff crammed in there by now.

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    1. And it's such a small space, right? Too hard to dust in there with too much crap.

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  8. I am always happy to learn things. And I am pretty certain I do. Retaining the things I learn is a whole new kettle of something.

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    1. Yeah. Kettle of...you know. That thing. That you can have a kettle of.

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  9. It was wonderful to have you on the team again this year! That Black-bellied Plover was one of the best birds of the day!

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  10. You were awesome, Murr! The Black-bellied Plover was the biggest surprise of the day and a real treat for all of us.

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    1. 'Specially me, because I'd never heard of it.

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  11. It would be a hoot to go birding with you. The way you put that feather in your cap, and it was no cheep shot either. Surely someone tweeted the find on Twitter. No flight of fancy either. Glad the outing was a success.

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  12. Now you are horning in on MY secret strategy..... spot birds for someone else to identify. Someone has to scan the other four directions, left, right, behind the bird everyone is fixed on plus overhead. I say we are the most important people cause we call the points or the twitchers to look, thus giving the group more species.

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    1. We do. We got a whole 180 degrees to ourselves and there's bound to be something in there sooner or later.

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  13. "that brown bird that's the only other thing in a marsh full of real red-winged blackbirds."

    When I used to volunteer as a roving "decoder" at our local filter marsh, I could spot people puzzling over female REDW's from twenty yards by the frustrated looks, confirmed at closer range by the Peterson's open to the sparrow page. I'd get several a day during the busy season...lots of retirees getting into the "bird fancy." (Hey, if we have a cat fancy, why not?) The hard part was being diplomatic about helping after the first half dozen. "Yeah, I used to have a lot of trouble with those, too. You get used to them" was a favorite.

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    1. Speaking of "diplomacy after the first half dozen," I have always appreciated my birding guide friends who, after a day of listening to bird song, answer my "What's that one?" with a patient "That's still a cardinal."

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  14. We were on a bus trip with birders when we passed over a bridge high above a rushing creek filled with rocks,shrubs and a few fallen logs. Our guide called out to the driver to stop, and excitedly pointed out a tiny gray bird on a wet log far below the bridge. It was a something-or-other. When asked, "How in the world did you spot that little bird, way down there, from a moving bus?" he explained, shrugging his shoulders, "It wasn't part of the log." Hope this tip helps on your next Birdathon!

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    1. Right there in the "draw all the parts that don't look like an elephant."

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  15. I will pass on to you my mantra, which I repeat whenever my kids make fun of me for not being able to use the television; for being unable to figure out Snapchat after five years of trying; for holding the phone up to my chin while Facetiming; for any number of minor offenses that seem to all add up to Doofus in their minds. Here it is: "There are things that I am good at." Shuts them up every time.

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  16. I've always marveled at the birders who can spot the difference between the zillion varieties of little brown birds. For me if something doesn't have truly dramatic markings I have no clue what it is. My latest big excitement in birding (if you can call it that) was spotting a bird I was sure I'd never seen before, a fine feathered friend with dramatic black and orange markings. Turned out to an American redstart, which are apparently super common in our region. So how did I go for multiple decades without ever seeing one before? And why is it called a redstart when there isn't a speck of red on it?

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    1. REDSTARTS! Love them guys. We don't have any. I'm wondering if you have shitty binoculars or lack good binocular skills? Because things cleared up in a fat hurry the day someone told me how to snap onto a bird in a tree with binoculars. Because I sure can't see without them.

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    2. Binoculars? Why, that's cheating, if you ask me :)

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    3. So are eyeglasses, but I like to know what I'm eating.

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