Saturday, November 30, 2013

How to start birding - Christmas Bird Counts

My dad on our local CBC back in 2007;
Clearly not a serious affair
Birding can be intimidating when you want to stop just watching the birds at the bird feeder and tagging along on a local birding trip might be too much, especially during migration when there is so much going on.

One way I have seen lots of people get into birding is by helping out with their local Christmas Bird Counts. Winter is a more low key time of year for birding. Plus the people who volunteer with Christmas Bird Counts (or CBCs are they are sometimes called) are really friendly and often more then willing to take a newbie or two along for the ride.

Christmas Bird Counts often don't actually happen on Christmas, but sometime between December 14 and January 5th. Counts happen all over the country, check out the Audubon Society's website to find one near you.

The Christmas Bird Count has been going on for over one hundred years and helps provide a great snap shot of the distribution of birds during the winter months. While many of the species who call North America home aren't around during the winter those who are are really unique ecologically.

Depending on where you live, make sure to dress for the weather appropriately and if you have binoculars bring them and be prepared to become more familiar with the birds who live around you all the time. One of the best ways to gain confidence as a new birder is to learn the birds who you'll see all the time so you know whats new and what isn't.

Some of my fondest CBC memories are of watching Brown Creepers forage on tree trunks and watching Bald Eagles soar over the Sandusky Bay. These are birds who are around Ohio year round but often we don't pay them any mind but getting to know these resident birds can be really useful. If you know what is around all the time it helps you be better prepared for when the migrants come through or the rare birds show up and the more time you spend studying your resident birds the more you can enjoy them all the time and get to know them in a way you likely won't know the beautiful warblers of spring.

So if you have some free time over the holidays, or need to escape the chaos this time of year I'd really encourage you to check out your local CBC and see if you can help out for a day, or even half a day and meet some local birders, learn about your local birds!

Thursday, November 28, 2013

What is a Good Birder

I've recently been hit with the grand almost metaphysical question of what makes someone a good birder.

Is it the master bird identifier, with a roledex of bird facts. Someone who eats, breathes, and sleeps bird ID. The person who knows the expected day of a birds first arrival, their foraging position in a tree, and has each bird personal mailing address.

Is it the trusty veteran? Who saw every first for their state. The 20 year president of the local audubon chapter, your county's ebird editor, and the go to for any birds state history.

Or perhaps the traveler? They can chronicle every bug bite they ever received on their vast travels across the globe. Their list is 5 times higher than you ever hope to be at. The person who knows the best tasting food carts in thailand, the best coffee in peru, and used to have a personal bunk bed on Attu?

Kenn Kaufmann, an all around great birder by any definition, said in response to a similar question:

'Birding is something we do for enjoyment; so if you enjoy it, you're a good birder. If you enjoy it alot; you're a great birder’

I like this definition better. It's freeing. It cuts through all the birders high opinions of themselves, to an easy to swallow and active definition we can all fit into.

Honestly, I'm being self serving. If I convince you of this, I will feel better about recently being proved I'm the sterotypical definition of a bad birder. I don't bird every day, I sleep in, and am not that great at bird ID.

YoUDee, our Mascot. Yes, that's his name
I recently started graduate school at the University of Delaware. Prior to this I went on a mad mission: To see as many birds as I could in the United States in one year. I did it for personal reasons. Not for glory, or for a cause, but because I needed to.I travelled across 21 states, birded over 250 different locations, and currently sit at 530 birds (15th in the United States).

You wouldn’t be remiss for thinking, like my new lab mates, that I was a good birder. It all started with a bad identification of a Trumpeter Swan who was really a masquerading Tundra Swan.

Very active birders in the community, my lab mates found out from Ebird I was in the top 100 Ebirders. When we met they already had little quips ready.

     'Oh. Did you already make a checklist for your front yard, back yard, and the building?'

My first weekend here I misidentified a Tundra Swan as a Trumpeter, which posted to ebirds rarity list automatically and the questions began. They wanted to know how I misidentified it, which lead to how I didn’t know they’re rare in the region, which morphed into talks about birding habits. I watched their faces become more baffled as I admitted I wasn’t that into hawk watching, birding every day, or even knew I could identify a Nutting’s Flycatcher by sight not call.

But that’s not why I bird. I bird to travel, for the adventure, and to explore new places. The thrill of finding a new species is exhilarating to me, but so is traveling to new places.

Big Years are not like standard birding

Big Years are about travel, chasing rare birds, and getting the best knowledge of the best spots. You can’t do a Big Year in the United States without lots of time, money, and research. 

Most people don’t have a lot of time or money

Think about this. Say we added EVERY BIRD seen this year at 4 of these famous birding hot spots
-Point Reyes National Seashore, CA (165sp)
-Patagonia Lake State Park, AZ (224sp)
-South Padre Island Convention Center/WBC, Tx (283sp)
-Cape May Point State Park, NJ (276sp)

Once we filter out species seen at multiple locations we’d only have 482 unique birds.

If by some magic you’re able to bird every one of those spots every day simultaneously. Your theoretical self spanning 3000 miles, at the best birding spots, AND you were of course the greatest birder of all time able to identify every single bird at that spot, you’d still only have 482 birds this year. And I would beat you. By 50. The current leader Neil Hayward (725sp) would be beating you by 270.

*It should be noted Neil is infact on a fantastically large and amazing big year. Good luck to him on his final leg.

Stats is about manipulating things to make them show what you want, but still, you get the point
So, are we all doomed? We’ll never see hundreds of birds! Should we just quit now? 

No. The point is this. Everyone’s life and situation is different. Quit worrying about numbers and comparing yourself to others. It takes a lot of time, money, and miles on the road to get those numbers. Do what you love and go birding at your local patch instead. We’ll help you learn to love the little things more.

And if you do love traveling, finding new species, and the thrill of birding new places on the cheap, well, we can teach you how to do that as well. ;)


Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Why should you explore locally?

Exploring often brings about images of climbing big mountains or sailing uncharted waters, but the best part is that it can occur everywhere, no matter where you are even just waiting at the bus stop there are things to be noticed, watched and understood.

Your everyday haunts might not seem as exciting as all the places on your bucket list but exploring wherever you find yourself can be extremely rewarding and help you develop the skills to really appreciate the natural world as you travel outside of your local biome.

My brothers at Bare Bluffs, UP of Michigan
Before moving to Arkansas I lived in the U.P of Michigan for almost four years while getting my bachelors degree. Houghton was the first place I lived away from home and so it was the first place that I remember learning for the first time. 

During college I was introduced to lots of new places through my classes and friends. I went to the porcupine mountains for the first time as part of a class, some friends took me on my first camping trip on the shores of Lake Superior. A tip from a professor took my family and I on a beautiful hike up Bare Bluffs one summer.

While I loved traveling around the UP and the rest of the Upper Midwest school often took priority and so I spent time discovering cool places that I could check in on every day. This is the kind of local exploring really connected me to Houghton, and still makes me a bit homesick for it. The little forest patch I walked by every day to and from school, the old field that bloomed so pretty with wildflowers in the spring, these were both places that aren't on a map, that aren't on anyone's top 10 of places to go in the UP but they were special to me. Finding a place like this can help you feel grounded in a new town or new job, and ever since I've left the UP I've always tried to find places like that.

Lake Fayetteville, Arkansas
Last fall I moved to Arkansas to start graduate school, having never been to Arkansas. I knew very little about Arkansas before moving here but luckily there is a lot to The Natural State and I'm starting to peel away the layers. Finding that place took awhile since I got a bit overwhelmed with the start of school but one of the first places that my husband Jon and I explored in Arkansas was Lake Fayetteville, a park owned by the city of Fayetteville. It's a great place to go birding close to town, is beautiful, especially in the fall and is just far enough of a walk to wear out the dog! While this park isn't Yosemite or the Grand Canyon, it is a great place to watch the seasons change and learn more about this particular area.

I walk the dog on the bike trail a few nights a week and I really enjoy seeing the change of the seasons along the stream that follows the trail. The water level comes and goes, right now the creek is starting to freeze over and things are dying back. The bike trail has become a grounding place for me, a quiet strip of habitat just outside my door to connect me back to why I am in graduate school. 

Understanding what makes NW Arkansas unique helps me better appreciate where I am and how lucky I am to be here. The seasons are different here, the colors change more slowly in the fall, the warblers come through earlier in the spring, we get most of our rain in the fall. All these things are unique and wonderful about Arkansas, and knowing them can help me better plan the trips I take around the area and better understand when I want to put the money into more extensive endeavors and when I should just go for a hike on a Saturday afternoon. If I didn't spend this time exploring what is right here in Fayetteville I would lose part of what living here really is and never would have found Lake Fayetteville or Woolsely Wet Prairie, both great areas to explore and most importantly, go birding.

So spend some time getting grounded in your current hometown, watch the seasons change, see what is special there. Honing your ability to observe the world around you will help you on your next big trip and might help you get more out of it since you'll be able to better appreciate the little places between the big shiny landmarks.