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. ;)


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