Birds of a feather

(you talking about us?)
This is really embarrassing. No, no, not the part about not updating- that’s old news. No, the embarrassing thing is this: for all the time I spend with birds, feeding birds, handling birds, watching birds and teaching others about birds, I am afraid of birders. I am intimidated by them and I feel foolish around them. Seriously, birders terrify me. My stereotype of them is that they are a peculiarly obsessive, competitive, geeky type. They tend to be know-it-alls and in the race to lengthen their precious (and often fictitious) life lists, they’ll either hallucinate or outright fabricate the sighting of a Green Violetear or an Eared Quetzal. “Right there! It’s there, on the third branch from the left fork of that Quercus, between 2 and 3 o’clock! There! I don’t know why you don’t see it!”  all in the loud, excited and yet simultaneously hushed tones of golf announcers. And, to be honest, then I think, “you’re Quercus!” and make a plan of escape. It’s particularly scary that there are now so damned many of us them. Reports are that there are somewhere in the vicinity of 50,000 bird watchers in North America, all clomping about in meadow and wood with way too much expensive gear. In addition to making up stories about birds they haven’t really seen, birders like to argue about the best binoculars, the best camera equipment and the best bird guides. Peterson is obsolete, Sibley is yesterday’s news; the field guide du jour is The Crossley ID. It’s mostly written in code, which suits birders just fine.

So why is it so embarrassing that I embrace such a, shall we say, catty view of birders? It’s because I’ve invested considerable effort and self-promotion in joining this particular group of odd ducks. Not just a flock of birders, no, it’s THE FLOCK of birders. A collective of bird watchers with members the likes of  Julie Zickafoose, Murr Brewster, Laura Hardy and Susan Kailholz-Williams and my friend, Jane Blumenthal, aka Wren. This flock of birders heads off each year to the best birding convocations and migrations to be led by prominent ornithologists such as Rudy Gelis, Bill Thompson, the Hershbergers (imagine a marriage of professional birders!) and Jeffrey Gordon. The Flock spends a week doing all those birdy things and then they write about it until the next get together. For the first six months they post photos and reports about the wonder of it all and for the next six months they write about how desperate they are to get together to do it again. And, if you follow any of them in their blogs or on Facebook, soon all you want out of your remaining years is to be one of them. A member of The Flock.(friend, Cathy, took these photos on Wildlife Weekend when I was giving a little owl talk.)

Say hello to the newest member. Blind in one eye, I line up the edge of my binoculars against the bridge of my nose and look through one eyepiece. Slightly dyslexic, I’m usually looking at the other left tree branch. As I try to focus my camera shot I end up losing the whole tree, let alone the bird. I’m allergic to the sun. And the greatest aberration? Brace yourselves. I don’t carry a life list. It’s true. I have one but I no longer carry it or even keep it current. Oh, I have Audubon Society pins for 100, 200, 300, 400 birds. I gave a Nene some water from my bottle on the peak of Mt Haleakala and I really saw a Forked Tailed Canivet Emerald Hummingbird on Roatan. But somewhere along the way I lost interest in all that competition, in the paraphernalia, the gear, the strained neck at the end of the day and I decided I was just going to watch what comes my way. What flutters into my field of vision, narrow as it is. Now, when I want to look at birds, I wear my big sun hat, take my modestly good point and shoot camera, sans tripod and extra lens and my adequate not-too-heavy binoculars. I’m happy if I get to see a good-looking or interesting bird but I’m equally happy seeing snakes and lizards and wildflowers and fish- hey! that reminds me! I need to pack my fly rod!

You can know the name of a bird in all the languages of the world, but when you’re finished, you’ll know absolutely nothing whatever about the bird . . . So let’s look at the bird and see what it’s doing – that’s what counts. I learned very early the difference between knowing the name of something and knowing something. Richard P. Feynman

If the physicist who pioneered quantum mechanics can get off the bird naming thing, then so can I. Ha!

Here’s the thing. As a member of The Flock I have a moral obligation to post blog updates about the next great birding adventure: The New River Birding and Nature Festival. This is coming up soon, the first week of May, in New River (naturally), West Virginia.

So. All kidding aside? I can barely wait for this trip. I am so anxious to shed my winter lethargy and be one with Spring I can’t contain myself. For 5 days I get to wander and hike this fantastically beautiful part of the country, around the gorge, along the river and on the front porch. I keep reading my daily trip descriptions; they have names like Kanawha Falls to Burnwood, Birding By Boat, Muddlety Strips and yes! Birding By Butt! (I believe that is the one that fits into my philosophy of letting the birds come to me.) I smile every time I think about meeting this new gaggle of geese who will be my bunkmates and as we exchange notes, phone numbers, suggested snack lists-well, I realize that I’m probably guilty of wildly stereotyping birders. I’ll definitely keep you posted on that, promise, cross my heart, with blurry photos of unidentifiable birds.

For now, just click and look at the photos and read all about it. You’ll want to go, too. I think you still can, you know. I think there are still a few spaces available. I mean, you can’t be a member of The Flock or anything- too late for that this year. That requires some maneuvering but who’s to say that if you come this year you might not graduate to The Flock by next year? Just be sure to have the Crossley ID visible in your pack at all times.

Here’s a little video I took today of a youngster I’ve been watching. 


9 responses to “Birds of a feather

  1. We don’t throw people out of the Flock. It’s all BFF all the time. 🙂

    I’m glad you’re excited…and we won’t get on you about no life list. But if you get any lifers on the trip, there’s a dance you have to do. It’s mandatory.

  2. I like birds and all, but I prefer the “let them come to me” approach. I have lists, but they’re not about birds….lol But I’d like that trip to WV (Almost Heaven/Home). Can’t do it, though. I have to work that week.

  3. OH! OH! OH! Those are the MOST adorable owls… Have a good time on your trip… I have trouble with binoculars too… my two eyes are so different, it is hard to get both in focus at once. Microscopes I can deal with, binoculars, no. The best part of feeding and watching the birds is being able to identify them from their songs…. not really… but just listening to the songs at night with my window open and a cold breeze and I love the high “towhee” and the lower “hoot, hoot, who hoot.”

  4. Okay, a) I considered myself a bit of a birder until I started hearing about all of these life lists and how serious all of these “REAL” birders were. Then I sort of saw how ridiculously inept I was in my earnestness and gave the whole thing up. And I LOVED being a little amateur birder with my binoculars and my bird books and my eyes and ears and sketch pad. *sigh* and b) I love you even more now than EVER after that Richard Feynman quote. 🙂 We’re sort of Feynman fanboys/girls around here, as you might imagine.

  5. I do a little clomping around in the woods looking and listening, and I sit home and wait to see who is going to show up. No life list. No special binoculars. One old sibley’s guide. I love Richard Feynman.

  6. I understand the feeling of intimidation–me too. The Flock sounds like a fine group (any group that values drinking that much has to be g-o-o-d). But the binoculars I own are for watching football games; my camera is for taking pics of pets and house renovations. My bones–well, they would hardly tolerate a tromp around anywhere.
    Oh, yes–and first week of May–we’ll be in Italy. Sigh. It’s tough to be me…

  7. Beth Ann Choate

    I know very, very, little about birds, but I do know that at age 30 if anyone had told me that I would spend my retirements years looking at birds for hours and hours – I would have called them all fools. It is one of life’s greatest treasures in taking time to watch them build their homes, raise their young and move on and come back!!!

  8. Yeh, there’s that whole life-list-macho thing. But true A-list birders love little more than the opportunity to be really cool and share what they know. We perpetually amateur beginners are an important part of the ecosystem.

    All kidding and snarkiness aside, I have to say that the truly great birders I have met are to a person and without a doubt wonderful people, great teachers, and a delight to spend time with. I wish I were a better student, but my interest and appreciation is sincere, regardless.

    Add me to the list of those pining away for west virginia the first week in may. I don’t suppose we can lure you to the Midwest Birding Symposium next fall?

  9. What the birdies do
    When the cat’s away,
    Interests folks like you
    And Jane Hathaway.

    There are all sorts of species
    Of birders, methinks.
    Who know if droppings are scat;
    (They need cocktail drinks!)

    John Flicker and Holt Thrasher
    Headed the Society Audubon.
    But my favourite guides
    Are by Roger Tory Peterson.

    Do you approve of volières
    AKA aviaries?
    I’m cuckoo for you;
    My love never varies.

    Dali and Van Gogh
    Were bird people, too.
    And my husband’s a birder;
    So’s our lab. What to do?!

    For pheasant is also pleasant
    Under glass.
    We eat quail, dove, and woodcock.
    Peent, peent, kiss my a**.

    So, mea culpa, dear Vicki,
    You sweet chickadee.
    Who cooks for you all?
    Drink your tea!

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