Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Beginning Birder Series: What Kind Of Birder Do You Want To Be?

If you've decided to dip your toe into the wonderful and horrific world of birding, you are probably noticing that there are many different types of birders. Some of them may seem appealing to you in their intensity or lack thereof, in their birding style, and in their primary focus. Others may come off as a bit weird, desperate, lonely, or insane. It's true, this hobby of ours brings people in from out of the woodworks. If and when you interact with other members of your birding community, you will no doubt be in shock from the lack of social skills that many of your "peers" possess. But it also brings in people that are into cool shit. Yes, believe it or not, if you dig around deep enough, you'll find birders who do not turn pale white when forced to say "hello" to a group of other nerds. You may even find people with which you'd like to share a glass or two of whiskey after you've seen some good shit. These people exist. The trick is that different people get turned on by different shit. Birding is much easier and fulfilling if shared with others, not necessarily of the same skill set, but of the same intensity and specific focus.

In this post, I'm going to help you identify some of the different species of birdicus nerdicus that you may run into in your birding adventures. These interactions may be in the field or over the internet (hint - the internet ones are the ones to stay away from. Except bird bloggers. Those dudes are cool.) Take note, this is less of a lesson in what to look for in other people, and more of a lesson in learning about yourself in this new world. Naturally, everyone falls somewhere in the gray area of these caricatures, but there are certain qualities that present themselves over and over without much intention. You don't need to know the answer to the question, "What Kind Of Birder Do You Want To Be?", but odds are you'll end up at one of these places in the near future, and it's a good idea to know what you're getting yourself into. Let us begin.

The Backyard Birdwatcher - This is kind of the entryway into birding for many people. I remember not that long ago when I was trying to figure out the chickadees, titmice, and wrens I was seeing in my backyard. It didn't take long before I was venturing outside my neighborhood to see things that aren't comfortable in urban/suburban settings. While The Backyard Birdwatcher often serves as a jumping off point into more intense and involved endeavors, many people happily stay at this stage and are perfectly content. That's awesome. The Backyard Birdwatcher is a perfectly fine state of birder. This birder can easily suffice on the Stan Tekiela books to identify the cardinals, jays, and random warblers that happen about in their yard.

Titmice, like this Tufted X Black-crested are among the most familiar birds to the Backyard Birdwatcher.

The Casual Birder - This birder is the natural progression of The Backyard Birder who wants to expand their knowledge and experience a bit. The Casual Birder is normally very familiar with the parks that are most adjacent to their home, and can often tell you more about what is expected at a very specific patch than some of the more intense birders in your community. This birder is still not venturing to wastewater treatment plants, or chasing rare birds in their home county, but they are tuned in to migration trends of passerines and waterfowl.

Black-and-white Warblers are easy to find and difficult to misidentify.

The Wary Explorer - The Wary Explorer is just coming out of The Casual Birder cocoon. This birder has just learned about listservs and eBird, and is venturing out to new locations in search of completely new families of birds. In this stage, the birders knowledge of shorebirds, raptors, and passerines is rapidly expanding. Many of these treks are made alone and can be quite frustrating as some of the new birds they are seeing are much more difficult to identify than cardinals and chickadees. This is also the stage in which the birder begins attending local organized bird walks, which usually blows The Wary Explorers mind. As opposed to the other categories listed here, The Wary Explorer is almost exclusively a transitory stage, and not an established identity. It's a make a break point between The Casual Birder and The I'M A BIRDER!

The Wary Explorer will confidently ID this bird as a Reddish Egret, and this will make The Wary Explorer feel good.

The I'M A BIRDER! - I'll be honest, The I'M A BIRDER! birder is pretty exciting. This birder finally feels comfortable with most of the alternate plumages of their local birds. They've seen at least one or two individuals of multiple species of migrant warblers, peeps, and raptors. They're feeling good after separating zonotrichia sparrows. This birder is confident in separating Sharp-shinned and Cooper's Hawks from distant looks in flight. Everything is going this birders way. The I'M A BIRDER! is also very comfortable and confident in posting to listservs and Facebook birding forums.

Identifying a Harris's Sparrow may give the I'M A BIRDER! a false sense of accomplishment.

The I'm a birder. - The I'm a birder is the natural progression from the I'M A BIRDER! birder. This birder realizes that maybe they weren't so sure about that accipiter they saw 4 months ago. This birder usually materializes in the fall, when birds don't look exactly like they do in Sibley's. There are ups and downs in the life of the I'm a birder birder. The startling revelation that empids and gulls exist and are horrible is balanced out by the successful separation and identification of calidris sandpipers. This is also the birder whose vernacular widens to include banding codes and latin genus names. While it may not feel so great from the inside, things are picking up and going well for the I'm a birder birder. Humility is a prerequisite to the attainment of knowledge.

After a bit of consternation, the I'm a Birder will tell you that this is a Semipalmated Sandpiper.

The Birder - This is the birder that finally has their shit together. This is not to imply that this birder knows all that there is to know about birds, rather this birder knows where their deficits lay and is focused on exposing themselves to new geographical regions, new bird families, and new identification challenges. This is a birder with multiple years experience and one who has successfully applied the knowledge gathered from those years. The Birder is as interested in status and distribution as they are in rarities. This birder gets excited about a summer showing of a common winter bird. Most importantly, this birder is happy, comfortable, and relatively confident without being brash or cocky. This is birder zen.

To The Birder, this McCown's Longspur is not drab and boring. It is a McCown's Longspur, and who the fuck ever gets looks like this?

The Stringer - One is not exclusively a Stringer. A Stringer is any type of birder with the unfortunate additional quality of being half full of shit 90% of the time. Everyone has had experiences with stringers, and those experiences are invariably negative. The Stringer has an uncanny knack of finding rare birds that are not relocated by others. The birds are not usually MEGA rare, but just rare enough to raise eyebrows. The Stringer walks a fine line between reaching on questionable observations and outright lying. A Stringer is not normally identified until there have been multiple events of stringing, but once the "S" word has been dropped, there's no picking it back up. Avoid The Stringer, and by all means, do not become The Stringer.

The Lister - Despite the pejorative connotation associated with the word "lister", most birders are listers to some extent. The Lister does exactly what their name implies; they list. These may be patch lists, county lists, state lists, ABA lists, or world lists, and they may be over a month, year, or lifetime. Where there is one list, there are usually multiple lists. The Lister is simply a birder who maintains a list.

The Chaser - Much like The Lister is a birder who lists, The Chaser is a birder who chases. Simply put, chasing a bird is trying to see a good bird that has been previously reported. A county chase may be a 30 minute affair, while a state or country chase may be a multiple day endeavor. The Chaser and The Lister often go hand in hand.

As previously stated, these are all mere caricatures of the types of birders you can expect to interact with. As with life, there is no black and white; there is no line in the sand. More importantly, and with the exception of "The Stringer", there is no right or wrong answer to the question "What Kind Of Birder Do You Want To Be?" Now, get off of your computer and go look at birds. 

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Leucistic Lesser Nighthawk

So, imagine that you are a nightjar. Like most other birds, your daily "to-do" list basically consists of eating, not getting eaten, making babies, and raising babies. And you kind of want to excel at each of those tasks, because it's really easy to die as a wild animal, even as a nightjar, that family which is known so well for its cryptic camouflage and its knack for not being seen.  Now imagine that you were born with a big fucking target right on your back that screams, "Hey! Look at me! Right here!" What would you do? Would you recognize your handicap, and try even harder to account for it, maybe finding somewhere just a little bit safer to hunker down and raise your young? Or would you say, "Fuck it. Hey world, check me out!"? Our bird today has boldly chosen the latter and nested in the middle of a parking lot at one of the most visited birding spots in the lower Rio Grande Valley. Our bird today is a Lesser Nighthawk, and it doesn't give a fuck.

Yes, that's a baby Lesser Nighthawk.

Sunday, August 10, 2014

Birdnado© - The Purple Martins of Austin

Austin, Texas is home to many great things that are lacking in other cities. The Cowboy Taco at Tacodeli, the experience of Hamilton Pool (breeding YTVI, ACFL, and NOPA included), and the Old Fashioneds at Drink Well. These are all great things and I feel pain for those of you who don't live here and haven't experienced these. In the avian realm, we obviously also harbor Golden-cheeked Warblers and Black-capped Vireos. These birds can often instill an opium like effect on the nervous and cardiovascular system the first time they are observed each year. However, none of these things are why I've come to you today. I've come to you today because of Purple Martins. For the past several years, Highland Mall in Austin has served as a late summer roost for hundreds of thousands of Purple Martins. The experience is a trip, as nearly half a million birds congregate around about three trees, circling and circling, faster and faster, until they finally start to touch down and squeeze in on the drooping branches. When people talk about High Island and birds "dripping from trees," they know not of what they speak. This, right here in Austin, Texas is where shit gets real.

Things start out a bit slow, as the birds start trickling in from miles away.

As the suns drops, the Birdnado© picks up. Noisy, swirling, and fast, it can be a disconcerting experience.

Eventually, the birds start battling for a roosting spot. The battles are intense.

And here is some video of Birdnado©. Intense. In bringing you this post, I did get shit on my head. Sacrifices.

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Collared Plover Mega

I saw a fuuuuuuuuuuuuucking good bird on Sunday. Fucking good. I'm still wrapping my head around it. Dan Jones found a Collared Plover in the valley on Saturday, and I got a text about it around 2 in the afternoon. I made plans with a buddy to chase it super early the next morning, so we pulled out of Austin at 2am, sharing the road with all the drunks. 4 hours and 45 minutes later, we were on the bird. Here are bad photos of a good bird.

So here's the deal with Collared Plover. It's about the size of a Snowy Plover, but it looks kind of like a Wilson's Plover. In relation to Wilson's Plover, it's got a thin bill and holds itself a bit daintier. It seems pretty rufous, especially on the back of the head and neck. Collared Plover ranges from mid-South America up to Mexico. This is the second ABA record, and the first in 22 years. It's a bit strange that this bird doesn't show up here more.

Here's a Snowy Plover harassing the Collared Plover. I've been informed that the harassment goes both ways.
So there's a good bird for you. I'd normally prefer to write more eloquently, but I'm still tired from 10 hours on the road so this is what you get. I should also tell you nerds that my friend Tiffany makes these badass silhouette magnets and she's made some of the Collared Plover. You should check out her Etsy shop here and buy some shit. They look super cool on a car. You'll be hip.