Sunday, July 29, 2007

The More I Bird, The Dumber I Get

"Every time I learn the name of a student, I forget the name of a fish."
—David Starr Jordon (ichthyologist and first president of Stanford University)

Right now, I'm suffering the opposite problem of the late Dr. Jordan: Every time I remember the name of a bird, I forget the name of a student. Or something I'm supposed to be teaching that student.

Maybe it only feels that way. Before I got into birding, I thought of it the same way most non-birders do: as an amiably mindless activity for children and people in the twilight of their lives. Once I got into it, I thought birding would be a skill like long-distance running or learning a second language: it would get easier with time and experience.

Instead, it just kept getting harder. The more I learned, the more I realized what I didn't know and should know. And every time I mastered some new and useful habit of bird observation ( the beak! the beak! Quick! Get the shape and length of the beak!), I learned of a dozen other things I was supposed to have noticed in the three-second period when a new bird comes into view.

This weekend presented a wealth of opportunities for me to face my ignorance. It started (as usual) with docent duty at the Least Tern reserve at Huntington State Beach. The breeding season is winding down: a few young chicks are still present, but most of this season's hatchlings have fledged and are in full undergraduate mode (flying and hunting imperfectly yet independently, and still happy to take handouts from Mom and Dad).

A pair of birders came by to check out the chicks. We started chatting, and I realized I was totally blanking on most the their questions: How many chicks hatched this year? (I had gotten an e-mail on this very topic earlier in the week, but had completely forgotten the numbers.) How long has that fence been there? (Beats the hell out of me.)

After our shift ended, Glenn and I dropped by Huntington Central Park. High in one of the trees between "the island" and the pond behind the library was a bright yellow warbler. I knew it was a warbler because of its fine bill and inability to stop moving—but what kind? Bright yellow with olive wings around here= either a Yellow Warbler or a Wilson's Warbler. But I couldn't see any of the Yellow Warbler's red streaks on its breast, and it was too high up for me to tell if it had the telltale black cap of a Wilson's Warbler.

There are no doubt ways of distinguishing the two birds apart from these obvious fieldmarks, but I have no idea what they are.

Saturday night was the Sea and Sage Audubon Summer Barbeque. The invited speaker gave a terrific presentation on the pelagic birds of Southern California—all fascinating, and none familiar to me. Many had migration and breeding patterns that reminded me of back-cover blurbs on fat historical romances ("An epic tale of sex and danger spanning four continents—Buller's Shearwater!") The speaker explained with great care and passion the tiny distinguishing features between the dozens of jaegers and petrels. They were easy to see on his well-focused slides, but would I be able to catch these on a flying bird while on the deck of a rocking boat?

Probably not. At least not yet.

Yet more stuff I now know that I don't know. Oh joy!

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