Saturday, February 23, 2008

The Idiot's Guide to Birding Etiquette

Don't get me started: Of course you know what this is. It's obvious to anyone with eyeballs. And no, you can't look at it. I was here first.

A few weeks ago, Glenn and I were up in L.A., where we found an odd sapsucker at the L.A. County Arboretum. After a couple of days of staring at Glenn's photos of the bird in puzzlement, I sent a message to the moderator of the Los Angeles County Birding listserv, with a picture of the sapsucker and a request that he post the photo and my request for ID help. He wrote back promptly, said he thought it was a Red-breasted/Red-Naped hybrid, and said he'd prefer that I join the group and post the message myself, which I did.

My query triggered three responses: the first saying it was obviously a Red-breasted Sapsucker; the second saying it was obviously a Red-naped, which I could have figured out if I had a copy of the Sibley guide, which, by the way, a newbie birder such as me should think of getting. The third response was an offline e-mail from another group member apologizing for the snottiness of the Red-naped guy, saying this attitude among L.A. birders was why he preferred birding in Orange County.

(And yes, before posting my query, I did look spend a lot of time poring through my copies of Sibley, Kaufman, and the National Geographic guide, as well as a lot of online images. And no, my bird didn't match up directly with any of them. Why would I be wasting everyone's time if I hadn't done this? Duh!)

This made realize how lucky I was to have first gotten into birding in OC. Not only are the birds great, but so are most of the birders. I've posted any number of dumb queries on OC Birding, and have always gotten back helpful and courteous responses. In the field, people are almost always friendly and generous about sharing their finds.

But this isn't the case elsewhere. Consider this guide to birding etiquette: much of it is common sense, but some of it seems selfish and weird. Don't ask other birders what they've been looking at? Don't join groups of birders looking at a bird? Don't ask other photographers about their gear? (What are photographers supposed to talk to each other about, then?)

To be fair, the author of this essay clearly states that he sees birding and photography as solo time, not socializing time. I can definitely relate—birding for me a a necessary escape from office politics and other human interactions I'd just as soon avoid. But part of the joy of birding is learning from the community of birders. If everyone birded competitively, and exclusively in isolation, the birding world would be a much poorer place—to the extent that it would exist at all.

So in the interest of constructive engagement (okay, venting my pet peeves), here is my guide to birding etiquette:

1. It's all about the birds. Don't do anything that might hurt or unduly stress them.

2. Be patient with new birders and non-birders: See (1): it's all about the birds: making more people aware of and appreciative of birds means making more people willing to protect birds and their environment.

3. Share your knowledge and expertise, as appropriate to your own skill level: See (1) and (2). And increasing your karmic balance never hurts.

4. Be courteous and helpful to other birders: Don't jump into the line of vision of people looking at something, don't hoard your findings, and if someone asks you what you've seen, tell them.

4a. If you have a legitimate reason not to tell them (for instance, you've found a family of nesting birds that looks stressed out, or the questioner is Ted Nugent ), a polite lie of omission may be in order. Sticking your nose in the air and walking away is not.

4b. If you're out for some "me" time and find yourself sucked into unwanted conversation with other birders/photographers, excuse yourself as diplomatically as possible. Again, a little white lie may be appropriate. How about "It's not you, it's me"?

4c. If you try to engage another birder/photographer and find that he or she wants to be left alone, just leave that person alone!

5. Don't sneer at other birders' mistakes. No matter how much you know, lording it over everyone else like some trash-talking USC halfback won't endear you to anyone. And it won't impress people who know more than you do (and there are always more of these than you think).

5a. If you insist on violating (5), you forfeit your right to complain if, the next time you misidentify some Empidonax flycatcher in a public forum (and this will happen, since you're human), every birder in a 100-mile radius jumps all over you like a police informant in San Quentin.

6. Photographers: Enough of the Canon-Nikon wars already! Sheesh.

Oh yes, the bird in the picture above? It's an adult male American Redstart, which has been wintering in Laguna Niguel Regional Park. Glenn took this photo yesterday. Cute little bugger!

Sunday, February 17, 2008

Hear, Hear

Glenn and I have now survived Week 2 of Sylvia Gallagher's Birding by Ear class. We're definitely getting our tuition's worth; the field trips, homework, in-class exercises, and a long-term project requiring class participants to log in every new bird sound heard between now and August, will ensure that nobody will be able to complain about not learning anything new.

In terms of content, the class reminds me of a weird mashup between my undergraduate courses in acoustic phonetics and music theory and composition. (Not that this helps me, as I had little talent for either acoustic phonetics nor classical composition.) But it's changing the way I bird, and in a good way—now I can't leave the house without automatically trying to tease apart the random overlapping twitters and chirps from unseen sources off in the distance.

Today, we got a nice little reward for our efforts: a wintering Brown Creeper at TeWinkle Park—whom we managed to locate by sound.

We went to the park specifically to look for the Creeper, since Glenn wanted to get some better photos of it. We had no idea if the bird would still be there or not; the park was crowded with picnickers and dog-walkers, and didn't look too promising for birds. We walked up to the stand of pines on the central hill in the park and started looking. Since we'd just gotten back from a field trip for Sylvia's class, we were still in our intensive listening mode, and among the familiar calls of Yellow-rumped Warblers, Black Phoebes, and Anna's Hummingbirds was another, unfamiliar sound, a high-pitched, clear tsee, tsee, tsee. The Creeper!

From then on, he was pretty easy to find, as he moved through the area, working his way upwards on each tree before darting down to land on another. As Glenn shot away, I watched the Creeper pick out and swallow surprisingly large termites and bees.

And it seemed like only moments later when I looked at my watch and realized that we had spent nearly two hours staring at a single bird. Creepy.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

The Birds of Fantasy Island

A Red-whiskered Bulbul at the Los Angeles County Arboretum

The Los Angeles County Arboretum is the former estate of a 19th-century robber baron and nature lover. As any L.A.-raised kid who's ever been on a school field trip knows, it's now a lush series of gardens and plant collections inhabited by large, noisy colonies of feral guinea fowl and peafowl. And, as any L.A.-raised kid of older vintage knows, it's also the location of the Victorian cottage featured in the opening scenes of "Fantasy Island": the bell tower and even the bell that Tattoo rang every week are still there. (This important cultural fact is conspicuously absent from the commemorative plaques and educational placards surrounding the cottage.)

We spent the weekend in L.A., celebrating the Lunar New Year with my parents, and managed to fit in some birding and photography time with some of Glenn's L.A.-based photo buddies. We met at the Arboretum to see the Red-whiskered Bulbul the L.A. guys had seen there previously: It was not hard to find; indeed there was a biggish flock of them flitting about in the aloe/drought-resistant plant garden near the main entrance.

My personal, arguably more ambitious goal was to find the Yellow-bellied Sapsucker that had also been seen in the aloe garden the week before. There was only one tree in the area that looked woodpecker-friendly, and it was riddled with sapsucker wells, which seemed promising. And it didn't take long before we found, well, some kind of sapsucker:

It had yellow on its throat and a yellowish wash to its breast and belly, so we were sure this was THE bird. But as the photo shows, it has way too much red on its head for a Yellow-bellied. And too much black on its face for a Red-breasted or Red-naped (at least, judging from the photos of these birds I've been Googling over the last few days when I should have been working.) I'm guessing it's a hybrid of some sort. Or not. (A birder I asked about this thinks it's a Red-breasted/Red-naped cross, with not a drop of Yellow-bellied blood involved.)

It seemed like the kind of thing that should happen to me at Fantasy Island: on the show, everyone got to live out his or her fantasy, but it never turned out exactly as planned. There was always some kind of humbling (and usually humiliating) life lesson involved. My humbling life lesson is that I shouldn't get excited about getting lifers without doing my homework first.

But if this bird is part Red-naped, can I still count it as half a new species on my list?

Sunday, February 3, 2008

Feeling Peckish

This sucks.

I love the sensation of seeing a new bird. I love going home with the image of the bird seared in my mind, and the satisfaction of entering my sighting on eBird, and seeing the number by my online life list increase in tiny increments. There's no feeling like it...

Except the thrill of trying a new food—I love eating as much as birding (and luckily, as much as long-distance swimming and running and my healthy and reasonably slim parents—so fortunately, I don't look like Jabba the Hutt). Every new dish feels like a tick on my culinary life list: Pupusas! Bibimbap! Chapulines! Yum or yuck, it's part of my life education, and it's all good.

And just as I sometimes get a craving for certain foods, I get cravings for certain birds: for no particular reason, I've just got to see one. For the past few weeks, Glenn and I have had a hankering for Sapsuckers, and yesterday we set out to find one.

We went to Irving Regional Park, where both Red-breasted and Red-naped Sapsuckers have been recently reported. In the little parking lot between the pond and the horse stables, we found a veritable thrush-fest: Western Bluebirds and Hermit Thrushes flitting about in large numbers, along with a bright American Robin. Noisy Red-crowned Parrots were everywhere, and among them was this guy, whom I was told was a hybrid between a Red-crowned and Yellow-headed Parrot.

Adding to the cacaphony was a Belted Kingfisher hanging out by the pond, occasionally diving for fish.

We were admiring the handful of Wood Ducks swimming among the Mallards in the pond when we ran into a couple of birder buddies, who had also come to find Sapsuckers. Since they are much more knowledgeable birders than us (who isn't?), we gladly tagged along after them—and were delighted to find that they were after the exact same birds we were.

First, we looked for Ring-necked Ducks in the pond. They were there, but not being very cooperative for photos. Next we looked for, and dipped on, the Lewis' Woodpecker and Barn Owl known to hang out in the top part of the park. No matter; we kept ourselves amused with White-breasted Nuthatches, and Acorn and Nuttall's Woodpeckers. We heard, but couldn't see, a Northern Flicker off in the distance.

We headed back towards our starting point, and paused by a noisy, birdy grove of trees by the zoo: it was filled with parrots and woodpeckers. I watched a pissed-off Acorn Woodpecker dive-bombing a pair of parrots and wondered if we would ever find those sapsuckers...

Almost as soon as this thought passed my mind, I heard someone yell "Sapsucker!" and saw a blur of red and black fly by. We sprinted after it and waited. Our friends told us that sapsuckers, unlike other woodpeckers, tend to hide in the foliage of trees so it would be best to wait, look around carefully, and be there when he decided to come out into the open again. Which he eventually did—which gave us our first really close look at a Red-breasted Sapsucker!

Of course, this taste only made us hungry for more, so we continued to scour the area—without success—for more Sapsuckers. After a while, we decided to head back to San Joaquin to pick up some books at the Audubon House before it closed. But we'll be back for more.