Sunday, August 2, 2009
Look, it's that thing! It's in those trees!
Summer birding frustrates me to no end: First, it's freaking hot out. Second, there not many birds around. And third, the few that are around are fiendishly difficult to see in the thick summer foliage. During a brief but pointless outing to Lake Wauberg yesterday, I heard only the usual suspects—Northern Cardinals, Carolina Wrens, Red-bellied Woodpeckers—and actually saw only half a dozen birds. Not species. Birds.
And since I paid $4 to get there (the lake and a very pretty boardwalk are accessed through the Paynes Prairie State Park main entrance), this adventure cost me—as Glenn pointed out— 66 cents a bird.
I persist in doing this to myself every weekend to get my bird-locating skills in tune for fall, when all the good migrants show up. That, and a weekend without birding would be just too sad.
Finding small birds in trees is, for me, the hardest thing about birding. There's nothing worse than being with a group of ecstatic people all looking at some marvelous rarity when all I can see are leaves. I've dipped on way too many birds this way. Like that beautiful bright male Cerulean Warbler at Loblolly Nature Center last fall—I was standing shoulder-to-shoulder with three people who were all looking at it. Or that Bay-breasted Warbler at Palm Point a week later. Or...or...or...
Of course, all my birding companions tried to be helpful. They sincerely wanted to share the moment with me, and all tried their best to help me locate the prize. Unfortunately, more times than not, birders' "help" in such situations goes something like this:
"Did you see it yet? It's right up there!"
"In those trees—you know, through that green stuff."
Describing the location of birds in random tangles of moss and vines is hard, as I know from the rare occasions when I'm actually the one doing the locating and explaining. But sometimes, even directions that are (probably) completely coherent throw me. Such as directions that refer to really specific tree types: I'm terrible with tree names.
Back in California, half the songbirds that would show up on the Orange County Rare Bird Alerts listserv would be reported as being seen in a Myoporum tree. And birders I'd run into would constantly describe some cool thing they saw a couple hundred yards away as being in a Myoporum. And I had no idea what a Myoporum was, except that there must be a lot of them in Orange County. Whenever someone mentioned one, I promised myself I'd look it up when I got home, but I never got around to it.
The 600+ birds of North America and their plumages and vocalizations are enough of a challenge—right now, I have neither the time nor brain cells to add trees to the mix.
In Florida, botanical directions are even less useful to me; most of the plants and trees around here were completely unfamiliar to me when I moved here, as were their names. And there's simply a greater diversity and density of intertwined green stuff around here than in the coastal sage scrub near my old place in Orange County, and thus more unfamiliar names to trip me up.
And to make matters worse, many of the serious birders around here are not only experts on local birds, but all-around polymaths of the natural world. They not only know all the birds, but can and will tell you—in gory detail—about the life cycle of every life form in north-central Florida. On just about every Alachua Audubon field trip, one of these people would nonchalantly reach out, pluck a leaf off some green life form, rub it between the fingers, give it an appreciative sniff, and say something like this:
"You know what this is? It's a [unfamiliar plant name]. These things like to grow in [name of typical north-central Florida habitat]. The [name of historically significant Florida ethnic group] used to use their [name of plant part, plural] for [name of useful object or purpose]."
If only I could keep all these fragrant, useful, and historically significant plants in my head while simultaneously trying to learn East Coast bird songs and avoiding snakes and spiders. Then, maybe, I'd actually be able to see all those *$%& cool migrants everyone else is gasping at.
But there are a few masters at the subtle art of oral bird location. A few tricks I've learned: clock directions are good ("it's at 2:00 in the tall tree in the middle"). Describing locations in terms of a fixed location such as the horizon or a tree top everyone can see and agree on also works. As do easily calculable measurements ("it's at 2:00 in the tall tree in the middle, about a third of the way between the sky and the trunk").
And then there was the most effective way of all, favored by one of the local birding gurus: if you're the finder, keep the bird in your sights. Line your head up with that of the clueless soul who hasn't seen the bird yet. Then gently grasp that person's head (ask first) and point it where your head is looking: at the bird.
It worked on me. No redundant vocalization needed.