Monday, October 12, 2009
Look, it's a warbler! A female Common Yellowthroat at Altamaha Waterfowl Management Area
I was fed up with birding.
Specifically, I was fed up with hunting in vain for fall warblers. My weekly strolls through Paynes Prairie, normally a highlight of my weekends, had morphed into angst-ridden death marches: watching unidentifiable backlit splotches zipping through tangles of leaves four stories in the air only reminded me of my lack of skills/luck/decent bins.
The birds were making me feel like crap. (Yup, it was all their fault! Blasted invisible Golden-winged Warblers!) It was time to step away from those sadistically elusive migrants and do something different.
And luckily, this week I was already committed to the best possible thing for a burnt-out birder: a birding festival! Because birding festivals are a great way to avoid birding.
I've only been to a few festivals, but if these were typical, birding festivals seem to involve the following:
1. Name tags with pictures of birds on them!
2. T-shirts featuring the same bird that's on your name tag!
3. Banquets with no-host bars where $7/bottle wine sells for $5 a glass!
4. Field trips where someone invariably plants him/herself directly in front of you whenever anything interesting shows up!
5. An exhibition hall filled with reps from local birding/conservation groups, reps of major optics companies, and some random guy selling photos/paintings of birds!
The Colonial Coast Birding Festival on Jekyll Island, Georgia, was no exception. The only reason I went was because a couple of my friends here in Gainesville, both serious birders and professional biologists, were among the speakers/presenters, and they had invited me to join them. (They often invite me to join them on their birding road trips; why they'd want such a clueless birder in their midst was a mystery: I figured they just wanted a low-maintenance person to split the cost of their hotel room.) So I navigated the festival's labyrinth of a website, registered for the festival, signed up for several field trips and seminars, and hitched a ride up to Jekyll Island (and shared a comfy hotel room) with my friends.
Jekyll Island is only a 3-hour drive north from Gainesville, so I wasn't expecting the variety of birds to vary too much from what I'd get back home. But I got a few surprises. Roseate Spoonbills are plentiful there, and we saw several on our drive in. (They're a fairly recent arrival on the local scene, I'm told):
The Spoonbills are coastal birds, which might explain why they aren't attracted to the inland delights of Gainesville. But there were yet more treats: on a Saturday morning trip to Altamaha Waterfowl Management Area , our group found a male and female Painted Bunting foraging together: it was a lifer for the birder who first spotted the male; she thought at first that it was a brightly colored flower! But as usual, the little beauty and his girlfriend flew off before I could get any pictures. We also had dozens of Bobolinks—a fairly new bird for me.
Another treat of the Altamaha trip was the group I ended up carpooling with: the friendly and knowledgeable trip leader, the Painted Bunting Finder, and a guy from Athens whose non-birding-related goal was to sample barbeque in each of Georgia's 100+ counties. He loved his food, and for lunch we ended up at a dumpy-looking little roadhouse (not a barbeque) at his suggestion: everyone dug into huge baskets of perfectly fried shrimp and oysters and tankards of sweet tea (too sweet for me and the Painted Bunting Lady, who was from Ohio and unfamiliar with the weirdness that is sweet tea.) I had a fish sandwich because I was broke, but it was still pretty tasty.
After lunch, my new friends dropped me off back at the festival headquarters, at the soon-to-be-demolished-and-rebuilt Jekyll Island Convention Center. This left me an hour to kill before the seminar on shorebird ID that I had signed up for. So I wandered through the exhibit hall, looking for anything that might have changed since the previous day. I found one new thing: where the seven-layer-dip and chicken fingers had been at the previous evening's social hour, there was this:
My friends came back from their afternoon of birding just after my shorebird seminar ended. They wanted to show me around the island, and they wanted to check out the campground, which had a number of feeders and water fixtures that were known for attracting good birds. There, we saw several American Redstarts and Northern Parulas, and at the feeders and birdbath were about four female Painted Buntings!
This was very cool, and suddenly I didn't hate birds, or looking for birds, anymore. I could have stayed there for hours. But we had to leave for the banquet and keynote address (a talk on bird song by Don Kroodsma) . The talk was great, and featured several eminently quotable lines. My favorite: "Science is organized curiosity." I wish I could brand this on my students' foreheads at the start of each semester!
On Sunday, our last day at the festival, I tagged along with my friends on the trip they led, then we had lunch at one of their favorite barbeque places. On the drive back to Gainesville, we listened to the CD that accompanied Kroodsma's bird song book. The variety of songs and calls was fascinating, but for some reason it made us all quite sleepy.
Back in my friends' driveway in Gainesville, I unloaded my gear and asked how much I owed them for the hotel.
"Nothing! It's paid for since we're trip leaders," they said.
Wow. Maybe I don't suck after all. Or maybe I have some redeeming non-birding-related qualities. Either way, it's good to feel normal again.