Birding has become one of America’s most popular activities. More than 50 million people do it. Non-believers may think birding is about as thrilling as stamp collecting, but I’ll bet they’ve never chased an elusive stamp through a briar patch.
One reason birding has become so popular is that it can be as passive or active as desired. It can be as simple as watching birds at the feeder, or it can be a headlong pursuit of the strange and unusual. And everything in between. Basically, passive birding is when the birds find you, perhaps while you’re planting petunias. Active birding is when you find the birds. It’s birding with a purpose.
I get a kick out of watching people discover what is just beyond the backyard. Sure, there’s a simple joy in watching blue jays and cardinals around the house, but beyond the fence there are hundreds of undiscovered species lurking. For instance, a simple walk along the paths of Bangor City Forest will turn up many of the 154 species that have been tallied there.
The Penobscot Valley Chapter of Maine Audubon will offer many walks in May. You’ll read about them next week. However, it’s easy to feel intimidated when an expert identifies birds in the field; they tune into so many clues. The truth is, most of those clues are pretty simple, and the tricks are easily learnable. We’ll prove it tonight. Maine Audubon’s Staff Naturalist, Doug Hitchcox, is presenting a program on how to recognize birds quickly, by sight, sound, and behavior. It’s free! (Fields Pond Audubon Center in Holden at 7 p.m. Friday.)
Is it possible to collect stamps for science? Because birding for science is a real thing. Maine is in the second year of a five-year study to figure out where all of Maine’s breeding birds are. A similar survey was conducted 30 years ago. By documenting the differences over time, scientists can track environmental changes. Climate change, habitat loss, pollution and vagaries in the food web can all rearrange the bird map. And if bad stuff is happening to birds, it may well be happening to us. Think DDT and the near extinction of eagles, falcons and ospreys. Currently, we’re watching a big decline in swallows, and we don’t know why.
Hitchcox is sticking around after his presentation tonight. The atlas is a big project, requiring 1,000 plus volunteers statewide, and he’ll be introducing birders to the project Saturday morning at Fields Pond. (9 –11 a.m., free.) It’s actually pretty easy, and it can be done as close to home or as far-flung as you desire. I prefer the wilder side of birding, so I’ve adopted a couple of survey blocks around Moosehead Lake and Baxter State Park. Birding with a purpose can be exhilarating — much more pulse-pounding than stamp-collecting.
Of course, for true exhilaration, I recommend doing a birdathon. Nothing improves skills like being forced to find a bird. A birdathon is also called a Big Day. It’s an attempt to find as many birds as possible within 24 hours, though most local teams don’t go out for the full 24. There’s an adrenaline rush that comes from charging around all day, searching for birds. Elation follows each new species sighted. Despair accompanies each big miss. Best of all, anybody can do it, even the most inexperienced backyard birder. Common birds count just as much as rare ones.
Usually a birdathon is done in teams. There are rules, but we mostly ignore them. Over the years, we’ve had teams of mothers and children, teens on bikes, and one team that strove to find the most birds over the fewest miles. Some teams go out for only a few hours. Some go all day. The adventure is supposed to be fun, not grueling … unless grueling is part of the fun.
Start by figuring out who else in your circle is crazy enough to seek birds all day, or even for just a few hours. Choose a funny name for your team. Don’t worry about misidentifications; nobody’s checking. Besides, as a team, everyone can share the thrill of misidentifying a bird together. The chapter has put all the information necessary to get started on its website at pvc.maineaudubon.org/birdathon. Or you can just email me. My address is always at the bottom of this column.
I don’t know how many birders I’ll hear from now, but I won’t be surprised to hear from some irate stamp-collectors.
Bob Duchesne serves as vice president of Maine Audubon’s Penobscot Valley Chapter. He developed the Maine Birding Trail, with information at mainebirdingtrail.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.