I began October by celebrating another birthday. Well, not celebrating exactly. These days, my ambition is to survive birthdays. Then it hit me. I was in first grade when American goldfinches captivated my attention, making me a lifelong birder at the tender age of 7. OMG, I’ve been birding for 60 years! Surely I must have learned something along the way. In fact, I have. Here are some accumulated pearls of wisdom.
Bird identification is confusing. It’s supposed to be. If every bird was the same, who’d bother? How excited would geologists be if every rock was granite?
Fall warblers are confusing. They’re supposed to be. When songbirds molt into a drab, indistinct plumage in autumn, it’s to make them less conspicuous. Confounding humans is merely a side benefit. Mostly, they just don’t want to be eaten.
The best way to make fewer mistakes is to make more mistakes. Identification errors are a fast way to learn. There’s no shame in being wrong. I do it all the time. If you’d prefer a mistake-free hobby, try skydiving.
Color deceives. It’s a helpful field mark, but there is so much variation between young and old, male and female, spring and autumn birds, that color is often an unhelpful clue. Other field marks persist in all seasons, even when the bird has turned drab. Breast streaks, wing bars, eye lines, throat color, tail feathers – they all matter more than color.
Good birders often say “What the heck is that?” When seeing a new bird for the first time, even experts may not know what it is. But they know what it isn’t. They’re familiar with the familiar birds. The first step in identifying a new bird is to realize it needs identifying. “What the heck is that?”
My identification skills have improved since I was 7. However, every step of the way, I never realized it was happening. It just kinda did. Looking back, I now recognize several transitions. Beginners learn to identify birds by sight. Intermediate birders start to identify birds by sound. Advanced birders begin to recognize birds by behavior. Besides “What the heck is that?” I now find myself more often saying “What the heck is it doing?” I don’t even remember when that started.
There are no perfect binoculars. Every pair is a compromise. More power equals more weight. Smaller size means smaller lenses – a dimmer image in low light. Cheaper binoculars may not last, and they don’t produce the bright, clear image that better optics deliver. Money buys durability, better glass and outstanding repair service, but no amount of money can buy perfect optics. Try before you buy. All binoculars look good on a sunny day. Try them on a rainy day, or foggy day, or at twilight – you know, the kind of conditions that birders experience in the real world.
Buy the best binoculars you can afford. Good optics last a lifetime. There isn’t a lot of quality difference between the higher-end brands, so manufacturers often compete on service. I’m impressed by how major brands will bend over backwards to fix whatever you screw up, at no cost.
No squirrel-resistant bird feeder is foolproof to a sufficiently foolish squirrel.
How real is climate change to birds? In 60 years, I’ve seen a score of southern species move north. I can’t think of a single northern bird that has moved south.
I’m not sure which highly intelligent animal is poised to take over the earth once humans have rendered the planet uninhabitable for our species, but I suspect it’s crows.
If a rare bird shows up in Maine, it will undoubtedly leave a half hour before I get there.
Individual birds have individual personalities. I never realized how true that was until I got acquainted with a number of male spruce grouse. Since they are approachable and they defend predictable territories in the spring, I’ve gotten to know several grouse personally. Some are bolder than others. Some are clowns.
The digital age has changed birding. Nowadays, there’s an app for everything. Identification assistance by sight or sound is no farther away than the smartphone in your pocket. Does anyone carry a guidebook into the woods anymore?
Digital photography has also changed birding. High quality wildlife photography has become more affordable, and some experienced birders are shooting first, identifying later. Nonetheless, some of the higher-end camera gear I now see others carrying routinely on birding trips cost more than my first year of college.
I still think American goldfinches are awesome.
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.