Lists and Life Studies
I am not the most alert birder in the world. We used to live about an hour south of Houston, in Sugar Land, and now we live an hour and a half to the north. I have seen many new birds here that I never saw in my life before, but when birds that were familiar to me there turn up here, I have failed to recognize them. (And not like seeing someone in the grocery store, and knowing I know them but not remembering from where, more like being pretty sure I have never seen them before.)
One of the birds that was new to me here was the Pine Warbler. A guidebook description mentioned that they were often seen with Eastern Bluebirds, and that helped me make the ID.
But then, it took me a few years to realize that not every small yellow bird around here is a Pine Warbler.
Only one of these birds is actually a Pine Warbler. The other three, with the strong black and white bars on their wings, are American Goldfinches in winter plumage. I knew them by sight when I lived in Sugar Land, but here, it took me a few years to even notice them and realize they were different.
It’s easy to get clear pictures of the birds when they come in for birdseed, but when they are in the woods, it’s hard to get a good shot. Periodically I would get pictures of “Pine Warblers” that just didn’t look right – instead of standing up nice and straight, they would be bending and stretching in a way I never saw at the feeder. They looked sleeker than usual. Every year I would just file those pictures in my “mystery bird” folder.
Finally I got one picture that revealed their identity as Yellow-rumped Warblers–
— again, a bird I had seen often south of Houston. There, I used to see them flitting around right in front of me, at water’s edge at Brazos Bend State Park — here, they stay up in the trees and take off when I am a tenth of a mile from them. I should have taken more pictures at Brazos Bend. They just never seem to come out from behind the branches here. (For really nice pictures of them, you can see this post from Victor Rakmil. And like Victor and some of his commenters, I think these birds deserve a much nicer name than Yellow-rumped. If it was up to me, I would call them Sun and Shadow Warblers.)
I thought about these identification issues as I was reading Scott Weidensaul’s book Of A Feather: A Brief History of American Birding. Looking at where birding is going, he asks, how many birders are there? It depends on how you identify “birder.”
Surveys routinely show it as one of the fastest-growing outdoor activities, and depending on who’s counting, the number of birders has been pegged as high as 67.8 million Americans — which is almost certainly bogus, give that such surveys count as a birder anyone who tosses sunflower seeds for the juncos. The U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which also takes a liberal definition of “birder,” put the number at 46 million, with 24 million making trips away from home to watch wild birds.
If you look at just those who can identify more than twenty species of birds, however — itself a pretty generous definition of a birder — that figure drops to just 6 million, and those able to ID one hundred species number a few hundred thousand at best. (pp. 296, 297)
Measuring myself against this standard, my first thought was that of course I could identify 100 species. It took me a long time to learn the birds here but now I can ID most of them automatically. But I realized I can only identify my “homebirds,” and sometimes not even those.
Weidensaul’s point here is not to judge who should or should not call themselves a birder; he is trying to determine a baseline, from which to expand both the breadth of participation and the depth of knowledge among birders. But for me it was an interesting way of assessing my current level of birding knowledge.
Weidensaul talks about two schools of birding – the “lister” who is more interested in just checking off species, and the “ornithologist” who studies birds in greater depth. For myself, basic ID has to come first. I have to know what is on the list before I can study its life.
I don’t mind being a bit slow at picking up the nuances of birding. An easy identification OR the sudden correction of a previous mistake gives me the same happy feeling of things clicking into place.