Wild Ideas: Misadventures in birding

SWAMP SMART: The swamp sparrow (Melospiza Georgiana), as its name implies, lives in wetland areas. Photo by Kevinbercaw via Wikimedia Commons.
SWAMP SMART: The swamp sparrow (Melospiza Georgiana), as its name implies, lives in wetland areas. Photo by Kevinbercaw via Wikimedia Commons.

Birding is for the birds – and birders. This time of year is one of the best bird-watching (“birding”) seasons, as migratory species stopover in Virginia on their way north or stay to breed and raise their young. Most are in full breeding plumage, so males of many species that are often brown or olive in the nonbreeding season are brilliantly attired to attract mates.

I’m admittedly a terrible birder. While I enjoy watching these feathered wonders, admire their intelligence (“bird brained” should be considered a compliment), laugh at some of their antics and am thrilled by some of their songs, I’ve always been more drawn to the creepy crawlies of the animal world – reptiles, amphibians and bugs. This is probably because they were easier to watch and catch when I was a kid and are feared, disdained or overlooked by so many people.

While I can identify most common bird species by sight, I don’t have the skills and traits of good birders: I find it hard to link sounds with species names, am not a morning person (when the majority of species are the most active), have little patience, and suffer a lot of physical pain if I stand for a long time in one spot, which is mostly what you do on a bird “walk.”

Having said that, I know how important birds are to our ecosystems and always feel frustrated at how bad I am at identifying them. So I went with some dedicated birders on a bird walk recently on a nearby property. It was a glorious spring day, so it was good to be out, half asleep or not, and the property had good birding opportunities: open fields with lots of autumn olive (a nonnative invasive bush that nevertheless attracts a lot of birds), trees, a stream, ponds and a mix of vining plants and shrubs along the edges. Good habitat, along with an expert guide who could sort out the bird songs, resulted in a tally for the morning that any birder would appreciate: 53 species identified by sight, sound, or both.

For me, the walk was mostly about unsuccessfully trying to identify bird butts flying away (Peterson’s should have a special field guide for that) and craning and peering through inadequate binoculars to try to spot birds in treetops, in back of tree trunks, below banks, low in clumps of grass, and deep in foliage. The most common questions of the day were “Where?” from me and “Did you see that?” from my companions.

Of the birds tallied, I did manage to see 29, which is a very good bird outing for me. I missed the others partly because I was trying to see species that were new to me, that I rarely see or that I love to see any time. Fitting in both of the last two categories is the native wood duck. Described on the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s All About Birds Web site (allaboutbirds.org)  as “one of the most stunningly pretty of all waterfowl,” this duck is a huge treat to spot any time, but I missed it that morning.

Other natives I missed that would have been new sightings for me were the grasshopper sparrow, white-eyed vireo, and three warblers – yellow-rumped, palm, and prairie. If you don’t know  warblers’ songs, they’re really hard to separate out, although it’s easier in their brighter spring colors.

I counted two solitary sandpipers, but in flight. Somehow I failed to find them when they landed on a pond, even with good instructions from my companions.

And that comes to the methodology of sharing the locations of birds spotted. Pointing is pretty useless except in a general sense. Unless you’re actually standing in someone’s shoes and looking through their eyes, your perspective will not be the same. So then it comes down to trying to describe the location, usually something like “see the two evergreens, the warbler is in the third deciduous tree over, in back, about halfway up, at 3 o’clock, on the third small branch coming off the largest limb.” Even if I can decode these instructions, by the time I focus my binoculars on whatever was there, it’s usually gone.

My successes for the day made up for the frustrating misses. Other than the sandpipers, I saw native species I had seen before but not often: ruby-crowned kinglet, bank swallow and orchard oriole. I’ve seen green heron many times, but seeing one again was still a pleasure.

New to me, as far as I can remember, were swamp sparrows. I almost gave up on seeing one of these, which was coyly evading my attempts by hiding in a low thicket, behind a tree trunk, and low in tall grass. Then suddenly it very casually landed in full view on some low vegetation and stuck around long enough to for me to admire this LBB (little brown bird, in birder parlance).

Other native species new to me were blue-gray gnatcatcher, yellow warbler and common yellowthroat, which is also a warbler. The last was a real treat. With its brilliant yellow throat and black mask, it’s birder eye candy, especially for a perennially green birder such as myself.

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Pam Owen
About Pam Owen 281 Articles
Writer, editor, photographer, and passionate nature conservationist living in Rappahannock County, in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia. Two favorite quotes: By E.O. Wilson, who coined the term "biodiversity," "Nature holds the key to our aesthetic, intellectual, cognitive and even spiritual satisfaction”; by Douglas Adams, “I love deadlines. I love the whooshing sound they make as they pass by.”