Thursday, May 14, 2009

Things not to do

So I have realized that just as important as to what TO DO is what NOT to do.   So today after finishing my plant physiology paper and my community ecology homework I drafted this list:

5. Do NOT harass birds
Birders harass birds way more than necessary. There is a definite line and you have to know when you're crossing it.  Playing tape for nesting birds is a no-no, getting too close for photography another no-no.  You may think - what's the big deal if it's only one person.  And it may not be a big deal if its only one person.  But when it comes to rarities there's no way its only one person.
My students often ask to be an exception to the rule.  To get credit for an assignment they didn't do, or for another chance.  But rules are rules for a reason.  Following the birding ethics is important (
Ivory Gull crowd grows in Gloucester, MA

4. Do NOT bird only in the spring-fall
Honestly, the winter can provide some of the most amazing birding.  It is a trying experience but wonderful things can be seen.  I historically only ever birded when it was nice enough to enjoy being outside.  But they make down and gore-tex for good reasons.  Use them.  Go north! Go see winter finches, Hawk-owls, and Great Grey Owls.  Go see Bohemian Waxwings.  Spend a day scanning for alcids freezing your bum off!  Go look for ducks in the rain.  You'll be surprised at how much fun it can be with the right attitude.  Besides - its way better than sitting inside getting a cold from being so close to so many people.

3. Do NOT trust people's identifications
Ok that sounds a bit harsh - but seriously - people get things wrong (see number 2).  So don't believe everything everyone tells you.  Check people's ID's.  It is good practice and it helps you learn better details.  

2. Do NOT feel bad when you goof up
Everyone does it.  You will too.  So get over it now.  Heck I've even thought sticks were birds before and I've been part of the silliest "Dovekie" experience in NH - where 5+ birders stood around calling a bird a Dovekie even though each and every one of them was thinking "gee it has a really long bill" or "gee thats really bigger than I thought a Dovekie would be'.   One listserv post of a photo later the bird was re-identified as a Thick-billed Murre
Day One as a birder I called a Titmouse (pronounced tit - mouse) a Tit-Moose.  Yes, its true.  Go ahead and laugh.  It's no wonder it took me so long to come around from non-birder to birder side of the world.  
The point here is - you're going to mess up.  But shake it off, move on and learn from your mistake.  KNOW WHY you goofed up - and next time work on getting it right.  You'll feel really good about it (just as all the Dovekie birders felt really good about properly identifying Thick-billed Murre's on their next pelagic trip). 

1. Do NOT be stubborn
Nothing annoys other birders more than when you identify something wrong and refuse to listen to what other say, particularly when you asked for opinions. This happens more than you think.  But for that matter, always be willing to listen to what others say.  Do not feel bad when you make a mistake.  Everyone does it (see #2 again).  The important thing is to be open to othe people's comments.  If all the evidence is going against you change your identification, or at the very least leave it at the species level.  
For example: If you think you've found a Thayer's Gull and everyone says its Herring Gull but you're confident it's not a normal Herring Gull leave it at Larus sp.  
If your bird isn't accepted, don't mope about - just go out and find another.  

Finally, always remember what the great Steve Mirick said and "do not talk while listening for Winter Wren".  At least not at the NH Coastal CBC.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Birding Tips

Now you may laugh and go why on earth are YOU giving ME birding tips.  You've been birding for what 2 years seriously? However, many of you have asked me questions, and I imagine that
in 2 years I have learned more than most and the fact that I'm constantly learning and things are fresh in my brain that some of this may help anyone who reads this.

Tip 1: Bird with experienced birders

Birding with someone more experienced forces you to push your "game" to a new level.  It forces you to learn fast and to pick up on very specific details that "give away" a bird's identity.  However, make sure you QUESTION their identification.  ASK WHY! And remember - everyone makes mistakes.  Don't just take their ID's for granted.  Learn from them.  Learn about migration patterns, historic records, etc.

Tip 2: Bird with less experienced birders

Yes, this may seem like a contradiction.  However, birding with less experienced people is
 equally as critical to becoming a good birder.  You never learn as much when you are forced to teach.   An inexperienced birder will ask questions you may never have thought of and its a great opportunity to learn more yourself and share that which you have learned.  Also, the excitement of showing someone a bird they've never seen before but is regular or rare reminds you not to
 take any bird for granted.

Tip 3: Spend time on confusing birds

Take time to work out details of shorebird molting patterns, take time to work through fall
 warblers, take time to study female birds, and just spend time on the finer details of common birds - especially gulls.  
Again, don't take people's ID's for granted.  Learn why.  Learn things like head shape, get a feel for the general impression of shape and size of birds.  Sure when plumages are vastly different in the spring things may be easier - but often rare birds show up in the fall (at least in NH) when plumages are not as vastly different.  
Shape, size, and impression can help you identify birds quicker and can help you pick out the
 thing that is different faster - which may be the deciding factor if you have limited time in identifying a bird - particularly if it is flying by.

Tip 4: Use multiple field guides

Each field guide offers different tips - look at them all.  Don't just buy the dummy bird guide - rare birds show up.  Knowing what they look like is essential.  Why should someone else find them for you?  Be prepared to find them yourself.

Tip 5: Be aware of local patterns

Learn where to find information - Audubon, Universities, and of course other Birders!  Talk to people who have been birding the area for a long time.  They know what's happening.  They
 know history, they know patterns, they know where to look.... everything.  From that you
 should learn when to expect birds to arrive, where to expect them to arrive,  and where to look for them.  Being prepared puts you in the right mindset for when you are in the field.  You are less likely to be thrown by a bird that is unusual if you know the most likely unusual things to show up.

Tip 6: Know your Goal

Have goals.  Know what they are. If you're trying to set a big year record, if you're trying to see
 life birds, if you're trying to understand backyard bird patterns, if you're trying to watch
 migration, if you're trying to do a big day... your strategy should be different!  Knowing what you want to see or do changes how you approach your time in the field.  You have to budget your time out in the field because there are only so many hours of light in the day and you can only
 visit so many places in a day/month/year/lifetime.

Tip 7: Get good optics

They make a difference.  Trust me.  They make a world of difference.  Spend at least 200$ and
 ideally about 5 times as much on binoculars.  It's an investment.  

The celebratory 300th life bird cake after I spotted a Grasshopper Sparrow for my 300th life bird.  I'm now at 398 on my life list - stay tuned for what 400 brings!

Tip 8: Keep a list

A lot of people seem to not like lists because it makes a bird a checkmark.  However, making a list is good for data and good to see what you've seen and where.  It doesn't have to be official.  You don't have to compare.  It's helpful to know what you've seen and where.  It puts things into
 perspective - and its a good way to track your progress.  Record everything.  It may just be the scientist in me - but it pays off in the long run.  You never know when you'll stumble on something new or when you're notes will make a difference.

Tip 9: Don't just identify - watch

Don't just identify a bird and move on (unless it's a big day).  Spend time watching birds and
 their behavior.  You never know what you'll find.  Also, certain behaviors like tail pumping can become very helpful in identification.  Watching birds feed can also be fascinating - if you don't believe me just watch this:

Tip 10: Be patient and have FUN!

People will second guess you... You'll get things wrong.  You'll be unable to identify birds.  Do not get discouraged.  Stick with it - it takes time.  It's not about being the best.... its about having FUN!  Be aware that your attitude about birding can affect those around you.  Do your best to remain positive.  I've had my fair share of moments where I've been too negative and
 discouraging  to myself and others.  I regret every one of them.
Have fun.  Birds are awesome.  3/4 of all birds are in decline.  Birding is really a great opportunity to understand the world around you in another way.  It is a fun way to get out, see something cool, to learn, to be connected, and to gain a better sense of place.  There are birding competitions, but birding is not a competition.  It is a fun experience that anyone can enjoy.

Jessie and I having fun when the Thick-billed Murre showed up in Hampton, NH

Friday, May 01, 2009

So apparently I haven't updated in a month...

So here you go!

In the past month I've done 2 main things
1. Research
2. Birding

In the UNH research world I've moved forward on my research proposal and have officially gotten myself a committee!  We even had our first official committee meeting! This is good because it puts me on track to get started in the field ASAP. 

In the birding world I've moved my year-list up to 190 in NH and 200+ overall.  Its been a lot of fun.  April has been an interesting month as it has been dry but warm.  A lot of the warblers seem to be moving in much sooner than expected.  In fact, I've tied in setting an April Warbler record of 21 species and 17 species in one day!!!

Also, I've moved my life list up to 397 with the addition of birds like Sora, Great Gray Owl, and Yellow-breasted Chat.

Finally, I've seen and heard lots of herps and mammals including this very cute fox:

All photos are posted on: