I never intended to become a birder. It just happened.
You don’t need to be a birder to look at birds. You aren’t a birder because you carry binoculars.
Birding is — ultimately — all about birds, but has nothing to do with birds. Birding is the community that surrounds looking at birds, not the activity of watching them.
It’s the people, and it’s the people involved in birding that made me a birder.
I felt it was time to acknowledge that, and say thanks.
My roots in watching birds go back a long way. I remember standing on a sand dune in Arcata, California, watching the brown pelicans dive fishing through a bait school and standing in awe and staring at these stunning birds in action. I have never tired of watching pelicans.
I’ve always been attuned to water — I find being near the water, especially near the ocean to be calming and regenerative. When I’m tired, when I’m stressed, getting out near the water helps recharge the batteries, release the tension. Living here in the Bay Area I’m blessed. The ocean is a short drive away, and special places like Fitzgerald Marine Preserve in Moss Beach and Pigeon Point and Pescadero exist away from the crowds so even on fairly busy days you can get to places that aren’t exceptionally crowded.
Better yet is to discover places along the Bay itself; Much has been developed, but we’re making progress at pulling some of it back and making it more accessible, less urban. Areas around Alviso, around Mountain View, around Palo Alto, around Redwood Shores.
You see your first black skimmer, and you think to yourself How the hell does a bird like that fly? What committee designed that?
Curiousity wins. You buy binoculars to see better. You buy a guide. You buy another. You figure out that the brash little bird out in the wetlands is a Song Sparrow, and you feel that little tingle of pride. You don’t realize it yet, but you’re hooked.
By the mid 1990′s, a camera, a guide and binocs were standard equipment. I’m primarily photographing shorebirds (and pelicans) and trying to make sense of sandpipers (yes, I hear you all out there quietly laughing. I was naive. They STILL don’t make sense). Laurie and I are in northern Oregon on a trip, at a breakfast place near astoria. We have our binocs on the table, which attracts another couple into discussion. They’re heading off to Fort Stevens after black rails. I’m off looking for sandpipers. “Shorebirds are easy. You should be photographing warblers!” she tells me.
But I like shorebirds! and it’s an excuse to get near the ocean. But she piques my interest.
Little did I know the heaven and hell that conversation was going to open up.
Over time you see people out in the places you out in. Some of those people see the binocs and come up and introduce themselves. They point things out. They answer questions. You start recognizing faces and names. They start recognizing you, and wave and point at things. You discover the mailing lists and find out there are people running around pointing out lots of places and birds and things going on you never realized.
And somewhere along the way, you’ve turned into a birder. For me, it was May, 2006. I was getting more and more serious about my photography and more and more serious about my birdwatching. I decided to get out and trip away from the familiar places — go on a birding trip — and see how much I liked it. I did some research, and did a long weekend in Morro Bay.
I ended up in Sweet Springs in Los Osos. Walking through the wetlands and into the trees. It was migration, and there were warblers all over the place — damned if I had a clue which ones. Well, I do now; Townsend’s and Yellow-Rumps primarily. Suddenly a flash of orange and yellow and a bird sits up in the shadows. Madly thumbing through the guide, I realized it was a Western Tanager, a gorgeous male.
At that moment I started Keeping Lists and stopped birdwatching and started birding. I’ve never looked back. My god, she was right. Warblers are fun to chase and photograph. So are the birds that skulk in bushes and flit in the canopy. They are also an endless source of wonderful frustration. I am not someone who tolerates adequacy in myself. If I choose to do something, I have to do it well. Birding is something you don’t get good at quickly, but you can always see the progress — and the next challenge. I have spent hours practicing with white-crowned sparrows how to see birds in bushes and get in position to get a real look at them. I’ve done the same with yellow-rumps in the canopies.
It’s only been the last six months or so where I really have started to feel like I’m good at this. I’ve been enthusiastic for a while — but enthusiasm isn’t a substitute for skill or knowledge. The hardest lesson to learn, and I think one of the most important, is when to back off and not force an ID into a situation where it’s not appropriate; when to just leave it at “a bird I wish I’d seen better”.
As a new birder, it’s all new, it’s all exotic, and your skills and knowledge are far outstripped by your naivete and enthusiasm. My work situation precluded doing many group outing where I could study from other birders, my nature tended to nudge me towards solo birding since I still saw the outings as a way to get away from everything and recharge and reflect. As such, the mailing lists and the online birding communities became my primary contact, my mentors, and as I made my inevitable mistakes they were my occasional audience for some rather enthusiastic pratfalls.
I didn’t become a birder because of the birds. I could have spent the rest of my life happily watching birds and taking photos of them without “birding”. I became a birder because of the people I found who were birders, and the community I found in birding. The last few years have been somewhat of an interesting time, in a chinese sort of way, and I found that birding because my retreat and sanctuary, and occasionally a thing I rallied my sanity around.
So I thought that, when the opportunity to host I and the Bird came up, that it was a great opportunity to talk not about birds, but about the birding community, and what it meant to me — and if you’ll indulge me a bit, to say thank you to a few people who deserve to be recognized.
If I mention nobody else, I have to mention Kris Olson. We lost Kris this year and that leaves a gaping hole in the local birding community. Kris was some of the glue that binded us together — she seemed everywhere. If a strange bird showed up somewhere, she’d appear to help chase it down and confirm it. She was a key driver in Sequoia audubon rebooting the county sighting lists. She was always there to answer a question or offer advice or suggest a place to visit, and with a smile and some gentle encouragement.
Then there are the senior birders, as I call them. Been doing this a long time, really know the region well, and are out there more or less every day surveying. They are the ones that know where to look and point out what’s there to be found, so the rest of us benefit by knowing where to look. In this area, people like Ron Thorn, Bill Bousman, Al Eisner, Bob Reiling, and Mike Mammoser not only help set the pace for most of the birders, I’ve found them all very willing to answer questions and offer advice (and occasionally kick my butt when my enthusiasm overreaches my skill), and if a report seems strange, they’re folks who’ll confirm it or suggest alternatives and help you get it right. I have been amazed on more than one occasion by Ron’s ability to ID a bird remotely via email better than I could seeing the bird in person.
You can’t pay these people back; they’d be insulted if you tried. So one of the things I’ve been thinking through is how I can contribute back into the community — to pay forward as a way of recognizing what I’ve gotten out of it.
So I’m going to close with a small call to action. Every one of us is an advocate and an ambassador to birding. Whenever we’re out there with binoculars around our necks or a scope on a tripod, our behavior reflects on the entire birdwatching community. If we act like jerks, birders will be seen as jerks — even if we merely act uninterested and aloof, we don’t make our community look good in the eyes of potential birders.
Every time we’re out on the trails or in the marshes there are opportunities for outreach. I’ve found there’s a lot of curious people out there, but many times they’re uncomfortable initiating discussion. When I notice that, I make a point of reaching out and trying to make them comfortable and see if I can answer questions. I’m not the worlds best birder — but I can show off a snowy egret or get a scope on a bluebird and show it off.
I’ve seriously considered having badges created that say “Yes, you can look!” and sew one onto my birding hat, so if I’m glued to the eyepiece, someone can see it and know it’s okay to ask. Anything to get them over that hump and get them engaged. I carry a “business” card with my personal info oriented towards my birding and my photos, and I hand it out a LOT and encourage people to email me if they have questions or want more info. A previous version of that card included a pointer to the signup page for the local birding list; the next version is going to point to a page on my web site that’ll include signup links for all of the regional birding lists as well as the regional Audubon event pages, to help encourage them to seek out a beginners walk or some other kind of activity.
It’s not about recruitment, it’s really just making a good impression and fostering curiousity. If we do that, then we’ll see people recruit themselves into the hobby, and the more people we get involved, the more good we can do for the birds, and isn’t that the point? All it costs is a smile and a hello and a willingness to spend a minute or two explaining or just letting someone look — and you get the benefit of rediscovering the joy of someone going OOH! when the see a great egret in breeding plumage show off. Me, I’m still someone who goos OOH! at that, may I never hit the point that becomes common to me…
And if you’re interested in a “Yes, please take a look!” badge, let me know. If there’s enough interest I’ll make them happen and get one to you…