BVD's Seven Fold Path to Better Birding

There was a time, for most of us, when we went in awe of every experienced birder we met. I mean, a flash of feathers on the horizon and someone in the group is calling off species, sex, maturity, and feather wear pattern. It never fails, 300 yards out, someone will say, "Shush, there are titmice in that bush over there..." to which you reply, "Where? What bush?" casting frantically around, trying to line up on the spot where all the expert binoculars are pointing, and, just when you think you might have the right bush, and are rocking the focus back and forth for all you were worth, someone undoubtedly says, "Oh, there they go!" You get out from behind your binoculars just in time to see a loose ball of gray flits disappear over the next ridge. "Oh," you say, casually wiping the sweat off your palms on your pants' legs, "so those were titmice," to which someone in the group invariably replies with a complete life history of the species, including descriptions and imitations of the calls of the various races, while others regale you with accounts of various sightings memorable for numbers, odd associations, or unique seasons and locals. It seems like magic, like some sort of Zen thing, like the experts walk and talk in another dimension of reality where the birds are, and you wonder, perhaps with a touch of despair, how it is done, how you get there, and if mere mortals like us can take passage.

There are three possible responses to such intimidation. 1. You can simply give up on birding, taking the "I'll never be able to do that in a hundred years" attitude, 2. You can buckle down and learn, taking the "I can do that and I will!" attitude, or 3. You can laugh, taking the "I'm just out here to enjoy the birds, and I'm not going to let what I don't know and can't do spoil my fun" attitude. Obviously, I can not recommend response number 1! Either 2 or 3, on the other hand, have a fair chance of turning every beginner into an expert. Combine the "I can do it" attitude with a good healthy laugh, and you are on to a sure thing.

Still, a little guidance, a few friendly tips, a few pearls of Zen-like wisdom, might not be amiss. So here it is (with apologies to the Buddha), BVD's Seven Fold Path To Better Birding. Attend!

1. Don't bother the birds
2. Ears before eyes, eyes before binoculars
3. Bird a lot
4. Attempt to identify every bird you see
5. Study
6. Keep records
7. Enjoy

In this issue, we will expand on the first two folds of the path.

1. Don't bother the birds.
I'll let you in on a secret. This tenet of the path is one that many experts have never mastered, that some, to their loss, are not even aware of. Birds lead active, somewhat precarious, lives. They are always doing something important...whether it is feeding, resting, mating, brooding young, defending territory, or simply expressing the joy of a morning in spontaneous song. Whatever they are doing is vital to their well being. If your presence takes them away, for any length of time, from what they would otherwise be doing you are detracting from the quality of their lives. Every birder has at least one story of a rare or unusual species that was driven off by too many, too eager, birders, of a first nesting attempt that failed because too may humans came to look, of birds harassed beyond reason or the bounds of simple kindness. It ought not to be! We birders, of all people, should respect the lives of the birds that fill us with such joy. Obviously, just being out in the field will change the behavior of birds somewhat. They will interact with us, respond to our presence, give us some attention, just as we give our attention to them. That's okay. We are, after all, a natural part of their environment. In the normal course of things they will check us out, make sure we are no threat, and then go on with whatever the moment demands. We then have the privilege of watching and enjoying their lives. It is when we do become a threat that we are really intruding too far...when we force the birds to give us all their attention, to focus on us to the exclusion of "normal" activities. Pisshing a bird up in a bush so that we can see it seems okay to me. Pursuing a bird from bush to bush for 10 minutes does not. Using owl calls or tapes to attract birds in a forest might be okay (I don't do it myself, but I know lots of birders who do), unless it is a forest, like those around Cave Creek in southeast Arizona, where there are more birders with tapes than there are owls. Unregulated use of tapes in such popular birding areas can waste a significant amount of time and energy for the birds over a nesting season. When a bird begins to "dive bomb" and otherwise harass you because you are too close to a nest or fledglings, it is, quite simply, time to leave. Observe the birds. You will quickly learn how close you can be, for how long, before you become an unacceptable distraction. A last note: birds are amazingly tolerant of humans in their territories. That's half the joy of birding, being able to get close and observe. Respecting the birds right to be is the only way to make sure they remain tolerant. Don't, please don't, bother the birds.

2. Ears before eyes, eyes before binoculars.
Ears before eyes:
We are visual beings, relating to the world around us largely through our sense of sight. One of the first things the beginning birder needs to learn is to turn on his or her ears. I am not thinking here of being able to identify birds by their calls or songs, though that is an important skill that will develop over time. What I am talking about is simply being aware of the sounds around you. The expert birder listens to every rustle in the grass, every leaf turning in the wind, every bush rattling and weed whistling. Even on a windy day you can hear the difference between wind sounds and the sounds caused by birds moving. And, of course, birds are seldom silent for long. They call, they sing, they twitter. You will hear most birds before you see them, and the better you get at listening, the more birds you will hear, and therefore see! Listen. Turn to every unwindy rustle and whistle. Learn to swivel your head to identify the direction of sound by the changes you hear. When you know about where to look, birds are much easier to see. Expert birders develop "long ears." (You might note that many experienced birders do the "long ear" bit without even being aware of it. If you ask them how they knew there was a bird in that particular tree, they won't be able to tell you, but in fact, what happened was that they heard a branch rattle or a leaf rustle and instinctively turned to see what it was.) Develope the habit of listening and turning to every birdy sound, and you will see a lot of birds.

Eyes before binoculars:
If you can not find a bird with your naked eyes, you will never find it in the narrow field of binoculars. Look carefully. Cultivate the corners of your eyes so that you pick up and orientate on any movement. Scan, don't stare! You are much more likely to pick up a bird if your eyes are moving than you are if you are focused on one spot. Only when you have pinpointed the bird should you actually focus in on it. Once seen, give yourself a moment to get your whole mind and body orientated on the bird before you bring up the binoculars. It's like the old baseball adage: Keep your eye on the bird, focus your mind on it, and the binoculars will naturally follow to place the bird in the field. You will be surprised how easy it is!

Fold Three: Bird a lot
Birders learn to bird by birding. You have to be out in the field or by the window overlooking the have to be where the birds are and you have to spend time looking at them. There is no substitute for time spent focused on birds. Put your binoculars on a table or a stand by the window. If you can place a feeder outside, do it, but really any window will do. Every time you pass that window, look out to see what the birds are doing. If there is anything there, pick up the binoculars and have a look. Don't leave the house without your binoculars. When you take the garbage to the curb, hang your binoculars around your neck and stick your field guide in your back pocket. When you drive to the 7-11, your binoculars and guide should be on the seat beside you. As you drive (and as traffic allows) check out the telephone and power lines, hedge and fence tops, and every tree you see. It is not necessary to stop (or not often), but if you are aware of the birds as you drive you will soon get a sense for what birds are where in your neighborhood. If you see something of interest, but can't get a good look at it, come back when you have time. Ideally, put in 15 minutes to an hour a day of serious birding. Combine it with exercise. If you jog, take your binoculars. Set up a short walk around the neighborhood and do it, binoculars in hand, every day, or three times a week, or every Saturday morning. Make birding part of your week at the least, part of your day if you can. If you have a window handy at work, and an understanding boss, put your binoculars on your desk, worktable, or whatever. Instead of sitting in the cafeteria and going over paperwork (or the latest gossip) at lunch, take your lunch, and your binoculars, to the nearest park and bird from a bench. The more time you spend birding the faster you will learn. I guarantee it.

At least once a week, or every other week if that is all you can swing, set aside two to three hours for a trip further afield. There is nothing like being where there are lots of birds to keep up your interest and enthusiasm. Check out every reasonably sized body of water within an hour's drive. See what's on the water, but don't forget to spend at least as much time in the hundred yards or so that fringes the shore. Set yourself to walk the edge of a nearby forest, swinging in and out of the treeline as opportunity presents itself. If there is a National Wildlife Refuge, or an Audubon or Nature Conservancy Sanctuary nearby, get ye hence! Check your local papers for organized bird walks and field trips, pluck up your courage, and go. (No one will laugh at you. There is nothing most expert birders like better than a chance to introduce a novice to the finer points, and the joys, of field identification.) Ask every birder you meet where to go to see birds in your area and make time to visit those places.

Fifteen minutes a day of birding, with an occasional two to three hour field trip, will get you further faster than a week of solid birding once a year at some hot spot (birders call particularly bird rich&endash;locations or locations where there are many rare birds hot spots), but a week (or even a day) at a hot spot can add the spice to your birding that keeps you at it day after day around home. When planning vacations, keep that in mind. You will be surprised at how many bird rich areas there are, many of them conveniently located near major tourist attractions that will keep the rest of your family happy. A subscription to any of the major birding magazines will give you lots of information on hot spots.

Corollary to Fold Three:

Real birders not only bird a lot, they get so they bird all the time!

Folds Four and Five
It is good to remember here, that we are talking about a path, not a ladder or a non-stop highway between two points. Precepts Four and Five obviously feed into each other, and can only take place in the context of Precept Three, while practicing Precepts One and Two. Precept Six only makes sense if you are already doing the first five, and if, at any point, you forget Precept Seven you will lose the whole point of the exercise (and, very likely, quit birding).

4. Attempt to identify every bird you see
The operative word in precept four is attempt. No birder, no matter how experienced, can identify every bird he or she sees. Sometimes you just don't get a good enough look, and sometimes there is simply no visible or audible way to differentiate two likely species. As a novice, in your first few trips afield, you may not be able to identify anything beyond a Robin or a Blue Jay. That's okay. We all started there.

It is a matter of attitude, really. You must keep this in mind. Birds can be identified. Thousands, hundreds of thousands, of people have learned enough about birds to be able to name most of the species they see, at least within their own regions. You can do it too. All you have to do is make the effort. Attempt, right from the beginning, to identify every bird you see.

It is easier than I am making it sound. If you only know Robins and Blue Jays begin there. Every time you see a bird you don't know, ask yourself, "Is it closer to a Robin or a Jay?" Identify each bird you see as a "robin like-bird," or a "jay-like-bird." Put a marker in your field guide at Robin and one at Jay. If the bird is cooperative flip open the guide to the appropriate marker and browes a few pages both sides to see if you can find a likely species. When you do, check the distribution map. Does it live in your area? All right! Don't be afraid to say (at least to yourself) "I think I just saw a..." Soon you will expand your knowledge to include "sparrow-like-birds," "crow-like-birds," "hawks," "ducks," and "cranes." The longer you have to study a bird in the field the more you can refine your identification. Keep looking. Keep comparing to the guide. Read the description. Note habits and habitat. Does it fit? If the bird gives you the time, take it! Pin that peeper down! If it flies away, well there goes another "sparrow-like-bird," that was maybe a Song Sparrow, or maybe a Lincoln's Sparrow, or possibly a Vesper Sparrow. You have already come a long way from "now that was a pretty bird."

Which brings us to precept five:

Fold 5: Study!
When you get home, that evening, or the next, get out your field guide. The question you should ask yourself is this: "Next time I see a maybe Song maybe-Lincoln's maybe-Vesper Sparrow, how will I tell which one it really is?" Read the three descriptions, study the distribution maps, examine the illustrations carefully, make a mental note of all the differentiating features. It should take you less than 15 minutes, and will pay off with a more confident ID the next time you see your bird in the field.

Once you are hooked on birding, study will come naturally. Initially, put your field guide where you can reach it at those odd moments when you have nothing else pressing to do. (You own a guide, of course. 1st choice: National Geographic Field Guide to the Birds of North America, 2nd choice: the Golden Guide to North American Birds (often referred to as the "Robbins" guide), 3rd: the Paterson for your region.) Glance through it. Make your first project identifying all the birds in the book that you are likely to find in your area. Check the distribution maps. For those birds that are likely in your area, study the illustration for a few seconds. Ask yourself, "have I ever seen that bird around here?" Read the description. Make special note of the information on what kind of place is the bird likely? Do you have that kind of habitat around your area. Where? Make a mental note: "the next time I am at such and such a place I will have to look for this bird." Note seasonal information as well. "Ah, next winter I will have to look for White-crowned Sparrows at the feeder." Expert birders make identification look easy, at least in part, because they already know, before they get there, what they are likely to see on any given trip or day.

As you are browsing for likely birds, you will (should) begin to build up a sense for how birds are related. The field guides are arranged by relationship, so, if you pay the slightest attention to where birds are in the book you can't help but pick up on the families and clans. Look for one bird you already know, or have at least seen, from each major family of birds. Make it your typical, or reference bird for that family. Does a bird look and behave something like the eastern Phoebe that nests in your eaves, well then it must be a flycatcher. Does that duck feed with its bottom pointing to the sky like the Mallards at the park? Well then you already know where to look in the field guide. Ah, is a black bird about the size of a Red-winged Blackbird? You know where that family of birds is in the book. Having a typical warbler in mind, or a typical thrasher or a typical thrush will make identification in the field much easier. You can see, of course, that this kind study feeds right back into Precept Four.
You will soon feel the need for something beyond your field guide. Don't be afraid to buy another field guide. You should own two at least. Look at the Audubon Master Field Guide series. You will never carry it in the field, but it is a great reference for the kind of study I am talking about. By all means, subscribe to at least one of the three major birding magazines and read each issue cover to cover. Make it part of your recreational reading. You will be amazed at how much you will learn.

Build a small library of reference books. The Birder's Handbook and The Field Guide to Wildlife Habitats, both from Fireside Books, Simon & Schuster, will take you beyond the standard field guide stage. The Stokes Guides to Bird Behavior from Little, Brown are interesting reading on a long winter's evening. Don't neglect your local library. Most will have a good selection of reading on birds. Again, make bird books part of your recreational reading.

In no time at all (measured against all those "that was a pretty bird" years) you will not only be attempting to identify every bird you see, you will be iding most of them!

Fold 6: Keep Records.
For some people the mere mention of "record keeping" calls up that painful (and perhaps slightly embarrassing) brush with Accounting 101...visions of the IRS, piles of tax forms, ledger books with pale green pages and tiny lines. Ugh!!! Shudder! There are, of course, those who have the opposite reaction. If your eyes light up at the very idea of getting it all down in neat columns, with marginal notations, and trial balances of pleasure and pain at the end of each day in the field, you can skip this whole piece. You will keep records whether I tell you you should or not! For the rest of you, I want to convince you that at least minimal record keeping will increase your enjoyment of birding, make it a more rewarding activity in the long run, and perhaps even contribute to mankind's greater knowledge of the world in which we live.

There are several different kinds of records that birders keep (or compile). The simplest is the list. Most birders keep a life list...simply a list of all the birds, by species, that they have seen. Most of us who live in North America keep a North American list...the birds we have seen on the continent north of the Mexican border (including Hawaii and the Virgin Islands), and, if we have the opportunity to travel, we may have a world list as well. Many birders keep separate lists for the various states they bird in. Many keep a "back yard" or "neighborhood" or "regional" list (or one of each). Some birders start all over again every January 1st...compiling a list for each year they bird, and perhaps a year list for each of the other lists they keep (1993 Back Yard, 1994 Back Yard, etc.). I know birders who list birds by month, by individual location, by whether they have ever seen the bird on television or on a Christmas card. Listing possibilities are limitless...but, you may still ask, what good is a list?

It is difficult to ignore the competitive aspect of listing. Some birders really get into numbers. There is the 700 Club (700 North American species), the 600 Club, etc. There are those who try for a Big Day (the highest number of birds seen in 24 hours) or a Big Year (you can figure it out). The American Birding Association keeps track of and publishes high totals for individual states (as well as any number of other lists...if you get even mildly competitive about listing you should join the should, in fact, join it anyway for its wide range of other benefits to the birding community).

I am not into numbers, but I still keep life, state, regional, back yard, and year lists (several different states, in fact, and several different regions within each state). I get a good deal of satisfaction out of adding a new bird to any one of doesn't matter a whole lot whether it is the 3rd bird on the list or the is simply rewarding to see a new bird. The fact that I keep those different lists compounds the number of ways a bird can be new. Though I have seen lots of Verdins in Arizona, it was a real treat to see my first one in New Mexico this past November. Cardinals are a dime a dozen in upstate New York where I grew up, and a junk bird in Southeast Arizona, but I will be delighted if I can see one of the pair that is apparently establishing itself 40 miles south of here within my regional list area. A trip to Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge (4 hours from here) is always rewarding, but I remember best the trips when I added a bird or two to my Bosque list (or state!, or life!!!). A new back yard bird puts a benediction on a whole month (sometimes it is the highlight of the birding year).

The mechanics of listing can be as various as the lists and listers are. Some birders keep all their lists in the index of the field guide they habitually carry. They develop complex codes of ticks and marks to indicate life, state, etc. I know birders who write date and location right next to the illustration in the guide when they add a bird to any of the lists they keep. While this kind of listing is easy, I do not recommend it. You won't be around birders long before you hear the lament: "I just put the book down on a log at Patagonia and walked way...and it had my life list in it too!" (or something on that theme). I, myself, have driven off several times with my field guide on the roof of the car (I recovered it the first time after about 2 hours of backtracking). Guides get dropped in oceans on pelagic trips, eaten by raccoons in campgrounds all across America, baptized with scalding coffee on the bumpy roads of Christmas Bird Counts, etc. Worse, they wear out, or become outdated, and have to be replaced. Maybe your idea of fun is going through the old guide and transferring all the jots and ticks to the new one...but it certainly isn't mine. (Then too, I have a miserable memory for numbers and I resent having to go through the index of my guide counting ticks every time I want to impress someone (generally only myself) with the number of birds on my life list.)

You can buy little books...a check list to the birds of North America, or the State of Maine, or Southeast Arizona...which have space for ticks or dates and keep your lists in them. Birding hot spots, National Wildlife Refuges, Audubon and Nature Conservancy Sanctuaries, state and federal parks and forest regions often publish their own checklists. There is something called the "Birder's Book of Lists" which is intended to consolidate all your lists in one handy pocket-sized, spiral bound, tome (there are even separate eastern and western versions). There are those who wouldn't use anything but a 98¢ school notebook, and there are birders who buy those $9.98 cloth bound blank books. Whatever suits your style is fine.

One caveat: keep your lists in American Ornithological Union species order. None of this alphabetizing the birds, or just jotting them at the end of the list. List them by family, in correct ornithological order. They should be in roughly the same order they are in your field guide. There is no better way to learn and constantly reinforce the relationships between birds.

Listing isn't all there is to record keeping, of course. Lists are not, in fact, nearly as interesting or useful as an ongoing birding notebook or journal. I hate diaries. Though I respect people who keep them, I can't do it myself. One of the first things I did as a birder, however, was to go out and buy a notebook to record what I was seeing each day. Every trip afield, whether it was a walk around the back yard or drive to the Bosque, was recorded in fair detail when I got home. For a while I carried a small pocket notebook to jot down birds in the field. For a while I trusted my memory. For a while I carried a pocket tape recorder and made verbal notes as I went along. Whatever, I always sat down in the evening and transcribed the notes to my journal. I am convinced that the process of writing down those first few years of field experience had a great deal to do with my progress as a birder. More than that, it began to give me a sense of the flow of bird life with the seasons, the comings and goings here and elsewhere that mark the year off into significant intervals, that give meaning to the passage of time. It reinforced the patterns of observation and made me a better observer. It made me a better birder.

Still, a notebook is a cumbersome thing. By the second year I wanted to know, for instance, when I saw the first Yellow-rumped Warbler last spring, so I could compare it to this year's date. Finding that information in a notebook is possible, but it isn't easy. For that you need a Species Account: a separate listing of dates, observations, etc. for each species you have encountered. Species accounts require pulling the information out of your daily journal and reentering it in yet another notebook (or you could skip the journal after it has served its purpose and enter each sighting directly into the appropriate species account). You learn a lot from an ongoing record of when and where you have seen a particular species.

Finally, State Ornithological Societies and Wildlife services always welcome seasonal reports from experienced (and even not-so-experienced) observers within their states. You too will learn a lot from compiling one. What did you see during spring migration (the birding seasons are winter: December-February, spring migration: April-June, nesting: July-August, and fall migration: September-November). How did it differ from what you saw last spring? What species were up, which were down? (Those are exactly the questions your state departments will use your reports to answer on a state-wide basis, and that national compilers will try to answer at their level.) Yes, your data can be very important and can make a real contribution to our knowledge of bird populations and movements, and the health of the environment as a whole.

If all this record keeping is beginning to sound overwhelming, remember this: do as little or as much as you like.

It comes to this: the only easy, and quite possibly the best, way to keep birding records is on a computer. Let the machine do the grunt work. There are any number of programs that allow you to enter your sightings once (as you would in a notebook) and then generate any kind of list, report, or species account you can imagine from that data, all in correct ornithological order. All of them total your lists (no counting tick marks!). Some will do seasonal reports, and some will automatically generate and update a species account. In theory, any good data base and most spreadsheets could be set up for birding records, but you are probably better off buying a specialized program that was designed with birders and their specific needs in mind. There are a number on the market for both PCs and Macintosh. Shop around. Read magazine reviews. Ask other computerized birders.

Whatever you do, lists, notebook, species accounts, seasonal reports, or the whole computerized ball of wax, keeping records of your birding experiences will help you to grow as a birder, and increase your enjoyment.

Fold Seven: Enjoy!
There it is, always the bottom line: enjoy! Birders keep at it because they have discovered that watching birds, for almost as many different reasons as there are birders, is a deeply rewarding and satisfying occupation. Like most things, the more energy you put into birding, the more enjoyment you will get from it, but birding can be enjoyed at almost any level of commitment. Do the parts that give you pleasure, and don't worry about the rest. As time goes on, you will explore other aspects of birding. Some will take, some will not. If you get compulsive about birding, or any given aspect of it (and many birders at least go through that phase), enjoy your compulsion! Revel in it. Flaunt it. Have fun! My personal approach is summarized by a line from the movie Chariots of Fire. The runner said, "I know God made me to be a missionary in China, but He also made me fast! I feel His pleasure when I run." I know there are more important things in life than birding, but I feel blessed, I feel God's joy while I'm doing it. I am enjoyed by birding...and that makes it ultimately worth doing!

Stephen Ingraham, 2/94