Monday, November 14, 2011

birding skills

It's been a long time since I've done a birding-oriented blog post. It's not that I have not seen birds, but being the opportunistic birder that I am, as well as the lazy blogger, I haven't taken many bird photos this year, or taken the time to report my findings. Today, however, I had a birding moment that not only resulted in a new Year Bird, it also gave me reason to reflect on what makes a good birder and how every experience is a teacher.

In a work-related errand, I went to a small dirt road that had been built over a bog many years ago. This road had been flooded over and washed out many times in recent years. Well duh, you build a road on a wetland, what do you expect? But nevertheless, the township wants to clean out an old ditch to see if it will alleviate the flooding. Truthfully, I'm not the right person to make that determination. I'm not a hydrologist. But even without those credentials, I can tell you I really don't think clearing a little brush and silt out of a ditch will make much of a difference in the drainage of a hundred or more acre bog, especially when the land (bog) is flat and the next stop is a 35 foot deep bog lake. But whatever.

This is the road. The water level is about a foot below the road bed. Something tells me that this road should never have been built here. But again, that's not mine to judge. I liked how it looked though; with all the tamaracks and spruces, and the understory of unique bog plants, this looked like great bird habitat.

As I paused to look at the side of the road in search of a culvert, I heard the sound of little bits of something dropping from a nearby tamarack. Birding skill #1: Use your ears. I immediately scanned the tree branches for the source, likely a bird or red squirrel feeding on tamarack cones.It took a while, but I finally picked out a flock of about six smallish birds, occasionally flitting from branch to branch as they fed on buds or cones. Birding skill #2: Think habitat. What kind of bird would be using tamarack as a food source? Something told me these weren't chickadees, or goldfinches; they just weren't acting that way. Birding skill #3: Watch for behavioral cues.

I was regretting not having a pair of binoculars with me. Birding skill #4: Always carry your binoculars! The birds were just dark silhouettes against the midday sky. But I had the work camera with me, with its limited zoom, so I thought maybe I could take a few photos and examine them in greater detail later. Birding skill #5: Always carry your camera! I was also thinking for some reason that my iPhone, which has the cool Sibley bird app, was still in the car. Birding skill #6: Carry a field guide! So I decided to head back to the car and get my phone. But before I did that, I decided to try "pishing" to see if that would bring any of the birds closer. Birding skill #7: "Pishing" comes in handy. In no time the entire flock took notice and flew across the road. I, of course, saw little dark flying silhouettes. But I did hear some vocalizations, and that was enough to rule out a few common species. Birding skill #8: See #1. I got back to the car only to realize my iPhone had been in my pocket the entire time. I opened up Sibley's and scrolled to what was becoming a likely suspect.

Recognize these silhouettes yet? The audio calls in the app matched up with what I had heard. And when I zoomed in on this photo, I was able to see some distinctive white wing patches.

White winged crossbills! My first in a long time. But along with the satisfaction of seeing a species that is only seen irregularly, I noticed that my birding skills were becoming more sharp. Perhaps the best way to develop identification skills is not by being told what species is in front of you and then watching it, but by being presented with an unfamiliar species and figuring out what cues might distinguish it from other species.

And, the Sibley iPhone app comes in very handy. :)


Lynne at Hasty Brook said...

First Deb, can I copy your first paragraph and post it on my blog too?

Second, it was such fun following along with your rules and info and trying to figure it out too.

Third, I love that Sibley app. I have it on my iPad and when I get an iPhone it will be installed. I think it is the simplest to navigate. Many features that I like but mostlymthe ease of use.

Forth, I am so excited for you! The last time I saw those crossbills was on the CBC with you!

Miss ya.

Deb said...

Lynne- of course! Is there a cure for this lazy bloggerness? :)

I have even opened up the Sibley app when I've been out running and encountered a new bird sound. It's very easy to use.

I think that may have been the last time I saw crossbills! Of course, my experience today told me the aren't always the most obvious birds to see.

Pine County CBC is the day after Christmas (Monday). Are you available then? I would love to go birding with you again! If not, maybe Sax Zim sometime? I miss you too!

Richard said...

Good reasoning and catch. Tell Lynne she can only have the first two lines.. :-)

Lynne at Hasty Brook said...

Yeah, thanks Richard!

Deb, check out BirdTunes on iTunes. I think it was pretty cheap, done by Lang Elliott. It has multiple songs, calls and regional dialects for each bird. I have made a favorites list of Minnesota winter birds that I want to refamiliarize myself with. I like it-

Can't make the CBC this year. :(
I work right through the whole Christmas weekend.

Carolyn H said...

Deb: I really like your post today and I'm totally jealous of your crossbills. I only see them in migration and then not for a few years. Your rules are great. Sometimes I have to decide whether to take camera or binoculars, especially if I'm hiking. And even if I am feeling strong enough to carry both on a hike, it never fails that the one I need is always in my pack. But mostly, I never leave home without the camera.

LauraHinNJ said...

I agree that the way to learn and improve your skills is by paying attention and figuring it out yourself, but I'm often frustrated that way, too, and wish for some expert to just tell me what I'm looking at!

Anonymous said...

Gosh, we're just waiting for the juncos to make it down our way! Thought I saw one the other day and tried to foto it but was too late.
Vickie in kc