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.
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.
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. :)