Friday, May 15, 2009

Competitive Bird Watching: Separates the sparrows from the hawks.

Bobolink! Yellow-billed cuckoo! Catbird! American woodcock!

Just some of the rare-to-us birds Mr. Field Notes and I were excited to see within spitting distance of the place we lived during my grad school days. I never got to see the cuckoo, and allegedly there was a black-billed one spotted too, but bygones. I am *not* competitive when it comes to birdwatching. However, some folks are and take to an extreme level.

Each year in Texas competitive bird watchers gather in Texas for the Great Texas Birding Classic, a 5 day long event in which teams traverse woods and waterways all over the state to collect the most species sightings as they can in 5 days. The prize? Bragging rights, a humongous bronze trophy shaped like an egret and $10,000 to donate to a conservation project.

I really thoroughly enjoy bird spotting and have for a long time — ever since my 7th grade biology teacher had us do a version of the Great Texas Birding Classic for a class project. I racked up quite a few species, including an American Goldfinch, which for a kid used to seeing only robins and ducks, was really, really neat. I don't think I did much authentic birdwatching after that, until I met Mr. Field Notes, who from what it sounds like, grew up going birdwatching with his dad. I say 'going birdwatching' because there's a difference between being a bird watcher and someone who goes bird watching. The former are content to see who comes to patronize their backyard feeds. The latter travel on purpose specifically to spot 'life birds' — new birds seen for the first time in your life.

Mr. Field Notes and I definitely fall into the latter crowd. Proof? We chose to go to southern Arizona in August on purpose for our honeymoon - so we could go birdwatching. Southern Arizona, specifically the area around Sierra Vista, is a birdwatcher's mecca, being the best jumping off place to see tropical species in the US. Later we went to Belize — to go birdwatching. We also snorkeled, and saw ancient Mayan ruins, and monkeys, but mostly we went there to see birds. And birds we did. We kept a list of everything we saw.

Some people who rack up birds on their lists give themselves credit for stuff they hear but not see. I think that's wrong. My personal standard is that I have to get a good enough look at the bird to make my own identification. I never check a bird onto my life list if I see it fly away after Mr. Field Notes does the ID work. I have to do that myself too, for it to count.

Another thing birdwatchers go crazy over, besides life lists and writing down heard-but-not-seens is equipment, specifically binoculars. Now, there are also spotting scopes, which come in very handy for identifying shorebirds, but, it's the binos that come in the most handy. And, as long as you are patient, and quiet, and observant, you don't need expensive ones with image stabilizing features, powerful lenses, and ultra-light weight. I get by just fine on my comparatively dirt cheep ones.

Needless to say, I am truly looking forward to teaching Baby Field Notes about birds and going out with her and Mr. Field Notes to see the birds in our area and then into the great beyond.

1 comment:

Alasdair said...

I'm with you, obviously, although I do like having a pretty snazzy pair of binoculars. That's about the only thing you really need besides observational skills and - usually - shoes. I do miss the Granite State for its wondrous birds, though I know folks would envy us our current environment. :)