What’s the Deal with Birdwatching: Part 3 – Know Where to Look

And when to look for it. 

Here’s a bit of a trick when it comes to birdwatching—birds typically follow patterns. Now, these patterns can be something as broad as a similar migration path season to season, or a handful of birds claiming a backyard as their territory. Because of that, you can expect to see certain birds at certain places at certain times. In other words, knowing what birds to expect where and when is huge. In practice this means that if you see a bird that can’t ID and think that it is super rare—it’s probably not the super rare bird, especially if it’s out of season. 

This is a blue-headed vireo. 

Now, let’s take a look at their migration pattern. 

Here we have  a map of the abundance of the blue-headed vireo throughout the year—which also serves as a sort of migration map for the lil muffin. As you can see they winter in the south and summer in the north, like a lot of migrating birds. What that means for us is that if you’re in East Texas in August and you think you see a blue-headed vireo, it’s worth a double check. Now, it’s not impossible, but it is unlikely. 

To chalk one up for the (close to) impossible, here’s my run in with a Tennessee Warbler, a cute lil muffin of a quick darter. 

Now, just for the record, here is the abundance map for the tenn warbler when I saw it in mid-January. 

So, as we can see, that lil blur of beak and feathers wasn’t really supposed to be anywhere near Atlanta, GA. But that’s birds for ya. 

If we think about this idea removed from birdwatching, I think the best way of describing this is context. As a writer, and especially a writer working in marketing, context is vital. In terms of creating any sort of work, I need to know what it’s about, where it’s going to be placed, and who is mostly likely to read it. So it matters if it’s a case study or email. It matters if it needs to be for tech-minded folks or for a more general audience. All of that information influences what I do. 

So, certainly knowing what to look for and when to look for is important. But, just like my Tennessee Warbler, being open to the occasional surprise never hurt anyone either.

What’s the Deal with Birdwatching: Part 2 – Don’t Assume

Here are two bird sounds – let’s see if we can find the differences between them (and don’t scroll down too quickly if you don’t want the answer to be spoiled). 

You might have picked up that the first is longer and ends in a bit of a raspy sound. The second is a bit shorter and lacks that raspy quality. 

So, do you think these these birds are similar? Maybe in size or maybe in the same family? 

Are you ready for the answer?

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Ta da! 

Blue Jays are known to mimic other birds, especially raptors and particularly red-shouldered hawks. Though no one is totally sure why they do this, they have been known to bring out the scary calls whenever they are around bird feeders in an effort to scare all the other birds away. 

I’ve 100% been fooled by a Blue Jay. So, it can be dangerous to assume an ID based just on a single call. 

And somewhat paradoxically, that’s more true the better I get. I’ve found that I’ll make a quick ID based on an assumption only to be proven wrong. That’s such a common issue and so many people do this type of thing that there is a psychological effect to describe it – the Dunning-Kruger effect. 

Psychology Today describes the Dunning-Kruger effect as a cognitive bias in which people wrongly overestimate their knowledge or ability in a specific area. This tends to occur because a lack of self-awareness prevents them from accurately assessing their skills. It’s basically a formal way of saying “a little knowledge is a terrible thing” or “I know just enough to be dangerous.”

I’ve most certainly found this to be true with my bridwatching, and I’d go so far as to say that birdwatching has humbled me. The more birds I learn about the more I realize just how many birds there are that I have no idea even exist. The better I get at ID’ing birds on the fly (har har) the more I find that my ID isn’t always correct. Beyond that, bird sounds are very hard for me to ID. 

As a result, I’ve become more willing to admit that I just don’t know something,  plain and simple. And honestly, that’s not the easiest thing to say, right? There is certainly a bit of ego check involved – I think we all want to appear smart and knowledgeable. 

My hope is that admitting that we don’t know something is seen as an opportunity to learn rather than an admission of ignorance. We all have to start somewhere. 

In my day-to-day life I’ve been working on doing my best to wait to answer a  question with as accurate a response as possible rather than just answering as quickly as possible. It’s an idea that I’ll get into a bit more down the road, the idea of slowing down and approaching things with patience. 

What’s the Deal with Birdwatching: Part 1 – Details Matter

Here’s a cool thing about birdwatching—almost every guide and organization has their set of ethics around the activity. So, for example, the American Birding Association Code of Ethics are as follows: 

  1. Respect and promote birds and their environment. (don’t intentionally flush a bird just for a photo, don’t destroy their habitat just to get closer, etc)
  2. Respect and promote the birding community and its individual members.
  3. Respect and promote the law and the rights of others

That means that inherent in the act of birdwatching is respect. For the birds and their habitats and for our fellow humans. That’s pretty rad. 

In the relatively short amount of time I’ve devoted to birdwatching I found that it’s opened my eyes to the idea of respect and a whole lot more. Over the next few posts I hope to cover some of the things I’ve learned from birdwatching and how that’s translated into my everyday life. First up—It’s all in the details. 

Details Matter

One aspect of birdwatching that I learned very quickly is that it is way harder than I expected. (In fact, there’s a whole thing to be about that – it’s called the Dunning-Kruger effect and we’ll dive into that in a later post). That realization came shortly after I’d identified all the bluebirds and cardinals in my front yard and began really looking at all the other birds flying and fliting around. Y’all – some of those mf’ers don’t look all that different from each other. 

Take these sparrows—the Song Sparrow and the White-throated Sparrow. On the surface, there isn’t much difference – especially at a glance. And often, a glance might be all that we get. Afterall, these are some shifty lil bastards. 

But, it’s once we start looking at the details that we can begin to see some important differences. 

Let’s start top down with the coloration of the crown. Right from the start we can see that the White-throated Sparrow has a darker coloration than the Song Sparrow. 

Next up the eyebrow stripe and eyestripe. The coloration is similar here in both cases, but there are differences. The eyebrow on the WTS is a bit wider and the eyestripe is definitely more pronounced and darker.  

And finally, it certainly becomes more evident if you can get a different look at the bird as well. 

These are small things, right? Details. But it’s when we start paying attention to them that they add up to something larger. 

I think this most certainly resonates most for me  as a writer, where details can literally change the meaning of my work. For example – think of a rock. Chances are the rock that each of you is thinking of varies in shape, color, and size. But if I tell you to think of a pebble or to imagine a boulder, now all a sudden we’re a lot closer to a shared and uniform understanding. And, in writing, I would never mention a boulder when I meant a pebble. It’s those details that make all the difference. 

Also I’ve found that I pay attention to the world around me a bit more. I do my best to take in those details that I might have missed before.

My Spark Bird—The Belted Kingfisher

Taken on Jekyll Island, GA – December 2019

I spent a number of years growing up in Nashville, Georgia—a super small town just north of the Georgia/Florida line. There was a pond close to my house and my dad and I would head out there so he could fish. I would do kid things like throw rocks into the water or collect algae on a stick and poke it with my finger.  

One very distinct memory I have of those trips is the resident Belted Kingfisher that lived around the pond. My dad would point it out, hovering over the water before plunging downward, splashing after it’s next meal. I remember him telling me the name and I’d imagine a bird with a crown or some other symbol of royalty.

Now, the Kingfisher is an absolute beaut of a bird. It’s got a striking look to it, sure, but the way it hunts is fantastically amazing. Either perching on a tree or hovering over the water, it’s head is always completely still. Even when it’s wings are flapping at something like 200 beats per minute, that head remains motionless. And that makes sense, right? It has to have as steady of a view as possible when searching for fish just under the surface. 

And for that it has another amazing adaptation. Their eyes are especially adapted to be able to compensate for the refraction of the water, meaning that they are able to pinpoint the location of fish even when they appear to be in a different spot.  

In my experience I almost always hear the Kingfisher well before seeing it. Their rattling call echos across lakes and ponds, and it’s only then that I’m able to catch a fleeting glimpse of them as they rapidly fly from perch to perch. And though I’ve only recently gotten very serious about birdwatching, it’s those summer evenings watching the Kingfisher just dive bomb the absolute hell out of some fish that was the true spark for me.