I can’t title a post “four years of…” in 2020 without acknowledging that the period overlaps precisely with a certain political reign that has seen assaults on virtually all the things I value – including the subject of this post. The overlap is largely coincidental, but considering my mental state in the wake of the 2016 election and at various points since, is it really? I’ve often acknowledged that my interest in nature is a balm for my mental health, and that it’s a challenge to sustain a sense of well-being in this era of post-factual discourse. So maybe the degree to which I’ve embraced this hobby owes something to the backdrop of our eroding norms. Birding has certainly provided a distraction and a welcome alternative to doomscrolling. As such, I’ll sidestep the politics from here; let’s talk about birds!
Birding, like a lot of hobbies, can seem a little weird if you’re not that into it. Also like a lot of hobbies, the entry point can be intimidating. It has its own jargon in addition to the science vocabulary associated with bird taxonomy, feather groups, etc. There are also etiquette and ethics considerations to learn. Just as an example, within that jargon I might be described (somewhat fairly) as a “twitcher,” because I do love my lists and I am still relatively novice at identifying some groups of birds. I am aspirational of being more than that, though! I try to be quite careful not to claim any birds I didn’t see nor any expertise I don’t yet have. In other words: the lists are great, but they’re really a motivational tool to keep me invested in learning the more significant stuff.
Unlike many birders, I don’t really have a cool “spark bird” story. My interest in birds started in early childhood. Before school age I spent most weekdays at my grandparents’ house while my parents were working. Perhaps my fondest memory of those days is watching the feeders with my Nana and learning the common birds. Still, in the three decades between those fond memories and late 2016 I wouldn’t say I was a “birder.” I started collecting a rudimentary life list sometime after college, but the same was true for other living things. None of this is to say I didn’t appreciate birds – a cool bird was always a particular treat of a sighting – but for most of my life I simply saw whatever birds I saw. I thought I had seen most of the common birds in my area, and the prospect of going out and finding the “rare” ones was daunting. To put it succinctly (cliché though it may be): I didn’t know what I was missing.
So what changed all that? Data. Specifically, a mobile app called Merlin Bird ID and a massive citizen-science project called eBird. I’ve discussed this before, but I really can’t overstate how revelatory finding these tools was. Merlin and similar apps take field guides to another level, providing extremely localized lists of likely birds with photos and descriptions and filtering to likely candidates with a few screen taps. They can analyze photos and spit out shockingly accurate suggestions more often than I would have thought. Before Merlin, one had to lug around a bulky field guide (or two) and try to shuffle pages while not losing track of the bird. It was hard to tell at a glance if a given species was in range or not, especially at that specific time of year. The other option was to try to record or remember as many details as possible and search a guide or two more thoroughly later, often to discover you hadn’t quite paid attention to the right features in the field.
I can’t describe fully the benefits of eBird’s data and tools without several extremely boring paragraphs, but suffice it to say it was an eye-opener. In a sense eBird’s library was my spark bird. It showed me that my life list was only scratching the surface of even locally common birds and allowed me to understand (without years of study) how to go about finding more birds. I’ve since added some additional mobile apps to my toolbox, each of which brings distinct advantages. These tools have been so fundamental to my birding that I can’t imagine what serious birding was even like without them. It’s not simply that they help me identify a particular bird or pad my life list (although they definitely do that). They’ve also helped me learn about birds, hone my skills, and target my outings to maximize the potential for new sightings.
I by no means wish to discount the value of paper field guides – I do still own several and consult them regularly. They are still great ways to study birds. But the combination of eBird’s extremely granular data and the speed and portability of mobile apps tells me what to study before each trip and allows me to more quickly arrive at confident IDs – meaning I get to see more birds in the time available. Of course that’s not always the only goal. Sometimes I want to just watch an osprey fish or a blue-gray gnatcatcher deliver food to its tiny nest for a bit.
Before I bore you too much, please enjoy this slideshow of some common birds I was able to photograph in 2020.
By The Numbers
This may get tiresome for non-birders, but numbers are part of the story. I’ll start with this one: 164. That was the number I came up with, as of December 31st 2016, after reviewing my life list in the context of all the new information at my disposal. At one time that felt like a lot, but on learning it wasn’t I set out with a goal of surpassing that number within 2017. I met that goal, then just kept right on adding more. Now that 2020 is winding down, that life number sits at an even 400 (some would only credit me with 397 thanks to three species I know I saw as a child but can’t match to a specific date or location). I’ve seen more than my original total in each of the last four years, including 186 this year, almost entirely in Maryland. Speaking of: another thing I hadn’t considered before 2016 was the idea of localized lists. When one gets serious about birding, not just the number of birds but also the number of lists of birds begins to balloon. Now (again thanks to eBird) I have lists for how many birds I have seen in specific states (Maryland: 209), counties (Montgomery: 185), and more precise locations (Wheaton Regional Park: 119). One can drill down in the same way by time period (Maryland in 2020: 185) as well.
The numbers can get a little self-congratulatory. It’s a fun personal challenge and it’s easy to get caught up in growing those numbers for their own sakes, but the precise tallies for each location or time period are beside the point. The lists mean more to me than record-keeping. Tracking them has driven home lessons about biodiversity. The official Maryland list of “countable” birds stands at approximately 450 extant species, plus or minus a few depending on who you ask. This means that Maryland’s ecosystem needs to contain a diversity of habitats, food sources, and other resources capable of serving 450 unique needs for birds alone. Birds account for only about 3.5% of animal species known locally (thanks Maryland Biodiversity Project!) and the other 96.5% need resources too. The same principle is true all the way down to the hyper-local scale and all the way up to the global scale. Those lists crazy people like me obsess over help tell scientists to what degree local and global ecosystems are fulfilling those needs and how the picture is changing over time.
Take as an example my personal favorite birding spot, less than a mile from my home: Wheaton Regional Park. eBird data show 194 species with at least one confirmed sighting in this medium-sized suburban park. Of course the diversity of bird life attracts more birders, meaning we’re collectively more likely to record all the species found within the park than in areas with less traffic. I should be careful not to draw too many conclusions from the exact number. Still, this suggests that on some level the park offers what nearly 200 bird species need to survive. The nature of those needs varies quite a bit. For the American avocet that passed through late this summer the need was nothing more than a safe place to briefly pause on its long migratory journey. For dozens of other species it’s the food needed to sustain a family through the breeding season, plant matter for nest materials, cover from predation, safely accessible water, and more.
OK, here’s another quick interruption for the bored… this time just a scattershot of older bird photos I’ve taken. The quality varies as does the hardware used to take them.
Birding By Ear
Eighteen months or so into the hobby, I realized I was beginning to learn to identify the vocalizations of several bird species. This represented another major leap forward both in my ID prowess and my enjoyment of birding. I had frankly scoffed at the idea that I would ever be able to achieve even middling success birding by ear. I stood in awe of anyone who could recognize bird songs reliably. To uninitiated ears, certainly a mallard’s quack sounded quite different from the haunting calls of a barred owl… but cardinals, wrens, finches, and sparrows all sounded like high-pitched wobbly nonsense. In hindsight I’m not sure what gave me that defeatist attitude. Nearsighted for as long as I can remember, hearing has always been my relatively stronger sense. I’m no virtuoso, nor do I have perfect pitch, but I do have years of musical practice under my belt and many of those acquired skills are transferrable to birding. Both skillsets require a particular kind of focused, attentive listening.
Some birds were easy to learn right away, and while I was still in a state of general doubt. Mourning doves coo and make distinctive whistling noises with their wings. Eastern towhees sing what birders describe as “drink your tea” and sound like nothing else. The sounds produced by white-breasted nuthatches are nasal and unlikely to be confused with anything save maybe a red-breasted nuthatch (which is locally uncommon and can be readily distinguished with just a little study). There are a handful of others like that, and the hidden truth was that I already had a broader baseline of subconscious knowledge than I thought. The breakthrough for me came via the northern cardinal. These birds give a wealth of different vocalizations, but the one I hear most often is a sharp, quick call. A lot of birds produce calls one could describe as similar, but there’s just something about a cardinal’s tone quality that sets it apart. I recall one day hearing this call, thinking “that’s a cardinal” and then finding the bird to verify. Then several times over the next few weeks I was able to repeat this, never missing the ID. I wasn’t trying to learn a cardinal’s call, but I had done it.
From there a whole new depth of the birding experience opened up for me. By the end of 2018 I could reliably identify most of the sounds produced by a few dozen of the most common birds. Therein was the real trick to birding by ear. I never needed to memorize all the sounds! Once I had a baseline of common songs and calls, my brain could do a reasonable job filtering them out. This is something I think we all do with our sensory inputs as a matter of course, and applying it to birds was a natural step. Now, with careful listening I know where to focus my eyes to find the birds I don’t immediately recognize with my ears. I don’t always consciously know what exactly is different about the sound I am hearing, and of course sometimes I do discover that odd call was a mockingbird or a robin or a song sparrow with a head cold, but more practice has led to fewer of those.
I still don’t know if I would describe birding by ear as easy. I don’t recommend relying on it too heavily, especially if you’re a relative neophyte like me. But as one tool among many it has helped me find more birds and identify more of the birds I find. Since that initial burst of a few dozen, I don’t think I’ve added more than another 10 or 20 vocalizations I can ID with great confidence. There are still a handful of common birds that trip me up. I would encourage anyone interested in learning to give it a serious try. The barrier for entry into this world is probably not as tall nor as sturdy as you think.
Caveat time! I do try to be careful not to ID too many birds by voice only. Mimicry can really throw me for a loop. In my area there is always the possibility of a northern mockingbird, which can sound like more or less any other bird it chooses. They do tend to vary what they are mimicking, which can be a good clue, but it’s not foolproof. There’s also another surprising source of confusion. I learned to identify the call of a red-shouldered hawk fairy early, because it’s a pretty distinctive call among raptors. I have learned by observation, though, that you want to at least catch a glimpse of a raptor, even if you can’t see it well enough for a correct visual ID, before counting a red-shouldered hawk by voice. Why? Blue jays can and will do a quite convincing imitation of this call. I got that reminder even while writing this post. I heard the call from my window, and went outside to look for a perched or soaring hawk. I had a pretty good fix on the direction, but the raptor seemed too well-camouflaged. I heard the call again, and several mourning doves and sparrows scattered away from my feeders. Almost immediately three jays burst from the foliage exactly where I was looking and secured the feeder space for themselves. Cheeky, clever birds!
The birding apps I’ve mentioned also have extensive libraries of bird songs and calls. They are a tremendous learning tool at home, and also can be used in the field (sparingly). Playback of recorded birds in the field is a complex and widely debated issue. I still have parts of this debate with myself, so I will just share this thoughtful take from one of birding’s preeminent experts.
A Word On Warblers
Me, circa 2010: “Why do birders get so fired up about warblers? I’m pretty sure I’ve never seen even one. Do they even live around here?”
Me, 2017: Oh.
Me, 2018-2020: Ooooooooohhhhhh! Oh my goodness! Wow!
I’m overdramatizing, but this is essentially accurate. I think what I really felt was the same daunting hopelessness as learning bird song. There are 56 North American species of warbler (not including a handful of rarities, subspecies, and hybrids), they’re small and a lot of them have overlapping characteristics, they tend to move fast, and many of them spend very little time passing through the mid-Atlantic. Several species are easily confused with non-warbler birds like kinglets and vireos, as well. When I started all this in 2016 I had seen exactly one warbler of any kind in my life (a palm warbler I’d misidentified as a Cape May warbler). A glance at the wood-warblers summary page in The Sibley Guide to Birds is enough to make a novice faint. Yet, with practice most individual warblers are identifiable with a decent look, listen, or both.
The first challenge is finding any warblers at all. Now that I have a few years’ experience, it’s already hard for me to comprehend how I wasn’t seeing them before. I think it must have been the same focus-filtering effect I mentioned for hearing, but this time working against me. Because once I learned to spot them, oh man did I spot them. Finding warblers seems to be just one of those things that seems hard until it very suddenly clicks into place and you can’t stop finding them.
That leads to the next challenge: identifying warblers. At first it was hard work to separate the species, and I still don’t identify nearly all the warblers I see. Quite a few don’t get listed or go down as just “warbler sp.” But, learning to appreciate warblers has been probably the most rewarding aspect of birding – just like all the literature and the other birders said it would be. Imagine that! It is a bit difficult to learn all these details but the payoff has been worth it. And much like birding by ear, it gets rapidly easier once one develops the ability to quickly identify a few of the most common species. And of course birding by ear and identifying warblers are far from mutually exclusive. I can pretty readily recognize the songs of a common yellowthroat or an ovenbird. On the other hand, I can cynch a female black-throated blue warbler if I spot the white wing patch, I can usually pick out a yellow-rumped warbler from, well, the yellow rump, and so on. The mastery of each of these was both its own reward and helpful with the species I still don’t have the best handle on.
The last challenge, identifying juveniles and females and confusing intermediate plumage individuals during fall migration, is still very much a work in progress for me. That said, I’ve learned not to be a defeatist and that’s paying off. There’s no better illustration of the continuing utility of print field guides in the digital era than The Warbler Guide by Tom Stephenson and Scott Whittle. I received a copy as a Christmas gift, and I say without exaggeration that it’s the single best field guide I’ve ever owned. For anyone looking to hone their warbler chops my first and best advice is: buy this guide, read it, and study it. It also has a corresponding mobile app, so get that too! Then I would say: do a bit of prep work. The most effective methods will vary, but the strategy that has worked for me follows. I check eBird using “Target Species” and/or reviewing recent checklists for hotspots in my area. Then, armed with the list of what’s most likely and what’s currently being seen, I review those species (focusing on those I’m least familiar with) in The Warbler Guide. Sometimes, particularly in the Spring, I also listen to recordings.
Despite my relative success – I’ve added twenty-five of the fifty-six North American species to my life list over these four years – warblers are still the bird group with the most potential for growth. Six of the ten most frequently reported species in Montgomery County on my “life needs” list are warblers: Cape May, blue-winged, Tennessee, Nashville, Kentucky, and hooded warblers have all eluded me thus far. By contrast, the other four are quite disparate: grasshopper sparrow, American bittern, eastern screech-owl, and summer tanager. Both frustratingly and encouragingly, seven of those ten species (including all six of the warblers) have been reported this year in Wheaton Regional Park. So I still have plenty of “gettable” local birds even if the pandemic continues to make traveling unwise.
A Banner Day
This day of birding really deserves a separate post. In October of 2018 I was traveling in Southeast China for work, and this afforded me the opportunity to visit the stunning Mai Po Nature Reserve in Hong Kong on the weekend. This was only my second time visiting Asia, and the first had been a four day whirlwind that left almost no time for birding. It was during fall migration at a hotspot with a diversity of habitats and dozens of other birders on a continent far from my usual haunts. The weather cooperated. I prepared as extensively as one can short of actual field experience. This all made for the perfect storm of an opportunity to tick a huge number of life birds all in one go. The results did not disappoint.
My checklist from that day totaled 63 species, which on its own is not all that exceptional – although for me it was a lifetime high for a single day. It’s still in my top handful of one-day tallies. The overall experience was exceptional. As I write this two years later, so many moments are coming back in vivid detail. I was able to identify over a thousand individual birds, and of course saw many more. Of them 35 were life species, 23 of which I haven’t seen again. Several more would have been life birds had I not seen them earlier in the same two-week trip. Sometimes when you get a lifer, it’s a fleeting view of one individual that’s only just enough for a certain ID and then it’s gone. Such was the case with the plain prinia I saw that day. Other times you feel utterly surrounded by representatives of a new species, which was the case with great cormorants, red-whiskered bulbuls, masked laughingthrushes, and more.
Striking in its own way were the species which are also regulars along the East Coast of the North America. Northern pintails, Eurasian collard-doves, black-bellied plovers, whimbrels, great egrets, black-crowned night-herons, barn swallows, and osprey were all present. None of these was out of place there, but they served as a happy reminder of the global connectedness of the natural world. It was a bit like seeing a few casual acquaintances scattered among the strangers half a world away. The same was true to a lesser extent of the Asian analogues to some common North American species: little egrets, little grebes, Eurasian moorhens, Eurasian wigeons, gray herons, and so on.
I was one for two on the exciting, unusual, utensil-themed species that led me to choose Mai Po as a destination; black-faced spoonbills were hard to miss, but no spoon-billed sandpipers were in evidence. The spoonbills were truly stunning, and I spent at least an hour watching them and identifying the dozens of birds moving around near them. The absence of spoon-billed sandpipers wasn’t too disappointing in the face of the nineteen species of shorebirds I was able to identify, virtually all from a single blind at the edge of the mangroves. I’d already had a productive day of birding when I reached this blind. When I got there, it was overwhelming how many birds there were to see from all three sides of this blind. Herons and egrets, shorebirds, and waterfowl dotted the entire landscape. I’m not sure how long I stayed there focusing and refocusing my binoculars and picking out key features, but I am sure I left quite a number of birds un-identified.
My favorite anecdote from the day is that I picked up both Pacific golden-plover and European golden-plover, the latter of which was a rarity for the date and location. I knew this was possible based on a survey of eBird checklists from the previous day. I arrived at a blind overlooking the mudflats on the bay to find quite a few local birders studying the wide array of shorebirds, herons, and waterfowl. After exchanges of waves and smiles, I joined them and was able to identify quite a few birds on my own, including a small group of Pacific golden-plovers. I noticed that one did look a bit different, and was spread out a bit from the others, but I was by no means expert enough to be sure it was the European. None of my companions could speak English, nor could I speak much Mandarin beyond “hello.” Still, something in my body language must have been clear, because soon through a series of gestures and nods (and pointing at photos on my phone) I was able to get confirmation. I’ve still never seen an American golden-plover, so it’s a source of wry amusement to look back on checking off the other two species within about ten minutes of one another.
The specialness of that day goes well beyond the list of species or the counts. There was a spectacle worth taking in at every turn, from the contrasting backdrop of the industrial skyline of Shenzhen to the youth conservationist groups maintaining the park. I got to enjoy more wildlife than just the birds, as well. New-to-me butterflies were everywhere, and among the mangroves and mudflats I observed mudskippers and fiddler crabs aplenty. I lucked into a day of absolutely perfect weather and almost everyone I encountered was there for the same purpose as me: simple enjoyment of the beauty of nature. Even the cab driver who took me to the park seemed to be appreciative of the park’s purpose.
What’d I Miss?
Because such things have become fairly mainstream, I have taken to describing birding to acquaintances and friends who don’t quite get it as “Pokemon Go, except with real animals.” It’s a flippant joke, but I think a lot of the same psychology really is at play. Birding, like a successful mobile game, keeps me coming back for the things I don’t have yet. There’s always another bird to find for my life list, a higher annual total to strive for, another rarity for my area to go chase. There’s always that bird I didn’t see.
I haven’t quite ticked all the “gettable” birds in my county. I listed the top ten next most likely in the warbler section, but there are a handful of others. This is an “irruption year” for evening grosbeaks, so that’s the top item on the ticket for the moment. Several other species are subject to this phenomenon – snowy owl being my most coveted example. Just this week within Maryland a mountain bluebird and a magnificent frigatebird were documented, reminding me that anything is possible to find anywhere. Even once everything reasonable has been checked off I’ll surely keep looking for the unreasonable.
Of course, there’s still much to learn about the everyday species I haven’t spoken much about. I don’t want to sound like I only care about bird species I haven’t listed yet. Even starlings and house sparrows can dazzle in their way. It’s often an encounter with a robin or a red-bellied woodpecker that really gets my naturalist gears turning or forces me to just pause and take it all in. I think the familiar, charming feeder birds are what will really keep me into birding for life, even if I take my foot off the gas.