Saturday, December 31, 2011

My Medium Year

I’m always hesitant to talk about bird watchingi without putting it into “proper” contextii. Even if you take at face value the claims that it’s the fastest growing outdoor activity in the US, it still conjures up images of fussy pensioners in khaki field regaliaiii arguing over habitat particulars of yellow-bellied sapsuckers and proper taxonomic classification of yellow-rumped warbler subspeciesiv. Not to say that that particular set doesn’t make up a (appreciable) portion of those involved in these pursuits, but this stereotype fails to capture a large portion of the people involved in these pursuitsv.

Bird Hike

A Birding Moment – when $30,000 worth of equipment meets 3 inches of bird.

Personally, my interest has always been a bit broader, being an amateur naturalist in inclination, with birds being a recent aim as part of a greater whole. I got into the whole thing largely due to photography, but in the end, all the explanations are really splitting hairsvi. Birder, bird watcher, wildlife photographer, amateur ornithologistvii, dinosaur stalkerviii, etc. It all ends up involving a lot of time chasing feathers.


If ever a movie cried out for Bill Murray or Paul Giamatti…

This year, bird watching took a baby step toward more mainstream presence with the release of The Big Year, the movie adaptation of The Big Year: A Tale of Man, Nature and Fowl Obsessionix. While tha majority of the populace is still more likely to associate birds with something to slingshot at digital pigs, it was a fascinating new intersection of pop culture and an established “subculture”. Without going too far afield into a movie review, this was actually a pretty apt take on bird watching, albeit focusing mostly on the more “serious birder” end of things. It really felt like a movie made by birders. What could have honestly poked a LOT of fun at a hobby legitimately vulnerable to satirex, actually almost came off as an affectionate promotional piece. There were a lot of in jokes and it was a pretty true-to-life portrayal of the odd camaraderie and sincere enthusiasm of birding at that level. Given Hollywood’s tendency to emphasize the extreme, it was surprisingly close to the source material. Mostly I was impressed that, for a cast mired fairly strongly in physical/belly laugh comedy, it was a well-rounded look at the foibles and joys of the hobbyxi that came off as pretty nuanced and fair. This is not far from what my actual experiences among the bird watching community has been here on the Upper Gulf Coast, one of the foci of activity in the countryxii.


Behold the birdwatcher in all his field glamour. Who could possibly laugh at this?

The titular Big Year is a real thing, albeit a more informal, though well followed, personal effort (like climbing El Capitan, or hiking the Appalachian Trail) to see the most birds in a given area (usually the continental US + Alaska) within one year. It appeals, obviously, to the most serious adherents of the hobby, as it involves a lot of travel and a huge time investment. The source material for the movie documents several birders at the very pinnacle of the community…the best of the best, with skills sets far beyond the average weekenderxiii. The record Big Years can find an almost unbelievable amount of birds. Granted this often involves travel to the most far flung parts of North America, up to and including Attu, at the end of the Aleutians chain of Islands off Alaska, but mostly it’s an exercise in knowledge meeting boots on the ground. However, whether one rationalizes it as scientific approach or an expression of some latent “collecting” obsession gene, I have started keeping the dreaded “life list” and “year lists” of the involved birdwatcherxiv. Neither is impressive in absolute termsxv. I have been actively “learning” birds for about three years nowxvi, and my life list currently stands at about 314 speciesxvii.

Red-shouldered Hawk in flightCommon Nighthawk

Northern Gannet in flight Atlantic Puffin in Repose

Sleepy Snowy Owl Merlin

A few life-list or field moment highlights from 2011, from top left: Red-shouldered Hawk in Flight, Ellusive Common Nighthawk, Northern Gannet in Flight, Atlantic Puffin in Repose, Sleepy Snowy Owl, Merlin.

While that’s certainly not bad for a beginner, it’s nothing near what a serious birder has seen. To put this in context, I have seen 314 birds (that I consciously recorded) in my lifetime. The Big Year “winners” saw over 700 species, with the standing record hovering at 745. In terms of total potential species, there are over 950 species that have been seen in North America, though less than 700 are regular inhabitants. In turn, this is only a tenth of the greater than 10,000 extant species known worldwide. So I have seen 314 of 10,000 birds, or about 3%. If I lived until 100, I would need to see 150 NEW species a year to see them allxviii.


A breakdown of my life list. Only digital birds were injured in the making of this list.

I have never done, nor plan to do, a Big Yearxix. It involves a level of dedication/commitment and resources I do not have or do not plan to devote to this hobby. Failing that, though, I would say 2011 was definitely a Medium Yearxx. I have been learning local species and lore for a couple years now, and have gotten to the point where I can hold my own in the fieldxxi. I am the co-leader for a yearly birding event, leading a field team in a local Audubon Christmas Bird Countxxii census, Add in helping to lead regular birding hikes at a local state park, and a good deal of personal field time, and one can say I have gotten fairly involved in the local “birding scene"xxiii. It’s still a fairly casual pursuit for mexxiv, but one in which I’ve been more engaged during 2011 than any previous year. I have gotten to the point where I have seen most of the normally occurring species in the local areaxxv. So in terms of personal “achievement”, 2011 was a “Big Year”. In terms of universal achievement, it was a “Fairly Tiny Year”. Average them out, and you get a Medium Year (if you’re very, very generous in your averaging).

Here are the stats from 2011xxvi:

  • In total, I recorded 260 species during 2011, 257 of which were photographed.

  • 68 of those were new (to me) species I have not recorded prior to this year.

  • 27 of those 68 are species I don’t expect to see next year, while

  • 25 species I have seen previously were not seen this year.

  • I lead a team that found 71 species in the dead of winter, part of 158 species found on our annual Christmas Bird Count eventxxvii.

  • Personal highlights were the Atlantic Puffin (best edibility-to-cuteness ratio), the Snowy Owl (for overall owl-based awesomeness), the Rock Ptarmigan (for sheer level of effort…17 km hike among glaciers), and the Merlin (for best personification of winged death.)

When they make a movie adaptation of my Medium Year, I’d like to be played by Daniel Craig. More likely, they’d cast Paul Giamattixxviii.



i There is great consternation about “bird watching” versus “birding”. In the bird-viewing community, the general consensus is that “bird watching” is what amateurs do with cheap binoculars in their backyard at feeders, and “birding” is the hobby of the serious amateur ornithologist. Personally, I think it’s unfortunate semantics. I know a lot of birders who are mostly “listers”…checking birds off lists in mechanical fashion, spending little time per bird, and focusing mostly on rare species. I prefer to watch wildlife, so I am happy with whatever negative connotations may come in calling myself a birdwatcher. I am there to watch and observe. Besides, despite understanding how the community sees the term, I still think making “bird” into a verb is, well, a bit funny. Especially considering that “birding”, in its previous archaic incarnation (equivalent to “fowling”) was in reference to blasting birds out of the sky with firearms.

ii Chalk it up to some remaining vanity or illusion of relevance. Try as one might, with whatever scientific/naturalist bent one puts on it, it cannot be molded

iii Who for some reason have Kipling-esque British accents in my head. Also, monocles.

iv Yes these are real birds, and yes I have heard these arguments in the field. And yes, sadly, I have opinions on both, being a lumper rather than a splitter.

v Personally, I’m set on bringing “bird watching” back. Kind of like “bringing sexy back”. In the sense that it is completely the opposite.

vi More than one family member has said, repeatedly, “admit it, you’re a birder”. I expect an intervention any day now. The odd thing is that there’s still an understood implication on both their part and mine that being a birder is something one should be embarrassed about. I still struggle with this. Partly it’s a vain desire to not be pigeon-holed (rimshot) into that unfortunate birder stereotype. However, I think part of it is also a recognition that as enjoyable as I may find the activity, and as much as it often defies the stereotype, there are many many kernels of truth to the stereotypes, and in the grand scheme of things, it is a somewhat odd thing to spend a great deal of time and thought on.

vii My current preferred term.

viii With a tip of the hat to the phylogenetics/cladistics crowd.

ix For those who have not seen it, the movie focuses on the real life story of three men involved in the informal competition among serious birders to have the longest list of bird species seen in a single year, i.e. a “Big Year”. The Big Year concept exists, if slightly less formal than portrayed, and the characters are fairly true to birder archetypes, even if not true to the specific actual people involved. I have met and birded with the affluent enthusiast, the hardcore status birder/lister, and the energetic/obsessed newcomer.

x This seemed to be a similar reaction among many folks in the community, even some of those who take it the most seriously. As interesting as we may find it, and as much as it may feel completely different to us than the stereotype, deep down we are able to laugh at ourselves from time to time, and known there is ample fodder for laughter in this particular obsession, especially when viewed in a more general context. I have stood, in a floppy hat and khaki outfit, intently staring at a 3 inch bird, in a crowd of 20 other similarly dressed people, many of whom have traveled states or countries to be there and are bearing optics and cameras whose value is equivalent to the GDP of some developing countries, breathlessly whispering in hotly contested debate over the correct id of birds whose names, spoken in all seriousness, include Tits, Boobies, the aforementioned Sapsuckers, Flickers, Creepers, Tremblers, Shags, Coots, and the ever-favorite Fluffy-backed Tit Babbler. I mean, c’mon, there is no part of this that isn’t comedy gold.

xi Given the Martin/Wilson/Black combination, I had expected “Planes, Trains and Automobiles” meets “Zoolander” with a dash of “Tenacious D”. What we got was a more nuanced “Parenthood” meets “The Royal Tennenbaums” with a little “Be Kind, Rewind”. What would have been ideal was a compromise of “Father of the Bride” meets “The Life Aquatic” with “High Fidelity”. Yes, I admit I had to dig into IMDB to come up with these comparisons.

xii As the credits rolled, they blasted through pictures of the many birds counted during that hypothetical Bird Year. As I slowly rattled off species names under my breath, I noticed I was not the only one doing so in the theater.

xiii While on the surface it would seem simple enough…go out, look at birds, done; there’s a fairly large store of natural knowledge and lore involved…the old timers have almost encyclopedic recognition of calls, a wealth of information on range and habitats, tiny differences in field marks, etc. Like anything else, being a serious birder takes a lot of field time, a lot of study, and a well honed eye and ear for detail. While I am not, nor probably ever will be among their number, this is one of the facets of the hobby that I find very interesting…it forces one to think very clinically and scientifically about field observations, and is a gateway into actual ornithology. It also helps draw together the animal and its habitat, its niche in its surroundings. This is my personal interest and focus.

xiv I rationalize it as a scientific/field journal exercise. However, I’ll admit to understanding the “thrill” of adding something new or rare, and the impetus that can supply.

xv I have colleagues who have gone on trips in which they have seen, in a single week; more species than I have in all the time I have kept track. The more serious of them have seen more new species in that week, than I have seen species total. They talk about life lists in the thousands. I talk about it in the hundreds.

xvi To be fair, growing up in the country, with parents who were avid outdoors-type folks, I knew many birds already, just as the average person can recognize a lot more birds than they may think. With just common feeder birds like Blue Jays, doves, cardinals, house sparrows, etc. and iconic birds like turkeys, pelicans, bald eagles, red-tailed hawks, etc, the average person passively knows at least 25-50 species by name.

xvii Depending on how one views some “controversial” species/subspecies classifications.

xviii While I do plan to live to 100, I do not plan to seek out all 10,000 species.

xix For me, I think this is what separates me from the serious birder; Bird watching is a pleasant pastime, and one I take moderately serious in terms of approach and thought, but in the end it’s one of many, and in the rankings of my priorities, it is not among the most pressing.

xx Sadly, no one keeps track of such things.

xxi Which is a hilarious way to think about it. It conjures up thoughts of two bare-chested combatants facing off with menacing growls over the proper field marks of an olive-sided flycatcher. Sadly, apart from the bare chests, I have seen this play out in the field complete with “winner” and “loser”.

xxii An annual Audubon distributed census taking place in 15-mile diameter count circles throughout North America. Ironically, it had its start in the Christmas side-hunts in days of yore, in which the object was not to count birds, but to blast as many of them out of the sky as possible in a given day. Hurrah for days of yore.

xxiii As lame as that may sound, it still beats the hipster scene. I have never met an ironic birder. It’s not really much of a halfway hobby, despite my labeling protestations. I don’t know anyone who wears Audubon t-shirts because it’s funny, or who use the cheapest binoculars they can to make a PBR-esque trendy statement.

xxiv My wife may beg to differ

xxv Which is more of an achievement than it sounds, given the diversity of species in this region.

xxvi These numbers are somewhat misleading, as they involve a trip to Iceland, which yielded 27 new species without actually really “birding” specifically…i.e. just in normal hiking. This skews things a bit. Also, numbers in general don’t paint a picture of the year…where I went, what I did, who I met, what experiences I had.

xxvii As a geeky side note, I will brag unabashedly that out of the 2200 or so Count Circles in North America, the one I help lead routinely ranks in the top 2-3%, despite only attracting an average of ~60 participants. Part of this is due to dedicated volunteers, and part to the incredible diversity in the Gulf Coast migratory pathways.

xxviii The fact that he wasn’t cast him in The Big Year is a travesty.


Joel said...

Two thoughts:

1) I love that puffin photo. It's like a National Geographic shot.

2) Have you ever birded in the Smokies? I always see a lot of birds when I visit the park, but since I have no idea what I'm looking at I'm always all "Ohh, pretty!", but someone like you would probably really enjoy the biodiversity.

JMBower said...

Thanks! One of my disappointments in our Iceland trip was not being able to get to see more Puffins, but we did luck out with this small flock.

I actually am looking to potentially finagle a trip to the Smokies next fall..we have a family wedding in Asheville, and if I can, I hope to fly through Knoxville, then drive through the Smokies for a few days of camping/hiking, prior to the wedding. If I do, we should catch up!

Vincent Verweij said...

Oh man I love Puffins. Props on seeing one.

Jeremy Clarkson has a big speech on QI about how puffins are delicious.