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Born-again bird-watcher

A birder from Vermont contemplates the differences between watching birds and getting birds
By Maeve Kim | Published: 6/22/2012

Years ago, I was a Bird-Watcher.

BRD-A0812-500I was happy to sit for an hour at a time by my kitchen window watching birds come to the feeders. I’d walk around my little town looking at one neighbor’s front porch for the phoebe nesting in the old Christmas wreath and into another neighbor’s lilac bush for the Song Sparrow. I knew when to tip my head up and find the Indigo Bunting that was always singing in the top of a certain tree and where to raise my binoculars and scan the apple orchard to find the annual bluebird families.

My old field notebooks are full of exclamation points and underlinings and capital letters. “GREEN HERON at beaver pond! Glowing chestnut throat and neck! Gorgeous!”

I described everything I saw about a bird’s physical appearance, behavior, and song. Often, my notebook entries ended with questions that I hoped might be answered if I watched more birds. “Every one of the grosbeaks reaches its neck way out to get seeds that are near the other birds’ feet instead of eating the seeds in front of their own feet. Does this guarantee more food? Do they think they can eat the closer seed later?”

But then I switched to checklists.

No wonderings. No notes. No descriptions. No exclamation points. No excitement. Just checkmarks tallying the birds I “got.”

I was no longer a Bird-Watcher. I had become a Bird-Getter.

I stopped enjoying my daily strolls in tiny Jericho Center, Vermont. I didn’t want to look at the same old species; I wanted to see something new and different every single time. I was tired of the titmice and Downies at my feeders. I was tired of the Chestnut-sided Warblers and redstarts in my yard. Why couldn’t I get a Bay-breasted now and then?

Bird-Getters are impatient souls. Every single extra minute they spend staring at an “old” bird is a minute that might be used to get a new species. Bird-Watchers are pleased with the birds that come their way, and they want to know about their habits and how they spend their days.

When I started birding, almost every outing included what I called my Twenty-Minute Sit, when I’d be perfectly still and wait to see what came near me. If I heard an unfamiliar bird call, I was willing to creep through underbrush, wiggle through brambles, even belly-crawl through muck to get closer. But in the dark days, when my mutation to full-fledged Bird-Getter was almost complete, I began to see the attraction of whipping out an iPod and making the birds come to me. I was increasingly willing to lure birds away from the jobs of courting, building nests, raising young, and finding food — just so I could get another species for the day.

I also began relying more and more on another Bird-Getter shortcut: listserv birding. Let’s say someone reported an Orchard Oriole in a local park, a hundred feet down the left-hand trail, past a 90-degree bend to the right, in the tallest tree behind the old bench. Orchard Oriole is uncommon here in northern Vermont, so I would go to the park, walk the left-hand trail, pass the 90-degree bend, find the old bench, and stare fixedly at the tallest tree. Then, if I saw the briefest flicker of movement, if I heard a single noise I didn’t recognize, I’d try like the devil to persuade myself that I “had” an Orchard Oriole. I didn’t get to know the bird. I didn’t really enjoy the bird. I didn’t learn anything about the bird’s behavior. I didn’t even really see the bird. I was perilously ready to make an identification based on what I was expecting to see.

When Bird-Getters are identifying birds in the field, they may give as much weight to others’ reports as they do to size, shape, color, song, habitat, and behavior. Once a small group of us glimpsed a bird that looked like it might have belonged in the thrush family. A local Bird-Getter called out, “Swainson’s!” “Wow,” said his friend, “how’d you ID it so quickly?” “Gotta be a Swainson’s. Some guy saw one here yesterday.”

Misidentification becomes not only possible but probable when a Bird-Getter is fixated on getting That Bird, the one someone saw yesterday. Maybe that flash of red I thought I saw wasn’t the Orchard Oriole that was supposed to be in that tree. Maybe it was a Red Crossbill, an unusual sighting during Vermont summers. Maybe it was something very rare, like a vagrant Summer Tanager. I wouldn’t have known. I was too busy trying to “get” what someone else had already located.

In the months when my mutation was almost complete, when I had almost forgotten my Bird-Watching past, I felt competitive about birding for the first time in my life. If I went to a place where someone else had seen an unusual bird, and I didn’t see it, I had a strong feeling that the other guy was winning and I was losing. When people are fixated on acquiring birds rather than watching them, there’s going to be pressure to have the most or the best.

Most birders I know feel it’s a bit crass to start tossing around life-list totals, but it’s perfectly acceptable to win by “having” birds that no one else has. So the Bird-Getter sets up his tripod, focuses his scope, and nonchalantly mentions the Flame-collared Absquatulated Seedeater that he got on his latest trip to Tierra del Fuego. Then another birder takes up the challenge, whipping out her camera to show the digiscoped photo of the vagrant Ferruginous Soft-naped Antpitta that showed up right in her own backyard.

The most extreme Bird-Getters become disdainful of any bird that isn’t rare. I was at Point Pelee on a gorgeous day during spring migration. Thousands of birds were all around us — but three birders on the shuttle were bored. One of them said, loudly enough so everyone could hear, “I’m beginning to think that if I’m not one of two or three dozen birders worldwide who have seen the bird, then what’s the point?” A few minutes later, an excited man in the front of the shuttle said loudly, “Look! That whole bush is full of Rose-breasted Grosbeaks!” One of the bored birders growled, “Like we haven’t seen enough of them already.”

I don’t want to end up like those three birders. I don’t want to feel disdain toward the common birds, the easy birds. I don’t ever want to be bored by Rose-breasted Grosbeaks. I’m tired of wanting, expecting, and even demanding specific rewards each time I go out birding. I’m tired of feeling cheated and grouchy when my birding time isn’t rewarded the way I’d planned.

I want to go back to the early days, when I enjoyed whatever birds visited my backyard. I want to chuckle with delight when the resident White-breasted Nuthatch brings its fledglings down the trunk of my big maple tree and teaches them how to take seeds from the feeder. I want to celebrate chance sightings instead of heading out with a shopping list of birds to get that day. I want to spend hours and hours in nature and not care at all if my life list and my Vermont list and my ABA list are exactly the same length at the end of the day as they were at dawn.

And if I do add a new bird to my lists, I want to be the one who identifies it.

The first 200 birds on my life list were mine. Every one was a delightful surprise, an animal that kindly flew into my view while I was outdoors in nature. I found the birds, I watched the birds, I identified the birds.

I remember the exact places where I saw almost every one of my first 200 or so birds. I remember the abandoned beaver dam I was sitting on when I noticed a tiny bird darting into a hole in a large snag. I waited, and after a few seconds my first-ever Red-breasted Nuthatch backed out of the hole with its bill full of rotting wood. It was so quiet, just me and the bird and a distant White-throated Sparrow, that I could hear the quiet puh-TOO noise as the nuthatch spit out what was in its bill before diving back into the hole to do some more excavating.

I remember sitting on the rocks at Maine’s Acadia National Park with my two young daughters, surrounded by wind, cold salt spray, and the smell of seaweed. We’d been there for quite a while when we suddenly noticed a little black bird right where the waves smashed against the rocks. All three of us were sure the bird was going to be killed, but it kept diving and it kept coming up unharmed. When we crept closer to the edge of the cliff, we could see the bird’s bright red feet under the water. It was my first Black Guillemot.

True Bird-Watchers enjoy every single minute that they’re out birding. They don’t come home feeling cheated because they didn’t get a rare Dovekie. Instead, they celebrate every time they see a Black Guillemot’s red feet flashing under cold water.

I’ve learned that it’s not just a semantic difference whether we get a guillemot or watch a guillemot. We “get” inanimate objects. We can’t get living creatures. Watching birds recognizes that they are worthy of leisurely study and enjoyment. I’m back to watching. I threw out most of my checklists, but I kept the ones I use for Cornell’s Project FeederWatch. Citizen-science projects might look a bit like Bird-Getting, with the counting and the lists, but they’re never about a birder’s own personal numbers. They are uniquely selfless ways for birders to donate time, energy, and skills to vitally important scientific studies.

When I go on extended birding trips, I’ll still get excited about adding species to my life list, but I won’t worry about possibly missing yet another lifer if I start watching a Lazuli Bunting bathe and preen in the sun and become too entranced to leave. Back home in Vermont, I might still drive many miles in the hope of seeing a rare vagrant, occasionally, but I’ll balance the fevered one-bird trips with quiet walks in nearby woods, welcoming whatever comes my way.

Like most of us birders, sometimes I’ll be closer to the Bird-Watcher end of the spectrum and sometimes I’ll be closer to the Bird-Getter end. But I’ve learned that the more I behave like a Bird-Watcher, the happier I am.

Last spring, when I was just thinking about becoming a born-again Bird-Watcher, I took a nature walk with friends. We were quiet, listening for bird song, and making short, whispered comments. We stood with our eyes closed and listened to a Veery and a Winter Wren. We watched as a Black-throated Green Warbler perched on a branch, threw back its head, and sang. We even took several minutes of prime birding time to examine a huge mass of frog eggs we found in a tiny pool — and not one of us fretted about all the bird species we might have missed because of a frog.

My leisurely walk with friends reminded me what I had loved about birding when I started: peace, nature, and discovery. I started out a Bird-Watcher, and now I’m a Bird-Watcher again.

Maeve Kim is an educational-testing consultant, a musician, and a retired teacher. She is a lifelong birder who leads bird walks for beginners and has taught birding classes for outdoors clubs and wildlife refuges.

Watcher or getter? Are you a Bird-Watcher or a Bird-Getter? Or were you once one or the other? Let us know. Send an email to editor@birdwatchingdaily.com. Please include “Bird-Getting” in the subject line.