Don’t let rain stop you from birding, Pete Dunne says

7/27/2018 | 0

Birding in the Rain

Rain and bad weather shouldn’t stop you from birdwatching. Photo by Tim Kiefer/Shutterstock

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I believe I experienced a first this past spring. On April 16, I turned out at 7:30 a.m. for my regular Monday morning South Cape May Meadows field trip, and no participants showed. Yes, the steady, pelting rain and 40 MPH winds certainly had something to do with this, but when it comes to out-and-out perseverance, no avocational group seems more impervious to inclement weather than birders.

Or as one co-leader confided, “No matter how bad it is, you can almost always count on at least one person to show.” So hardy are birders that during the 1987 World Series of Birding, a day likened by one participant to “birding in a car wash,” not a single team quit the field. Anticipating a day-long deluge, I packed three sets of premium rain gear in my kit. Shedding my second, sodden set around 3 a.m., I didn’t even bother to don the third. It was apparent that wet was just what we were going to be all day and I might as well get used to it.

Personally, I hate being cold and wet, but as a result of my avocational predilections, I have been cold and wet more times than anyone I know who hates being cold and wet. Back in 1978, I helped conduct a hawk watch on the coast of Alaska, 60 miles north of Yakutat. This corner of the planet averages 156 inches of precipitation per year in the form of rain, sleet, and snow — typically all three at once. It rained every day but one for two weeks. So rain-soaked were our tented living quarters that the bolt-action 30-06 rifle brought along for bear protection rusted in its case inside the tent. My single set of wool gloves, hung nightly from a chord in the tent to dry, dripped icicles every morning.

Pete Dunne

Contributing Editor Pete Dunne, courtesy of New Jersey Audubon.

Typically, on wilderness outings such as this, the sound of your bush plane approaching kindles disappointment. On this trip, on “pickup day” it signaled salvation. But, back to Cape May.

It is something of a tradition for our annual Cape May Autumn Festival to enjoy rainy conditions. It makes the vendors in the convention center happy, and it often spawns some good birds — jaegers, lots of Peregrines, migrating sea ducks, and other birds impervious to weather. The festival is also a matter of some mirth for non-birding residents of Cape May. A local friend once confided that it was a tradition to invite house guests down for the festival weekend to gawk at the ranks of the “silly” birders all standing in the rain.

Silly, no. Determined, yes.

One of my former colleagues, Rich Kane, was famous for conducting field trips “no matter what.” His streak ended with a hurricane that cut off access to key coastal shorebird sites.

As many birders know, bad weather often results in good birding. Migratory fallouts or “groundings” along the Gulf Coast are frequently caused by storms penetrating the gulf. The best fallout of Bay-breasted Warblers I ever encountered was the direct result of a grounding rain in late May. On that momentous day, the trees along the Patriots’ Path in Morristown, New Jersey, were absolutely festooned with the rakish cinnamon-breasted birds. Rainy conditions can also make birds very approachable.

The late, great birder and ornithologist Harold Axtell once told me about coming upon an exhausted Black-throated Green Warbler asleep in a puddle on Point Pelee, Ontario. When he relocated the bird to a branch, he said it barely stirred. Harold wore galoshes and a weather-worn fedora in all conditions, so he was always prepared for rain.

Me, I’ve learned over time to dress for the weather. My current favorite trick is to double bag, i.e., wear a set of stretchy rock climber’s rain gear under an outer layer of double-ply Gore-Tex. But when it’s really bad, I drag out my trusty ol’ industrial-strength Helly Hansen bibbed bottoms and hooded jacket, whose rubberized coating sheds anything nature can squeeze out of the sky. It comes in drab green, so you don’t look like the sullen kid your mother used to send out to the bus stop in that universally hated yellow rain slicker.

Look, you (probably) own waterproof binoculars. Why not put the manufacturer’s boast to the test? See you Monday, rain or shine. But if it makes you feel better, if the weather is rough, we have been known to vacate the Meadows and relocate to the Sunset Grill on Delaware Bay, whose roofed outdoor eating section offers dry viewing on all but west winds — winds that push jaegers and hurricane-spawned tropical vagrants onshore.

Anyone up for a tropicbird or two? It’s happened.

You bring the high expectations, we’ll supply the rain. And in case your binoculars are not waterproof, we’ll have a supply of loaners on hand.

It’s up to you to figure out how to keep the ocular lenses free of water. Rain guards are a fine solution, or you can shorten the neck strap and use your chin and brimmed cap as a rain guard. Hands placed loosely over the lenses work, too, but remember to leave a gap between your hand and the eyecups to keep the lens from fogging.

Staying home is not an option. We have a reputation to live up to. — Pete Dunne

Pete Dunne is New Jersey Audubon’s birding ambassador at-large. He is the author of many books, including Birds of Prey, The Art of Bird Finding, and Bayshore Summer.

A version of this column appeared in the August 2018 issue of BirdWatching.

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