The Birth of a Birder – Part 2

Mono Lake County Park

I learned so much with my first Bird Outing at Mono Lake County Park and Tufa State Natural Reserve Boardwalk, that I decided to attend another.  I got caught up having coffee with the Red breasted Sapsuckers, the Steller’s Jay, the Hummingbird, the Mallard Ducks  and the Coots at Silver Lake. I was late for birdwatching!  My Birding Buddies were gone.  Logical consequences!  There was no sight of them when I arrived.  I had taken the advice of my last California Parks interpreter and purchased a comprehensive bird identification manual.  Did I really need a group?  

I headed through the park and met a robin.  I did not need the manual for this one.  The robin is a bird I can identify by sound and by sight, and likely in my sleep.  It is the first bird I remember from childhood in Vancouver, British Columbia.  I watched it stretch worms out of the ground before I went to school.   I sang about it in Kindergarten.  I love how it delights in the Vancouver rain yet is versatile enough that it can also thrive in the Sierra Nevada Mountains.  Years of observation has delighted and served a purpose in my life as a birder.  I felt my confidence grow and headed out on my solo birding venture.

I continued to hear lots but see little in the park.  The field guide doesn’t help if the bird won’t stay in one place.  And the antique binoculars belong on the mantle by the Mallard Duck lamp in the cabin.  My confidence as a birder waned.  I continued towards the boardwalk and the tufa towers.  I paid attention.  I heard a lot, saw some movement and the flicker of feathers in the wetlands as I proceeded down the boardwalk toward the tufa towers.  My attention was diverted.  Lizards.  Small ones.  Large ones the size of my outstretched hands.  Ones with bright blue iridescent chests when they lifted their heads to consider me.  And they stayed in one place so I could get a good look without binoculars.  

At the end of the boardwalk, I was able to identify the obvious birds in the mix.  The lone Canadian Goose.  Another familiar friend.  The myriad of Eared Grebes.  The sheer quantity made identification obvious.  The young Osprey poking their heads from their nest on their tufa tower castle.  The California Gulls so familiar yet so distinctly different with their black feathers and smaller size as compared to the massive Glaucous Gulls on the Vancouver beaches of home.  The dainty, long legged Avocets and the Phalaropes with their very functional needle-like bill. 

I made my way back towards the park, only to discover an obvious group of birders on another unfamiliar part of the park.  Binoculars faced skyward.  Telltales light clothing.  Hats.  Not one but two spotting scopes in the group.  I cut through the sprinklers and connected with my people.  

“We haven’t seen a robin, yet,” mutters one of the birders. 

Her self-appointed task is tallying birds and carting the second of the spotting scopes.  This person is an experienced birder and has also done the interpreter job.  The second spotting scope is for her to enters all of the information of birds sighted on the eBird APP so we can access the information from today’s bird watching endeavour.  This information is also fed into several initiatives involved in preservation of species.  She is very focused on the task and does not participate in small talk in the group.  

“I just saw a robin in the park.” Pleased that I have a contribution to redeem myself for being late.    

“Hhhmmm.  I guess I could check that off on the list,” she replies doubtfully.

Dave, was filling in for the regular California State Parks interpreter on this Bird Outing.  He retired a few years ago from this same job, where he had worked since 1983.  Word was out that Dave would be sharing his expertise. It was not a group of tourists like the last group, but a group of mostly locals who had been birding for years.

Dave is no doubt a font of knowledge but in a very humble laid-back kind of way.  He is the kind of guy who his favourite bird song on his iPhone.  He has an APP with bird sounds but doesn’t like to use it when he’s out birding because it disrupts that natural life of the birds.  In fact if he did want to garner the attention of the birds, he could do it without the APP.  Dave loves songs about birds.  His advice, get to know the sounds of birds.  

“It will give you a hint of where to look and what to look for.”

Since reading the book Birds, Art, Life by Kyo Maclear, I ask everyone about the bird that drew them into the world of birding.  Dave’s “spark” bird was the Red-necked Phalarope.  Not surprising.  He sets up his spotting scope for us to get a good look.  He is familiar with this bird but obviously continues to delight in watching it.  He points out one of these birds swimming in tight circles and focuses the spotting scope on it. It looks very much like a little kid spinning around until she gets dizzy and falls on the ground.

“Why do you think they do that?”  

The probing question of an effective mentor.  Good teaching techniques in other fields always impress me.

“Chasing lunch?” was my guess.

“Actually, it is stirring up the larvae and alkali flies and bringing lunch closer to himself.”

Another illustration of smart behaviour from our feathered friends with the small brains that we continually underestimate.  Dave has well developed background knowledge that I assumed came from a degree in biology.  In fact, it was acquired through the pursuit of his passion for birds.  Another example of the power of inquiry learning.  

Dave identifies the bird call before he sees the bird.  He focuses his attention.  Waits. Then smiles. A genuine smile that has been sparked by joy.

“And there he is.  The Violet-green Swallow.  And there he goes.  Doing what Violet-green Swallows do, catching a bug in flight!”

Another clue that I will remember to verify what I’m looking at.  I have never been quick enough to locate the Violet -blue swallow with my binoculars or see it in the spotting scope before it is gone. And that is the beauty of a good mentor. They provide the hints that you need when you need them that allow for that “eureka” moment.

Identifying birds by sight can be as mystifying as identifying them by sound unless you know some tricks. One need to know fact is the male Mallard and many of the other male birds shed their colours after mating season. So my dabbling ducks by the cabin that look like Mallards and sound like Malillards are likely Mallards. A yellow bill to go with those orange legs is the male. The duck with the orange and black bill saying the iconic “quack, quack” is the female. Eureka! Mystery solved.

I have finally figured out that it’s a man’s world, even in bird world. Many of the birds are named after the male in mating season. He is not going to the gym or flashing cash, he is sporting some bright colourful plumage. So the Red Headed Duck, the Red Necked Phalarope or the Mallard may not be sporting any colour at all. This being the case, I ran to my handy identification manual when I saw black woodpecker with a white head and white markings. I went through two books before I discovered the name. A White-headed Woodpecker. Sometimes the name is quite descriptive. Or Sometimes it is named after the person who discovered it like the Clark’s Nutcrackers around Saddlebag Lake. They were discovered by Clark of the famed Lewis and Clark when they were trekking around Idaho in 1805.

Another hint that is important is about how to recognize one bird call in the myriad of calls. A little personification always helps. The hint that the Yellow Warbler is in the neighbourhood when you hear,

“Sweet, sweet, sweet.” has made all the difference for me.

“Oh, THERE’S a robin,” exclaims the “official” tracker.

“I told you I saw a robin.” 

“Yes, you did.”  

Clearly, I am continuing to radiate “novice.”  I am still sporting my antique binoculars and perhaps chatting too much and I am wearing black shorts.  Verification was required prior to including my sighting in the “official” count.  And yet, I can identify a robin with confidence. And with continued mentoring there is hope for my birding future!  

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