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Birding breadth vrs. birding depth

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Old Monday 17th October 2005, 22:11   #1
Terry O'Nolley
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Birding breadth vrs. birding depth

As some of you might know, I only became a birder this year.

My life-list stood at 59 before heading to the west coast a couple of weeks ago.

I spent several hours 3-5 days a week in the forests and wildlife refuge near my home watching birds and trying to learn how to quickly identify species.

But my list never broke 60.

Some of you felt that must mean I am quite the poor outdoorsman and an appallingly ignorant birder.

I was wondering what I was doing wrong. I felt sort of in awe of the birders with 500+ species.

Then I went to San Diego and Lake Tahoe a couple of weeks ago and ticked nearly 50 lifers during 5 or 6 birding hikes that couldn't have totalled more than 10-12 hours outdoors (I also ticked a few from the comfort of the lakeside cabin but that is another story).

I suddenly got the sneaking suspicion that the vast majority of the birders with many hundreds of life ticks are merely better travelled than I.

It sort of made me sad - like when, as a youngster, I discovered Santa Claus didn't exist. I now know that if I could afford a weeks vacation to a new ecosystem a few times a year then I could have a big enough list to choke a horse.

So what is birding? Is it the breadth of ticks - meaning you are really just a world traveller with binoculars, or is it a depth of knowledge? A deep understanding of the avi-fauna in a particular ecosystem?

One thing I did notice about my trip was that only about 5% of the new birds I saw went unidentified. In the first few months of my birding "career" that number was well over 50%.

Even though I saw many new and (to me) spectacular species on my trip, I still have a better sense of satisfaction with the small forest species that I have managed to pick out from amongst the common species out on the east coast. The feel more "real" to me. Like I worked for them.
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Old Monday 17th October 2005, 22:22   #2
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Terry O'Nolley
... I saw many new and (to me) spectacular species on my trip, I still have a better sense of satisfaction with the small forest species that I have managed to pick out from amongst the common species out on the east coast. The feel more "real" to me. Like I worked for them.
spoken like a true (albeit new) birder Terry....

my short answer to what is a birder (and of course it's just a personal opinion) is more to do with depth of knowledge rather than length of list ... and local knowledge is a deeply satisfying thing ... I know (as I'm sure many do) quite a few birders with burgeoning lists who frankly are fairly awful birders (conversely there are many superb birders with large lists) ... the number on a list may often equal availability over ability
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Old Monday 17th October 2005, 22:40   #3
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Hi Terry,

I think you are still probably missing out on a lot of birds - without really travelling much outside New England in the couple of years I've been in the states. My county list is around 250 and my garden one about 100 - If you always limit yourself to one type of habitat and/or are not getting out at the right times in migration then you will have difficulty finding new birds. However as long as you're enjoying yourself that's the important thing.

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Old Monday 17th October 2005, 22:44   #4
Steve Gross
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Over the last few years, my year lists and my life list have not been that far removed - my life list (ABA area only) is 577, but I've seen over 450 species each of the last three years.

This means, as you might guess, that I've covered the same general areas each year, with the odd rarity or seasonal bird thrown in.

I cover a good bit of Texas each year, and have really had to learn a lot about vocalization, microhabitat, etc. in order to expand my list. This process continues; for example, I only added Gambel's Quail to my Texas list this summer, when I finally took the time to bird in the El Paso area. Taking the time to learn about the distribution of this species was necessary in finding it. I'm still missing Sage Thrasher for Texas because I've not birded in west Texas much at all in the winter.

I suppose that this might be considered a depth-oriented approach to birding, but it takes place over several states (usually at least Texas and Idaho, and a few points in between), so there's some breadth involved as well.

I'm trying to say that there is, no doubt, the possibility of big numbers with the addition of new birding locations, but even within each location there is depth. Finding Red-necked Grebe or Say's Phoebe in Idaho is not an everyday occurrence, for example.

I look forward to finding Eastern Towhees, Fox and Harris's Sparrows here in the Houston area each winter, since they're not just sitting on every other fence post. There are easier places to find each species, but finding them here is more satisfying for me. Again, learning something about the habits of the bird helps immensely.

Even when going to never-before-birded areas, learning about the vocalization, habitat, and seasonality of species will help you add even more of those new species to the lists you keep. It's true that some species will just fall into your lap in new locations, but there's more than meets the eye in most situations.

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Old Monday 17th October 2005, 22:53   #5
Terry O'Nolley
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Quote:
Originally Posted by streatham
I think you are still probably missing out on a lot of birds - without really travelling much outside New England in the couple of years I've been in the states. My county list is around 250 and my garden one about 100 - If you always limit yourself to one type of habitat and/or are not getting out at the right times in migration then you will have difficulty finding new birds.
You are probably correct.

I just don't feel like I have learned all there is to learn with my immediate patches and I don't want to get overwhelmed with expanding to other terrain types before I am ready.

I spend some days (around 8 hours each day) sitting in different spots and learn a lot about how the birds of my local (small - 15 acres or so) forest move through the areas. I would vary the times of day and locations but kept it limited to the local forest. Some days I would get out there well before sunrise and others I would be out there from around 3 in the afternoon until well after dark.

I refuse to tick a bird in flight that I haven't also seen on the ground or perching long enough to study it. That might also be why my list is so short.

New England (and even a specific county) is a large place compared to a local forest

When I feel like I am familiar enough with my local patch, I will expand to other places and study them at length. Probably in the early spring - after I have had a full rotation of seasons within my local patch.

It would be cool though to have a garden where 100 different species in the course of just a couple years visit!

And it may just be that my patch flat out sucks

But I am enjoying it and, as you mentioned, that is what is important.
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Old Monday 17th October 2005, 23:02   #6
Terry O'Nolley
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Steve Gross
Even when going to never-before-birded areas, learning about the vocalization, habitat, and seasonality of species will help you add even more of those new species to the lists you keep. It's true that some species will just fall into your lap in new locations, but there's more than meets the eye in most situations.
I agree 100%.

I prepared for my trip by studying up on some of the species I really hoped to see and made sure I found the right terrain to visit and, with the exception of the Lewis' Woodpecker, found them all (although the White-headed Woodpecker took me a day of sitting in a promising pine grove at about 6,000 elevation).

I didn't mean to say that all I did was tromp through well-carved footpaths to find all the birds I ticked (although that was where I saw most of them). The few birds that I really wanted to see (Acorn Woodpecker, California Thrasher and White-headed Woodpecker) were found by studying up on them and then going to the proper terrains and waiting and walking softly.
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Old Monday 17th October 2005, 23:50   #7
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I enjoy birding at the same local spots over and over too. There's a lot of satisfaction to find a new bird or to learn something new in your own local patch. The nice thing is you can do both. Work your local patch regularly and take occasional trips to new areas. I can relate to being overwhelmed. I recently went to visit a spot called Bluff Point which is what I guess they call a migrant trap. When I did come apon an area with a couple of hundred warblers I didn't know where to start looking. I felt as though I would miss something and could only appreciate the fact that I was seeing so many.The bird that stood out to me the most turned out to be a single Brown Thrasher. I still enjoyed the experience anyhow.
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Old Tuesday 18th October 2005, 09:47   #8
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I would suuggest to you that you obtain a copy of Kenn Kaufman's book "Kingbird Highway" then spend many pleasurable hours reading it. In this he describes a "year twitch" in the 70's where he sets off to beat the US year list record and during the course of the year begins to question the relevance of listing to his birding enjoyment.

It contains many philosophical twists and turns and, of course, no final answer. Birding is a personal experience - there's no right way or wrong way, despite what some control freaks might attempt to tell you!

(Also recommended although on a different tack is "How to be a bad birder" by Simon Barnes.
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Old Tuesday 18th October 2005, 10:15   #9
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I read that book(Kingbird Highway) while I was on a solo camping trip. It might have been my favorite book that had to do with the subject of birding. I'll check out the other one you suggested.
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Old Tuesday 18th October 2005, 12:36   #10
topmate
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How to be a bad birdwatcher is definitely worth a look, an entertaining and inspiring read. I absolutely loved it and can highly recommend the companion volume, the bad birdwatchers companion, although that is a bit more brit-centric than Simon Barnes first book.

How to be a bad birdwatcher certainly got me a lot more focussed on just enjoying the birds I'm seeing rather than trying to identify and tick everything I see. Who knows, perhaps "bad birdwatcher" may even replace "dude" in birding parlance one day!
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Old Tuesday 18th October 2005, 14:46   #11
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Terry, there is much to be said about thoroughly studying one's local patch and the denizens therein--all of it good.

That said, there is a lot of world out there and a very pleasant segment is close to you. You do not need to take cross-continent trips to study new species (although, as you got a taste of San Diego Co. birding, you can see how enticing that can be).

A day trip to Chesapeake Bay is within your reach. And what a venture that would be right now! Those ducks sit still and allow great viewing/learning.

Good birding!

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Old Tuesday 18th October 2005, 17:55   #12
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With the introduction of video and now DVD bird guides, I wonder if it is becoming less important to travel to get experience of a wide variety of different birds? It seems to me that a local patch birder that spent some time viewing footage of a wide variety of birds might end up learning more than a lister who spent equivalent time on their hobby, but spent more of it travelling to see stuff in the wild, and therefore less time seeing birds, either on their local patch or on a screen.
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Old Tuesday 18th October 2005, 18:15   #13
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I think there are twitchers and birdwatchers,with an obvious grey area between.I dont mean to be small minded,finger pointy or anything like that but pure twitching seems to be very trainspotter-esque,while the watchers are more likely to stop and watch,say,a shrew,even if it means they miss the greater spangled doodahh they heard about on the next lake...
I love to see a new species but dont feel the need to travel hugely to do so.If it turns up in my usual haunts,well,whoopee,im a happy chap and smiling for days.I understand the kick twitchers feel but wonder sometimes if they arent missing out?
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Old Tuesday 18th October 2005, 18:17   #14
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Quote:
Originally Posted by mcdowella
With the introduction of video and now DVD bird guides, I wonder if it is becoming less important to travel to get experience of a wide variety of different birds? It seems to me that a local patch birder that spent some time viewing footage of a wide variety of birds might end up learning more than a lister who spent equivalent time on their hobby, but spent more of it travelling to see stuff in the wild, and therefore less time seeing birds, either on their local patch or on a screen.

Yes, I am a lister, and yes, I enjoy traveling--even if it is just down the road apiece. That is to be honest and to give context to my next comment:

No video, no multi-thousand pixel digital photograph can ever approach the effect of seeing a real bird. Yes, I oooh and ahhh at great photographs of great birds, but if you've ever eaten powdered ice cream, you have some idea of the difference between a photo and experiencing the real McCoy.

I greatly enjoy my local patch. I love the seasonal changes and sometimes just sitting and observing one bird's behavior for an extended time. This is time well spent. But, it is not the only way to spend my birding time well.

Through observation of related species that are not found in my home bailiwick, I've learned about those that are. From far more knowledgeable birders I've met in the field, I've learned how much it is I have to learn. From travel to habitats far removed from those of my native state I have learned to appreciate the importance of nuances so critical to different species.

When I can no longer travel, due to failing health or financial deficiencies, I will sit with my binocs in the park up the street or at my window. I will watch DVD's and TV specials. I will peruse those increasingly arcane things (especially to the under 40 group) we call books, reliving the joys of the birding of the past and perhaps rueing the fate that I could not see them all.

Meanwhile, I must leave off. I'm packing for a trip. I'm going to see some real birds!

Good birding (vicarious and otherwise)
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Old Tuesday 18th October 2005, 18:30   #15
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I'm like a lot of folks that are most interested in how much they see on their "local patch" (though my "local patch" changes pretty frequently with my work). Seeing 90+% of the birds in your area requires a good understanding of habitat, habits, sounds, and migrations and this requirement to learn these things are what make us grow as birders.

However, I also enjoy travelling to see other places / cultures / and most importantly to me, birds. I also think this helps us to better understand bird families and puts some perspectives on our local birds. While I'm from the Southern US, I have recently moved to Canada, so this summer was the first time I got to see a lot of Warblers on their breeding grounds. Boy, was their behavior, song and plumage different to what I had seen in Florida!
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Old Tuesday 18th October 2005, 18:48   #16
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Smile

Totally agree with you Tinca, On a trip to Titchwell earlier this year one of the best events wasn't a bird sighting (even though we got a couple of lifers) but on the way from car park to the reserve shop we spotted something moving on the ground, a great tit feeding but the ground to the side of it was moving up and down weirdly. We stood and watched for about 10 -15 minutes and heard snuffling etc and realised that we were seeing the effects of a mole going about its business just under the surface. Absolutely magical experience, which all four of us still talk about. I have watched weasels and roe deer at Blacktoft Sands, stoats, mink, bank voles and foxes at Fairburn Ings and used to enjoy watching water voles in the days when they were common. Too often in hides there seems to be the view that if it isn't a bird then shut up. This is one reason why I now visit reserves during the week on my rest day rather than at weekends, seems to be a better type of birder midweek, not so much after the ticks but interested in everything, birds, mammals, amphibians etc.
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Tinca
I think there are twitchers and birdwatchers,with an obvious grey area between.I dont mean to be small minded,finger pointy or anything like that but pure twitching seems to be very trainspotter-esque,while the watchers are more likely to stop and watch,say,a shrew,even if it means they miss the greater spangled doodahh they heard about on the next lake...
I love to see a new species but dont feel the need to travel hugely to do so.If it turns up in my usual haunts,well,whoopee,im a happy chap and smiling for days.I understand the kick twitchers feel but wonder sometimes if they arent missing out?
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Old Wednesday 19th October 2005, 12:48   #17
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I've gone a bit further down that road and dont visit reserves at all any more.It wasnt a concious decision,just kinda drifted away from it.Even midweek hides are rarely empty and i cant stand the shoulder to shoulder stuff that happens at the popular places.Add in a "mouth" or two and the whole experience is tiresome at the very least.
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Old Wednesday 19th October 2005, 15:35   #18
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Tina is right but sometimes we are both, first a twitcher and then a bird watcher. I may start just identifying the bird but then want to learn more about it. What is it's song? Why is it here in this location, at this time of year? Where is it going? What does it eat? Does it have a nest nearby? That's when I usually become a bird watcher and this usually happens in my local patch with lots of return visits. On my family vacations I just don't have the time to linger. return or study them as much.

Birding takes lots of practice. 50 bird songs memorized per year doesn't sound too bad for me.

Last edited by buckskin hawk : Wednesday 19th October 2005 at 15:43.
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