Confessions of a Bird Listener

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                                   dedicated to Jim

 

I remember on one of my first school trips to the library, when we returned to class and our teacher went around the room to inspect our selections. She came to my desk and I showed her a book of birds and she said something like “Is that all you could find?”.  I felt like I was somehow not performing correctly. Nevertheless,  the next time we went  I selected what are now called “chapter books” which contained stories of birds and other animals.

Once my mother  saw me trying to stalk birds and she told me that if i could pour a little salt on their tail that I could catch them. So, I spent quite some time stalking them with salt shaker in hand.

 

Fast forward to about 35 years ago, when I was hitchiking from work in Northern New Mexico and was picked up by a house builder named Jim in an old Ford 250 truck. We got to talking and seemed to get along so he asked if I was interested in going bird watching. I jumped at the chance. I purchased a pair of cheap binoculars and we set out. For the rest of that summer almost every weekend we went to a different location, New Mexico, Arizona, Texas to go look for birds. He had these cassette tapes with the bird calls on them and during  our drives, sometimes through the night, we would listen and  test each other on these calls. Imagine a dry academic sounding nasal voice: 238 The Solitary Vireo*******, 132 The  American Redstart **********, 345 The  Phainopepla  ******* 277 The Green Kingfisher. Lots of fast forwarding and fast reversing to find locations. 

 

 Now, for those of you who think that birdwatching is for old folks, that is indeed true, there is plenty of birdwatching that they can do and enjoy. But our kind of bird watching took us to many places, many very remote, and many of them required substantial physical effort and the ability and desire to withstand environmental extremes such as desert heat and  snowy cold. Some took us to places, such as Guadelupe Canyon on the New Mexico panhandle border of Mexico that we felt it was wise to travel armed. Funny to reach in your bag and push aside your pistol to get your binocs. But seeing the Thick-billed Kingbird and  Violet-crowned Hummingbird was worth it. On the other hand,  the bugs in the evening reminded one of  swarms of locusts. That was like a nightmare.

 

Since then, after splurging  more than I could afford on a pair of Zeiss Dyalit 10x40, birdwatching became a regular activity. The binoculars were regularly in my backpack and I was often on the alert. 

Living now in Massachussets I birdwatched the east coast and north to Canada.

During vacations we flew and met up and went on bird trips to South Texas, Monterey California - all over the US. Neither of us have much money so these trips were on a shoe string budget and generally we slept in the truck, the car, or outside on the ground.

 

At the beginning, generally one cares about seeing new birds and rare birds. You keep a  list, your life list. I dont update mine anymore, but it is fine memorabilia. I can remember the first Yellow-breasted Chat  (who certainly deserves the name) I saw ( Rattlesnake Springs, NM), the first Fork-tailed flycatcher Fork-tailed Flycatcher

i saw (Brownsville, TX). I remember the time my wife saw her first Varied Bunting . We were courting. We drove around the southwest in my 1963 four door Chevy Impala with a 3 speed transmission on the column and if I saw a bird worthwhile, I would pull off to the side of the road, often in a cloud of dust, grab my binoculars and check it. These commando moves were the first sign to my wife that i was not quite right.  The car had two very long bench seats and slept the two of us reasonably well.  Moreover, many of these memories have a truly spiritual nature. For example, we were once in the Huachuca Mountains in Az on a quest to see the  Red-faced warbler , and we spent the morning hiking up to higher elevation. The book said its habitat was spruce and pine so when we got to spruce and pine we were a bit tired and decided to stop  for lunch. We  offloaded our packs, took out our lunches, including our water bottles, and sat down to a very pleasurable AZ mountain summer afternoon, when   two red faced warblers came and joined us for lunch. Hopping around the bushes near us,  it felt like they were not only unafraid, but were actually visiting.  That afternoon we also saw a few buff-bellied flycatchers and  Painted Redstarts . What a day! For those that might want  to try it, AZ has some of the finest birdwatching in the US; Madera Canyon, Patagonia, Sonoita, Ramsey Canyon, Cave Creek Canyon, The Huachucas and The Chiricahuas are all exceptional

 

My favorite birds to watch are the songbirds, the Warblers. They are small and often very beautiful, especially during breeding season. But most of all it is their songs that I love. I not only enjoy listening to the songs, it is also my primary identification tool. In fact,  for many species, to differentiate them from a nearby species, such as a Western Wood Peewee versus  Eastern Wood Peewee , the only way that you can do it is by voice. Eventually, the voices became a passion of mine. One of the primary advantages  of learning the voice is that you can hear alot farther than you can see, and if you hear a bird that sounds interesting, then you can change path to go check it out.  There is a story of Roger Tory Peterson who was sick once and stayed behind in the morning in his sleeping bag. When the group returned, they asked him how he  was and he told them that he had heard 35 species from his bag.

Having invested much energy in voice identification, this I can believe.

 

I became so infatuated with voice recognition that i developed a plan to introduce a blind relative of a friend of mine to bird watching. I was severely reprimanded as if I was somehow trying to humiliate him. As I further developed this idea i came to the conclusion that a blind person could indeed become a birdwatcher, could enjoy it greatly, and even became very skilled. The major drawback is that it would require a constant training partner who had eyes who could give feedback as to species. As of today, I think the idea has merit.

 

My wife has since caught the birdwatching bug. She does not hear so well and I see fine, but she sees much better, so as a team, we have one with eyes and one with ears. it makes  a great collaboration.

IMO, birdwatching is a wonderful activity for couples. You spend alot of time to together and have very exciting and memorable experiences together.

 

Finally, birdwatchers have the reputation  for being a bit nutty and this is well deserved. I have noticed that in the last years that there have been real developments in the quality of binoculars. A pair of Swaroskis can run you $2500.  After researching the new binocs and resisting the temptation I started seeing large groups of bird watchers with these very expensive binoculars. Mine look a little like they are battle worn, in some sense they are. Anyway, I once estimated that in one group of about 15 birdwatchers that there must have been at least 20,000$ worth of binoculars and I thought to myself, Mustafa, do not tell this to anyone you dont trust. If you do, someone in need of a creative way to make some money may become a Binocular Thief.  I spent some time rolling around in my mind a short story with this title.  Anyway, I hope my WB friends will not share this info with the unscrupulous.

 

One day, while watching an Elf Owl in Madera Canyon, I was enjoying conversation with someone who travels the world giving bird tours and I mentioned my idea of becoming a binocular thief. He lit up:” Already been done!  I was in Mexico and we were held up at gunpoint and they demanded all cameras, wallets, and binoculars.” Now, like fly fisherman and their affection for their favorite flyrod, many of us are very fond of our binoculars. They have been with us for thousands of hours and are part of remarkable personal history. He told me that when they got to one woman in the  group she said they could have her purse, but NOT her binoculars. After threatening her unsuccessfully with a pistol the thieves found her husband and put the gun to his head and said “your binoculars please”, And she said No, i will not. Her husband said  WHAT?  

 

Mustafa

 

Comments

Rusty Smith Added May 7, 2018 - 10:45am
My favorite wildlife lense costs over $2K and I'd gladly kill to prevent it from being stolen.
 
Sadly I'd imagine if it was stolen a thief might only get less than $100 from it at a pawn shop.
 
I think it's hard to get big bucks for used binoculars and especially serialized camera equipment.  The only people who really know what it's worth are likely to know it's stolen if the seller doesn't seem to have a reasonable explanation for wanting to sell it, and no one sells 3 pairs of high end binoculars.
Mustafa Kemal Added May 7, 2018 - 11:05am
Rusty Smith, I suspect you are correct. I suppose its good that my bandito tendencies are in the realm of fantasy.
 
But primarily  its the imagery; these groups of gray haired elders  flashing so much Swarovskis. They look a bit vulnerable.  
Pardero Added May 7, 2018 - 4:43pm
Mustafa Kemal,
Outstanding article! Really enjoyed it. 
Mama was quite a bird watcher and fed swarms of hummingbirds. You can't imagine how delighted she was, when I gave her a bird call wall clock. I treasure a book she gave me, Birds of the Rocky Mountains.
 
I should be ashamed of my modest little Steiner Wildlife binoculars, but they are handy and may be appropriate for an occasional bird watcher.
Even A Broken Clock Added May 7, 2018 - 5:31pm
Mustafa, I must admit I do not go out much to see and hear birds, but the highlight of the winter is to see and hear the birds at the feeder. And then in summer, the aerial combat of the hummers is extremely entertaining.
 
I've often wondered what factor in evolution caused the mockingbirds to do their mimic calls. I cannot think of any advantage this would give them. Maybe if they channeled hawks or other predator birds, but that's not what they do. But I love hearing them, even if all of their calls have a mockingbird accent.
Mustafa Kemal Added May 7, 2018 - 9:28pm
Pardero, somehow I thought you must have had birdwatcher in your veins. 
 
Even a Broken Clock,
It is only recently that I have discovered that winter is the BEST time to watch hawks. This has really been nice for us because now we can do this year round. Hawk watching is  sort of specialty, but it is very rewarding. If you are where it gets cold, you might check out if you can see a Rough legged hawk. My wife and I take full day trips to the the cold north eastern new mexico just to see them.
They are called rough-legged because they got leggings. These keep them warm in very cold climates.
 
As for mockingbirds, despite sometimes disturbing the peace, I have always loved them. As to why they do that i do not know.

Speaking of the feeder during winter, we have recently added suet  and now we have winter resident Ruby crowned kinglet
and Bewick's wren
Oranges in the summer bring the Orioles
 
Mustafa
Mark Hunter Added May 8, 2018 - 3:08am
I'm only a casual birdwatcher, but I do get the attraction. We keep binoculars, a fairly decent camera and a birding book with us on hikes and camping trips; it's always fun to see an unusual one.
A bald eagle has started nesting along a lake about three miles from my town; I'm anxious to get a look at him.
Kurt Bresler Added May 8, 2018 - 4:19am
Ok I was hooked, somewhat spellbound, enjoyed reading it immensely.  Great Article.
I live on the water, I do not have a pair of Binoculars so I use my camera which shows the pic on the screen and I take the pic then use my computer to bring it up.  Works ok.  anyway, We have Great Blue Herons,  Great Egrets,  Yellow Crested Night Herons, Wood Storks, Wood Ducks, Ibis, Little Blue Herons, Seagulls, Skimmers, Pileated woodpeckers, Cardinals, Blue Birds, Hummingbirds, Carolina Chickadees, Wren, Titmouse, Blue Jay,  Blackbirds and Red-breasted Robins fly thru seasonally.  Sorry got carried away, oh Red-Tailed Hawk and Barred Owl did I mention Eastern screech owl, Osprey, Bald Eagle, Kites, Buzzards, Ok that's not all and most of these I can see outside on the birdfeeder or wading down at the canal, high in the sky, or spotting with a light at night.   Nevertheless,  I guess I am somewhat of a birdwatcher howbeit a lazy one, considering I do not have to leave my house to see nearly all of the ones I mentioned.
Did I tell you about the time my floodlight was attacked by a Barred owl while working on my roof one night?  That was amazing.  Anyway Congratulations to a great story.  I will say that with a little more work the very ending might have been more of a birdie than a par, but hey we needed a warning. lol 
Dino Manalis Added May 8, 2018 - 9:08am
Birds are lovely, they fascinate us!
Mustafa Kemal Added May 8, 2018 - 12:31pm
Kurt Bresler, 
re:"Sorry got carried away,"
Not to worry, understood. 
 
re:"the very ending might have been more of a birdie than a par'
Agree there. I didnt want to spell out more of my The Binocular Thief" story. 
 
You indeed live in a special place ( Pilieated WPs!!! Wood Storks!). Im glad you appreciate it.
 
Mustafa
Mustafa Kemal Added May 8, 2018 - 12:40pm
Mark Hunter, 
re:"and a birding book with us on hikes"
That sounds a little more than casual. Indeed, if one keeps it about, one often finds that one has just seen an unusual one.
 
Regarding Eagles and hawks, if I may give a bit of advice, keep ones eyes ( and binocs) up.  I have seen three bald eagle flying a kind of dance where one has a fish and drops it and the other catches it, but then flys a bit and drops it and the third catches it.  This dance included graceful rollovers, and went on for some time. High in the sky, they can be quite playful with each other. On the ground or perched they are a bit curmudgeonesc waiting to steal any victim of a lesser predator.
 
Mustafa
 
James Travil Added May 9, 2018 - 12:01am
I love wildlife and greatly enjoyed your, very informative and entertaining article Mustafa. I just hope as I grow older I'll have more time to spend in such endeavors. 
Mustafa Kemal Added May 9, 2018 - 12:13am
James Travil,  
re:" I just hope as I grow older I'll have more time to spend in such endeavors. "
 I hope so too. From what I have seen from you, you may have the temperment.  
 Hope to see you then,
Mustafa
Mark Hunter Added May 9, 2018 - 12:21am
I'll take that advise to keep my eyes up! I tend to anyway, as I'm a weather and astronomy buff. By casual I mean I don't go out of my way to identify birds; I just like to look around at the wildlife and scenery in general while hiking. But if I do happen to see a bird I'm not familiar with, I want to be ready.
Bill H. Added May 14, 2018 - 9:32pm
 
Great article, Mustafa-
I have always enjoyed birdwatching and am now getting a bonus with all kinds of new birds showing up in the area that I have never seen before.

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