Saturday, May 17, 2014

So you think you know birding

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, birding, tips

Here is fodder for many sessions of "Did you know?": 1001 Secrets Every Birder Should Know: Tips and Trivia for the Backyard and Beyond, by Sharon "Birdchick" Stiteler. This is no compendium of facts and figures, no dry encyclopedia of orhithologica, but an entertaining, well-illustrated guide.

Here we read that it is better not to take a Field Guide into the field. Instead, at whatever level of skill you might have, draw what you see and take it up with the book later. How many birds will you miss while paging through? If you can, back up your drawing with a photo, though few cameras will show a bird snapped at 30 feet as more than a tiny dot. Holding your cell phone camera to the binocular eyepiece may actually get you a more usable picture.

A note to the photo-happy: Most DSLR's cannot take a picture through a binocular or spotting scope. The focal length is much too long. Your eye has a focal length of 16-18 mm, so a little camera with a 3x zoom, say 7-21mm, is much better. Wanna use the DSLR in the field? Invest in a 400mm telephoto and use a tripod or monopod. If you try to get close enough to most birds for a "normal" focal length to work well, you'll just flush it.

We find that a mother bird will not abandon a nest if you have seen it or even touched it, but there is a significant chance that you could either scare a chick to death, or lead a watching predator to it. I once learned the hard way that a mostly fledged-out blue jay chick doesn't need to be returned to the nest. The parents are nearby, ready to help, which they did by taking a few solid pecks to the top of my head. The young bird wasn't quite ready to fly but had left the nest on purpose, and would be flying in a week or less. It was learning to feed itself while the parents showed it how and stood by to fend off creatures such as myself. I'd have learned these things in a less painful way by reading Chapter 7, "Baby Birds".

Throughout the book we find ideas of places to go to see larger numbers of birds, and greater variety, places like Hawk Mountain near Allentown, PA, or South Padre Island in Texas, or Costa Rica, or even Antarctica if you wish to add penguins to your life list. Numerous myths are debunked, such as that you have to get up before sunrise for the best birding. It really depends on the birds' schedule, and some are better found in midday or evening. One factoid is, sadly, true, that Audobon shot many birds. In a time without photography or even good quality binoculars, he had to get the bird in hand to be able to produce a good painting of it. So he'd shoot several specimens, skin them and study the pelts, and paint them in lifelike poses, as well as his memory allowed. Prior to the middle of the Twentieth Century, birding was primarily accomplished by shooting.

Birding can be done solo, but is a very enjoyable social activity. Indeed, I have very seldom gone afield alone with my binoculars. I much prefer a few compatible friends. Bird clubs abound, and ideas for finding them can be found scattered throughout the book, along with lists of bird festivals such as the one in Yakutat, Alaska for tern-watching or numerous migration festivals, where it is common to see tens of thousands to millions of birds fly over, sometimes at head height or below. The migrators are on a mission, and hardly notice you standing atop the ridge they are barely skimming.

I am not much of a birder, more of a casual birdwatcher, when it fits in with sightseeing for other reasons. An accomplished birder might find it entertaining to read through this book to find whether he or she has missed anything worth knowing. I'd say, having read it, that it is all worth knowing, but certain sections are worth a re-read just prior to a focused outing to refresh the ol' memory. I think the hardest thing for Birdchick to accomplish was to winnow down the neat things to know about birds, to only 1,001.

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