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Nature Notes: For the Birds

Ed Robinson
June 6, 2019

We have all used the term “for the birds” at one time or another, perhaps to describe an idea we find preposterous or an aging uncle who has lost a few marbles along his way. The online Free Dictionary defines the term as relating to something that has no value or is boring. While some of you may have only a passing interest in birds, for others there is nothing but joy, excitement, or even intrigue when the topic is birds.

Black-bellied plover (Ed Robinson photo)

I have to admit that I have always been rather casual about birds. While I know quite a few species on sight, and take delight in seeing colorful birds like Baltimore orioles or wood ducks, I have never made birds a priority in my own journeys around the natural world. Put a whitetail fawn in front of me, or a fat brook trout in fall spawning colors, and I am determined to grab a nice photo and to learn as much as possible about them. But lately I have become more enamored of birds and find myself spending considerably more time in their company.

The catalyst was a trip to Costa Rica in February. The focus of the trip was not birds, but in seeing several parts of that beautiful country while learning a great deal about the friendly people and rich culture. We moved from the capital city to high mountains to coastal rain forest to arid plains. All of it was fascinating, and we’d love to go back. But among all of the sights were a staggering number and variety of birds, many of them species completely new to me.

Everywhere we went, there were birds in the air, on the trees or on the ground around us. I learned that Costa Rica is home to well over 600 different kinds of birds, with another 300 species passing through as annual migrants or wanderers far from home. Trying to identify all these birds, and capturing photos when possible, became a stimulating challenge for several of us on the trip. Some of the birds were stunning, including the endangered scarlet macaw and the gloriously colored keel-billed toucan. The variety and colors of hummingbirds was enough to keep anyone busy for days. I ended up recording more than 60 new species, many of them as beautiful as any indigo bunting or snowy owl you will see in Maine.

Our guide introduced us to a wonderful smart phone app called eBird, a product of the Cornell University Lab of Ornithology. Cornell’s website describes eBird as “the world’s largest bio-diversity-related citizen science project, with more than 100 million bird sightings contributed each year.” Easily downloaded free to your phone, eBird offers a vast array of data, photos, recordings and maps related to birds, with packages of bird information for a number of different regions of the world. Of particular value to people like me who have much to learn about birds is a tool called Bird ID that helps you identify new birds by answering several questions about the bird and your location, or by uploading photos. It has easily become my favorite phone app and I highly recommend it.

So now we consider another definition, this for the term “birder.” Merriam Webster dictionary falls flat on this one, informing us that a birder is “a person who birds” – thanks for clearing that up for me! Other definitions suggest that birders are the kind of people who are serious, often passionate, and sometimes even competitive about birds. A New Yorker article by Jonathan Rosen says that bird watchers mostly look at birds, while birders look for birds, sometimes going to great lengths and large expense to find them anywhere on Earth.

The stereotypical birder might be described in the same terms as your basic stamp collector, albeit dressed in broad-brimmed hats, natty rain slickers and rubber boots, with an expensive pair of binoculars around the neck. They are the kind of slow moving folks who are collecting Social Security and they tend to speak in tongues with all kinds of strange vocabulary. If you are ignorant of culmen, passerines, axillaries, coverts and lore you may find it hard to stay alert during a long cocktail party full of birders. I’m not suggesting that birders are boring, nor that they use special code words to keep us amateurs out of the club, but it makes for a serious learning challenge if you decide to delve into their hobby.

Yet the more I read and learn, the more fascinating the world of birds has become. I fear it is a little bit like becoming a serious fly fisherman, the kind of chap who talks about nymphing and stripping guides, while carrying a dip net in streams so he can identify the exact species of chironomids moving in the water column. Try as you might to remain relaxed and untutored about the hobby that has you in its grip, you inevitably find yourself sinking ever deeper into its dark recesses. With over 10,000 known species of birds in the world, of an incredible diversity and staggering beauty, birding offers a wonderful refuge for those who want to know as much as possible about the world around them.

eBird led me to a major initiative of the Department of Inland Fisheries & Wildlife, a five year project to map the distribution and abundance of more than 200 birds that breed within our state. The last survey of this sort was done from 1978 – 1983 so the data is now seriously out of date. Because of ongoing development, pollution and climate change, it is important for the state to have an updated picture of birds in Maine so scientists and habitat management specialists can make informed decisions going forward. Birds play an important role in our ecological systems and they are good indicators of environmental problems. Thus the Maine Bird Atlas project is running from 2018 to 2022 as a major citizen science project. Click here for more information.

Surf scoter (Dan Hoebeke photo)

Volunteers are encouraged to sign up to make reports on bird sightings, either close to home or anywhere they range within the state. You can be an active participant, or simply report on a casual basis. There is a great deal of information available to help those of us who are not expert birders, including reading and reference materials or online courses to help you in bird identification. It is great fun to learn more about the hundreds of birds that are migrating through our state or resident here for the breeding season. While it can be frustrating trying to spot tiny warblers zipping through the bushes in early morning light, it is quite satisfying to finally confirm the identity of a species new to your list. In the last two weeks, for instance, I have spotted a pair of surf scoters and a black-bellied plover, both of them distinctive in their spring colors.

So if you see a gray-haired old sport skulking around in the woods or on the rocks near your home with a high powered spotting scope, please don’t be alarmed. It is simply me trying to find the mating habitat of the black-throated blue warbler or to distinguish between the pie-billed grebe and the northern fulmar. I hope to see you out there soon!

If you like Ed Robinson’s writing, check out his two Nature Notes books! Click here for more information.