Laura Erickson's For the Birds

Friday, September 21, 2007

"Could have been seen" list

Mike McDowell, the world-class digiscoper, has started a new kind of list, his "could have seen, but travel dollars went to conservation instead" list.

I don't know if the sport of birding is ever going to reach a point where the majority of birders stop chasing. If it does, something will have been lost. I have many fond memories of going places searching out hotline birds--the joys of connecting with birding friends and seeing a new bird are pretty satisfying. But chasing rarities for our lists is energy intensive, and the loss of birds by automobiles is significant--something we as a group should not be contributing to. Four or five different birders called me the winter of 2004-05 after hitting a Great Gray Owl or Northern Hawk-Owl while driving around the Sax-Zim Bog. Ironically they'd killed one of the very birds they'd come north to see!

What is the correct answer to the chasing dilemma? There is none--we each have to examine our own heart and soul and figure out just how much our list means to us and just how much we want to see a Mango. No matter what, though, we need to be mindful of the costs of our hobby. Carpooling at least cuts in half or a third or fourth the energy-consumption-per-lifer costs. And whenever anyone starts a personal "could have seen, but travel dollars went to conservation instead" list, something surely will have been gained. I know I skipped chasing the Long-tailed Jaeger in western Minnesota a few weeks ago specifically because I didn't want to waste energy going out there without at least one other birder along. So now I'll take the gas money I saved and make a contribution to the American Bird Conservancy and I can start my own personal "could have seen, but travel dollars went to conservation instead list" with the Long-tailed Jaeger. I can't count the Mango on that list because right now I have too many obligations in Duluth to be able to chase it anyway.

In 101 Ways to Help Birds, I write:

63. Be mindful of your automobile use when birding

Birding is an automobile-intensive hobby. One of the greatest joys in birding is adding a new species to one’s lifelist. When a rare bird is found, birders share the word on internet listserves, telephone hotlines, and cellular phone text messages, and within minutes or hours of a discovery, other birders descend upon the site. When a rare hummingbird turned up in my own backyard in November, 2004, dozens of birders arrived within the first few days to add it to their city, county, state, and even life lists. Many of them came from the Twin Cities, over 150 miles away, and some came from even farther. And well over a thousand birders from all over the continent, and many from abroad, descended upon northern Minnesota during the owl invasion of 2004-05.

Chasing rarities does use valuable natural resources and contributes to declining air and water quality, increased traffic, and highway deaths of birds, but chasing is part of the essence of birding for many of us. Rather than casting blame on those who jump in their car at the first news of a rarity, or feeling guilty about our own chasing, it’s more productive to be mindful of the resources we use and the harms associated with those uses, and to thoughtfully reduce our negative impacts whenever possible.

Because some of the best birding locations in the country happen to be along rutted, rocky dirt roads, some birders prefer to drive in heavy duty SUVs rather than smaller vehicles that get better gas mileage. My car’s hybrid engine not only saves a lot of gas but shuts off the gas engine when I stop, making it wonderfully quiet for hearing birds. The car’s low clearance does make it a poor choice in a few circumstances, but considering how much money I save on fuel and how much I saved on car costs in the first place, I don’t mind renting when I truly need something bigger. In most cases, it’s more economical to buy a small car for day-to-day use, and rent an SUV for those occasions when its size and ruggedness would be genuinely useful.

For day-to-day birding, choosing a nearby place and exploring its nooks and crannies on foot can be even more satisfying than combing country roads and birding from the car. I “adopted” a park within walking distance of our apartment when we lived in Madison, Wisconsin, and tried to bird there every morning before work during spring migration and at least weekly throughout the rest of the year. By exploring a single place like this, I was able to discover a few rarities to share with my fellow birders, learned many subtle things about the behavior and habitat needs of various birds, and was even able to start recognizing individual birds by song and appearance. When we moved from Madison, I left with my “Picnic Point” list at 200 species.

While we lived in Madison, I rode the bus to work in winter and during bad weather. One bus stop was near a part of Lake Monona where the local power company’s warm water discharge kept the lake open all winter. I liked to catch an early bus to work, get a transfer and hop off at that spot, check out the ducks (and sometimes a Snowy Owl) in the area, and then take the next bus the rest of the way to work. Of course, many of the best birding areas aren’t serviced by public transportation, but when one is, why not take advantage of it?

On fine days in the warmer seasons, I rode my bicycle to work. Madison had a wonderful bike path system, and by giving myself enough time, I could enjoy lots of birds to and from work.

But on weekends, I loved going birding farther afield. Some birders treasure being alone to enjoy their field time. But if you don’t mind birding with others, and especially if you enjoy it, you improve your birding-miles-per-gallon factor by carpooling. And having at least one extra set of eyes significantly raises the number of species you see, especially on the road between stops. When a rare bird is found some distance from your town or city, carpooling will both save gas and make the excursion more enjoyable.

Other tips for reducing fuel needs while birding:

• Keep your car in tune, your oil and air filters clean, and your tires properly inflated. If your car has a faulty oxygen sensor, your gas mileage may improve as much as 40 percent when you get it repaired according to EPA figures. Using oil other than your auto manufacturer’s recommended grade can lower your fuel efficiency.
• Never carry unneeded items, especially heavy ones, in your trunk or backseat. According to EPA figures, an extra 100 pounds of cargo in the trunk reduces a typical car's fuel economy by 1-2 percent.
• Use cruise control and overdrive when appropriate.
• Aggressive driving (speeding, rapid acceleration and braking) can lower your gas mileage by 33 percent at highway speeds and 5 percent around town, according to EPA figures. After stopping for a good bird on a roadside, take off gently unless you need to merge in traffic.
• According to the EPA, a roof rack or carrier provides additional cargo space and may allow you to meet your needs with a smaller car. However, a loaded roof rack can decrease your fuel economy by 5 percent or more. Reduce aerodynamic drag and improve your fuel economy by placing items inside the trunk whenever possible.

By conscientiously doing what you can to minimize your driving and maximize your fuel economy, you can enjoy chasing rarities without squandering more natural resources than necessary.