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.


  1. I'll add that if you live in an urban area, you can frequently take public transportation to good birding areas or to chase rarities. That reduces the energy cost per lifer even further.

  2. Thanks, John! I was probably not emphatic enough about that point in the section of my book I quoted.

    "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?"

  3. Interesting thoughts, I just read about the birder who was in a car accident, hurt by having his bins around his neck when the airbag deployed. He will thankfully be okay. A good reminder that safety comes first, for the birds as well as us birders!

    Living really close to Beloit, Wisconsin, we were able to experience a rare event by seeing that Green-breasted Mango. It was super exciting, though far different from a normal birding day.

    I did notice that from what the homeowner said and from our own observations, the bird is in fine condition and does not seemed stressed by the watchers, which is my biggest fear when it comes to vagrant birds.

    Good birding to you!

  4. Mike Mcdowell removed all his comments on his blog and you can no longer leave a comment on his blog.

    Again there is not a right or wrong way to enjoy birds. If someone has the resources to pay for the gas, airline tickets and all the other misc. costs to see the Mango than God Bless him or her. If Mike and many other birders prefer to give their money to conservation organizations and skip out on seeing this hummingbird than thats wonderful as well.

    In these times there are always those that finger point and do a lot of preaching on how to enjoy birds. This sparks debate and divisons amongst birders. We need to get along and stop preaching about the right or wrong way of enjoying birds.

    I know at least 5 birders in Minnesota who are doing a big year to see how many birds they can see in Minnesota. Each of these birders are wonderful people and it would be unfair for anyone of us to say what they are doing is a waste of time or money. They are enjoying this aspect of birding, some have waited to get to this point of thier life to try to get 300+ birds in Minnesota and I applaud thier efforts.

    Mike McDowell is a good guy and I like him but his latest blog entries are nothign more than to troll for arguements and criticize those that like to travel to see birds. I am sure everyone who is traveling to see this Mango gives back some way or another to bird conservation, Trouble with people like Mike they like to stereo type listers as insensitive people who do not care about habitat or other concerns with birds. I prefer to not to judge listers and its not any of my business what they do with thier hard earn money or how they should spend it.

    Bird conservation is needed in birding but lately or maybe in some circles its like a religeon and if you do not agree with them you are against them or you do not care about birds and that is not true at all.

    I care about Sax-zim bog asmuch as Mike cares about Pheasant Hill (name?) and if I lived in Madison I would travel in my Yukon XL and burn about $50 in gas to see this once in a life time bird! I can still do that and also still put my time in caring about logging in Sax-Zim Bog.

    Mike Hendrickson

  5. Hi Mike,

    Every bird you look at may be a once in a lifetime bird. I guess that’s what makes a birder like me different from a birder like you. I also find it a little ironic that you criticize judgment in the same paragraph you judge my actions and intentions.

    I wrote my thoughts and feelings about the mango and not necessarily how I think other people should think and feel about it. Nevertheless, in the discourse of whether to chase or not to chase, I think all sides should be heard. Should I write something that doesn’t represent my thoughts and feelings? Should I only write what’s popular, or will be embraced and accepted by listers and chasers?

    Laura has an opinion and she wrote about it on her blog today. It’s a good opinion. You have a blog, once again, and perhaps you wrote something about it there as well. I whole heartedly agree with your paragraph about how people choose to enjoy birds – the choice is theirs. I don’t think it hurts the hobby of birding one iota, in the interest of ongoing discourse, to have an opinion, to stand up and be heard.

    You’re obviously seeing words in my writings that don’t exist. Nowhere in my post do I say, “And this is the wrong way to see a bird.” or “My way is the right way and the only way to enjoy birds.” I’m just looking at a report of a very rare bird and giving my opinion on how I’m personally choosing to act on it. I can do that. It’s my blog. You don’t have to agree with it, and frankly, I’m glad you don’t. I may be an idealist and you are free not to tune into Mike’s Birding and Digiscoping Blog.



  6. I like that Mike McDowell posted his honest opinion in a respectful way, and didn't accuse anyone of doing it wrong by chasing even as he explained his own evolution away from chasing as a hobby. His blog post accomplished exactly what I like birding bloggers to do when dealing with a controversial topic--present his side honestly, clearly, and without ridiculing the other side.

    Mike Hendrickson is right that a lot of listers and chasers and people doing Big Years, which Mike McDowell once did in Wisconsin, are great people, and their accomplishments also contribute to a certain sporting excitement about birding that draws in new birders.

    I'm going to play John McLaughlin here and say, "The answer is." And that answer is that we ALL should be mindful of the effects, good and bad, that our hobby/sport/avocation/passion has on birds and one another. We should be polite and honest, and keep our minds and hearts open to the politely stated honest opinions of others. This isn't a high school debate, where one side wins and one side loses. This is a complex issue with fair and honest points both for and against "chasing." And it won't get into any kind of flame war as long as people who chase and people who don't can make their points fairly. We're not evangelists here. Those of us, like Mike McDowell and me, who care passionately about bird conservation aren't here to shame anyone or make anyone feel bad for something we've both done in the past and that I expect to continue to do at least occasionally. What our role is as bird conservationists is to open minds to the needs of birds and how we can help them. What the role of listers and chasers might be is to keep the beauty and excitement of birding in people's awareness. And together we can learn to be mindful of the thrill and joy of seeing new birds, seeing familiar birds doing lovely and exciting things in our own backyards, and doing the things that work for each of us individually that ultimately can help ensure that the birds we enjoy and love continue to be around for our children and grandchildren, and for the birds' own sakes as well.

  7. I agree completely with Mike. I gave serious thought to going to Mitchell SD and/or Beliot but, considering the cost of gas and what that does to the environment I nixed both ideas.

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  9. William Mueller of Wisconsin posted his thoughts about the issue on his blog--the entry titled "Staying home."

  10. I noticed the Sax-Zim bog mentioned again....guess I'm fortunate as I live only 25 minutes north in Hibbing of the "bog"...I frequent it almost every other weekend and find a ton of wildlife not just the birds...I'm into photography quite heavily and have taken some amazing shots in the "bog" area....this morning I came upon a "covey/flock"?..of sharp tail grouse(approx. 20 or so birds) on county #29 north of Meadowlands an amzing site for sure!..I managed one photo before the birds spooked...I don't mind paying for gas to the "bog" after all it's my enjoyment!...price one pays I guess..I met only a few cars in the travels in that area this morning(Sept 23rd),practically had the whole area to my self!....thanks John Sikkila