Laura Erickson's For the Birds

Thursday, February 28, 2013

Birding Alone vs. Birding in Groups and on Tours

Black-capped Chickadee peeking in my window waiting for mealworms
This Black-capped Chickadee peeks into my window to see where I am.
I've always enjoyed traveling to new places, and that enjoyment increased manyfold when I became a birder. In my own backyard, I know what species I can expect from day to day and can keep tabs on special individual birds. After traveling a few days or weeks, it's lovely to crank open my window and instantly have my good old chickadees alighting on my hand again. Yet as much as I treasure my backyard birds, every now and then I am seized by a powerful wanderlust. This January I drove to Florida for a couple of weeks. I love exploring places on my own. This year at one spot, I came upon a mother raccoon with three half-grown youngsters, and further on found an otter basking in the sun. I'd seen the otter earlier, running in that wonderful wavy lope characteristic of otters, and now it was resting. If I'd been with a group, we'd have quickly moved on to the next thing, but being alone, I could park myself near these beautiful animals for as long as I wanted.

Mother raccoon and baby at Viera Wetlands

Otter basking at Viera Wetlands
Last week I had an entirely different kind of birding experience--I went on one of Kim Eckert's Minnesota Birding Week adventures. Kim's been leading these trips for over 30 years, and they're always wonderful. Kim is intimately familiar with all the Texas birding hotspots, keeps in touch with virtually all the serious birders of the area, and has matchless bird finding and identification skills, so if a bird is anywhere to be found, people on his trips have as good a chance or better of seeing them than anyone going it alone.

Between about noon on Saturday, February 16, and Sunday, February 24, our group saw a total of 201 species, of which I personally saw 199, so in one week I saw more species than I'd seen in the previous 6 weeks of 2013, adding almost 100 species to my year list. Texas bird numbers are way down this year, based on my own personal experience and on what all the local birders were saying. Extended extreme drought conditions have taken a toll, sending some species elsewhere and almost certainly causing high levels of mortality in others.

Despite bad conditions, we had wonderful looks at some exceptionally difficult species. We started at 7 each morning and birded until almost dark each day. Each day was intense, but to offset the occasional frustration in not being able to spend as much time watching something fun, it's nice to put all the trip planning and driving in someone else's hands. I'm always a bit exhausted at day's end, but it's the good kind of exhaustion wherein I fall asleep with visions of Green Jays, Altamira Orioles, Whooping Cranes, and other amazing birds.

Green Jay
Green Jay
I spend a lot of time studying birds on my own, and I’ve always observed that I learn the birds of an area by searching them out one by one on my own. People who do virtually all their birding on group trips are seldom as strong on identification skills as those who bird alone. But it’s much easier to maximize the variety of birds seen in a new area in the company of a truly professional guide like Kim Eckert and a group of good birders who help spot things. I think the ideal approach is a combination of the two. On my Texas trip we saw and I photographed a large variety of wonderful birds, including a Flammulated Owl (well, his tummy feathers),

Flammulated Owl
Flammulated Owl's tummy feathers
 a small group of White-collared Seedeaters,

White-collared Seedeater
White-collared Seedeater
 and even a Crimson-collared Grosbeak.

Crimson-collared Grosbeak
Crimson-collared Grosbeak (immature)
  In coming weeks I'll be talking more about these and other exciting species, mostly at my Conservation Big Year website.