Tuesday, May 28, 2013

The Bird Savorer

Black-capped Chickadee

When I started birding in 1975, I thought of myself as a bird watcher, but quickly got the sense that people who took birds very seriously, trying to amass long lists and being careful about identification and observant about behaviors, called themselves birders. I'm sort of a laid-back person, but I took my birding very seriously from the start, so right away that first year, I started calling myself a birder.

From the very start, I couldn't help but notice that a few people who called themselves birders were high on the arrogance spectrum, yet some of the very most serious, high-level birders were very approachable and helpful. So for me, the term birder never seemed to mean someone who was arrogant or unwilling to help beginners. I always did associate the term birder with people who keep serious records of the birds they see, but not necessarily in life list form. One of my friends who is extraordinarily skilled and has birded all over the world keeps track of the birds she sees on each trip, but has never put it all together into a life list. So even in the area of listing, there are no single criteria to separate birders from bird watchers. Now there's a certain backlash against the competitive and acquisitive elements of the sport of birding, such that more and more people serious about finding and studying birds are calling themselves bird watchers again. But for me, the term watcher implies visual observations, and I'm as focused on listening as on watching birds. I’m also extremely fond of keeping those lists. This year I'm trying to see as many species as I can during my "Conservation Big Year," but even as I'm hoping against hope to get 600 this year, I’m finding that more than ever, when I'm on my own and not needing to race on with the group to get the next bird, I enjoy stopping to savor individual birds that I encounter.

 Black-capped Vireo

In the Wichita Mountains, I spent a whole day following just one Black-capped Vireo around. When I was in southeastern Oklahoma, I spent a couple of days exploring just one national wildlife refuge, going over the same loop four different times so I could see the same individual Kentucky Warblers, Summer Tanagers, and Eastern Phoebes over and over, getting to know their day-to-day routines. And whenever I saw a Scissor-tailed Flycatcher while I was on a road where it was safe to stop, I stopped.

 Scissor-tailed Flycatcher

Scissor-tails don't usually fly away--maybe they've grown accustomed to people gawking at their beauty. When I stop, they often looked me right in the eye, but quickly went back to scrutinizing the ground for insects. It was lovely to see my first Scissor-tailed Flycatcher of the year, and to see my first each for my Texas, Oklahoma, and Kansas year-lists, but those first-of-year birds were seen from interstate highways where I couldn't stop. The ones I most thoroughly enjoyed were the ones I could savor.

Tailless Scissor-tailed Flycatcher

One of the Scissor-tails I saw in Kansas was missing her entire tail. The feathers may have frozen to a fence during an ice storm, or may have been plucked in a close call with a predator. I felt sorry for her, but relieved to see just 30 feet or so further down on the power line another one, most assuredly her mate. They may have been a pair from last year, or they may have paired up before she lost her tail, or her mate may just not be that concerned about appearances--this was a mystery for me to ponder.

Spending time with individual birds that I've already seen hundreds of times turns out to be as lovely for me as getting new species. I ended up with hundreds of photos of Scissor-tailed Flycatchers, and memories to last a lifetime.

I'm hardly unique in the birding world for my savoring birds. But as I consider how neither the term "birder" or "bird watcher" is precise in identifying my approach, which includes amassing plenty of lists but also thoroughly enjoying the birds I watch and listen to, it strikes me that maybe we're ready for a new term. So from now on, I'm going to identify myself not primarily as a birder OR a bird watcher, but rather, a bird savorer.

Scissor-tailed Flycatcher