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A group thing

October 5, 2009
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I do a lot of my birding solo.  Not by choice or anything, at least most of the time.  Part of it is that I’ve been doing a lot of birding with my baby son lately and I don’t know exactly how the participants of a bird walk would feel about a baby tagging along.  The flexibility needed when birding with baby largely makes group functions difficult, but occasionally it’s nice to get together with some other eyes, especially if those eyes are attached to some sharp minds.  You tend to see quite a bit.

My dad and I had every intention of birding for two Saturday morning when we pulled into Mason Farm.  I was without Noah that morning, he apparently hasn’t adjusted his morning routine to account for the lessening daylight.  Getting out and about at 6:30 am is great in the summer, but when the sky doesn’t get light until nearly 7:30 that hour spent not birding is an hour less before someone needs a bottle and a morning nap.  As I’ve yet to master feeding on the trail, I have to rely on the good graces of my wife to watch the kid while I enjoy the outdoors.  Tangentially, in the months immediately following Noah’s birth, I had found that my birding was actually improved by the presence of a baby in that I could spin a morning in the field as an opportunity to give my wife a morning to sleep.  This was remarkably effective.  I was birding more than ever!  Now? Not so much.

Anyway….  We arrived to Mason Farm to find the Chapel Hill Bird Club meeting for a morning walk.  So we joined them.  The birding was pretty good with a few lingering fall migrants and my first Swainson’s Thrush of the season, but nothing that I wouldn’t expect from any other normal morning’s birding in the eastern United States.  What I found most interesting is the interplay between individuals and the odd unspoken rules of bird walks.

Even though the two mile walk around Mason Farm scarcely takes longer than an hour and half, we took it slower, not moving on until the leader had done so first.  Don’t get me wrong, I’m not complaining.  We covered the area more thoroughly that I might have on my own, but it’s likely impossible to keep a large number of people focused on a single purpose for an entire morning, and even more difficult to keep your own instincts about when to stop and when to move on at bay.  Deference, even to an excellent birder, is sometimes a difficult thing to accept.

Additionally, I tend to pish at chickadee flocks regularly, especially this time of year when migrant . I fully accept that different people have different levels of comfort with pishing and Screech Owl mimicry, so in group settings I hold back unless it has been established that everyone is ok with it.  It’s hard to say whether or not judicious Screech Owling would have netted us any additional species, but you never know.  Certainly it’s something you weigh against the additional observers.  In the end, you probably break even.

I forget, though, how much I enjoy birding with other people from time to time.  The camaraderie, the stories, the opportunity to put faces to names you may only see on the local or state listserve and, most importantly, the opportunity to build a community.   It was a reminder that I probably should try to show my face a little more often in the local birding community.  If I keep running into them, I certainly will.

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9 Comments
  1. October 5, 2009 7:18 am

    Birding to me is (mostly) a solitude experience by choice. I have found I am too chatty when in the company of another birder and tend to see much, much more when alone with all senses and mind-power focussed on the birds and birding.
    There are places however – like the warbler hot spots around the Great Lakes – where the birding is so decadently easy and the birders so common that concentration is not needed. On these occasions, birding in a group is something I appreciate.
    And of course there are instances when you team up with other birders not so much for the birds but almost entirely for the good company and the exchange of stories and experiences. This is something I enjoy, too.
    But if I really, really want to see BIRDS, I try to go out alone.

  2. October 5, 2009 10:10 am

    Depends entirely on my mood and where I’m birding. I was once birding solo in a wooded park in an urban area and got followed by a guy on a bike. Every time I would put my binoculars up to look at warblers, he would try to move closer to me. I suddenly became acutely aware of how far from a main road I was and how no one could see me if anything happened. I did run into some joggers who very graciously let me join them (at a greatly reduced pace) back to the parking lot to get to my car. I now think twice now about birding alone in certain areas.

  3. Nate permalink*
    October 5, 2009 10:10 am

    @Jochen- I agree that solo you tend to see more birds, though there are times when the opposite is true. More eyes are better on a vast mudflat or on a pelagic or things like that where it’s often difficult for a single birder to be all places at once. Forest birding, though, is better solo, especially if you have a pretty strong grasp of what you’re going to see.

    There’s a place for both.

  4. Nate permalink*
    October 5, 2009 10:14 am

    @Birdchick- Yeah, as a guy that’s something I definitely don’t have to deal with as often. But I can certainly see your point, especially if you’re in a less well-traveled area.

    Maybe there’s a critical mass when it comes to birding. Say if you graphed total species by number of birders, maybe you’d get a nice bell curve, even if it’s one that skews left. Seems as though eBird could do something like that.

  5. October 5, 2009 10:33 am

    @ Nate and Birdchick: there is a park in Ann Arbor /Michigan that’s arguably the best (or second best, depending on who you ask) for spring migration – Dolph Park. Sadly I must say, it is also a meeting place for gay men seeking quick and easy … you know … conversations. As I was birding the park mostly alone and being in my mid-30ies (presumably the spot-on target group), I was followed around so frequently and obnoxiously by men no matter what I told them that eventually I stopped visiting. So Nate, we need to be a bit careful at times as well.

    And I agree with pelagics and mudflats. Forests on the other hand – as you’ve mentioned – are clearly lone wolf terrain.

    And that Gaussian curve idea is very interesting.

  6. October 5, 2009 10:44 am

    I was just thinking about this yesterday! Normally my boyfriend accompanies me birding so he can get some fresh air. He’ll sit somewhere and listen to music and I’ll focus on the birds. Yesterday I went birding alone and, after being stared at by a biker for too long, realized how vulnerable you can feel birding alone.

  7. Nate permalink*
    October 5, 2009 12:23 pm

    @Jochen- There’s a popular birding trail here that was rumored to be a gay hangout that the county sheriff’s department threatened to shut down because they were tired of responding to complaints regarding harassment and lewd behavior. This was two years ago and as far as I know nothing came of it. I don’t know whether it’s still a problem, but I’ve never had a situation while there. I think mostly because I would go there early in the morning.

    @Elizabeth- It’s got to be rough being a woman birder and having to deal with that. Now that you mention it, I do tend to see more woman birders on group outings and I don’t know that I’ve ever run into a woman birder alone in the field. I guess I never thought about it much but it’s certainly clear why that is. Too bad.

  8. October 5, 2009 7:42 pm

    I enjoy birding both by myself and with others, largely for the reasons already mentioned. I’m not very social overall, but I do like talking and birding with friends.

    The curve idea may have merit, because it does seem that a few more eyes and ears nets more birds. But then I’ve been on some large walks with 50+ birders. But those tend to be somewhat unorganized, with birders clumping together in their own groups and going at their own pace. Somehow, it usually ends up ok, though newer birders can easily get lost in the mix.

  9. October 6, 2009 10:44 am

    “My name is Han and I do a lot of my birding Solo.”

    I couldn’t help it, “The Empire Strikes Back” was on TV last night.

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