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Naked birding

October 16, 2009

New I and the Bird #111 over at Twin Cities Naturalist.


I forgot my binoculars yesterday.  I shouldn’t have done it.  I should have known that my shift of ranging at the Museum where I work, essentially hanging out in the outdoor exhibits for an hour or so answering questions and directing guests, would put me in the position to do a little bit of birding.  But for whatever reason, be it because I had to take my kid to daycare or because I thought the rain would wash out any outdoor time, I didn’t pack my bins, leaving me completely naked with regards to identifying birds.

Here’s the thing though.  While at times I cursed my forgetfulness, it wasn’t so bad.  Sure, I likely left a few birds just beyond my range of my vision unidentified, but instead of throwing my hands up in frustration I was forced to take a closer look at the birds around me.  To focus less on finite identification clues like streaking and eye lines, and pay attention more to shape, and behavior, and voice.  The little brown blob in the lily pads materialized as a Yellowthroat before it’s call note gave it away.  The flitting wings of a Ruby-crowned Kinglet made it’s identification clear from 20 meters.  I even noticed the subtle, nearly imperceptible tail bob of  Yellow-rumped Warbler that made them in more distant trees easy even before a little pishing brought them right up close. I even spotted my first of season Swamp Sparrow without the help of my bins.

The bottom line is that there’s far more to bird identification that what you see when you put your glasses to your eyes.  Most birders, especially if they’ve been doing it for a while, internalize more that they think to that end.  Some birders call it gizz, or gestalt, or simply the zen of birding.  A bird’s identity becomes like that of an old friend you can spot from blocks away simply by the way they move, and often not something you can explain in so many words.  It’s something every one of us does without realizing it, and it might make us all better birders to at least try to be more conscious of it.

Something to think about on those days you forget your bins, even though I don’t plan on making such a mistake in the future.

  1. Thornius permalink
    October 16, 2009 10:13 am

    Twenty one years ago, when I was first birding, I was always amazed at my mentors, who with out touching the binoculars around their necks would glance at a bird flying by or in the distance and say , Oh, that’s a THIS or that’s a THAT. I would be using my binoculars and they would be right every time!

    Now, 21 years later, I don’t even have a pair of binoculars currently. I use my camera which works as well, but I find that I do the same thing. I see movement in the sky and glance up to think, “Oh, it’s just some Blue Jays.”, or, “HEY! The Waxwings are back!” You are right. You consciously or subconsciously learn the habits, behavior, colors, and patterns of birds well enough to not need a close look.

  2. October 16, 2009 10:43 pm

    I find I do my best naked birding in the car at 55 miles per hour. The more I bird the more their names just pop into my head and I have to stop and think, wait, “how do I know that?”

  3. October 17, 2009 4:01 pm

    Way to go for those google searches Nate…though anyone searching “naked birding” has issues!

    And I love amazing friends and family with my ability to ID birds at a distance. OK, well, maybe I don’t amaze them but they are at least impressed. OK, well, maybe they aren’t impressed so much as disturbed…sigh. I’ll stick with the bins.

  4. Nate permalink*
    October 17, 2009 7:00 pm

    @Thornius- It’s certainly a marker of an experienced birder, that you can Identify at least your regular birds without much thought.

    @Kirk- I think 55 mph is the perfect speed for naked birding training.

    @Corey- Desperate times, friend… Hits are hits. 🙂

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