Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Birder Profile: Mark Garland

Mark Garland at Mount St. Helens
West Cape May, New Jersey
How did you get into birding?

As I teen I grew interested in hiking, backpacking, and being outdoors. I then developed an interest in wildflowers, which then grew into an interest in wildlife, including birds. Several mentors were instrumental in nurturing that interest, most significantly Dr. Don Messersmith, who taught entomology, ornithology, and environmental education at the University of Maryland. For years and years Don led weekly birding walks around the periphery of the golf course at the edge of campus, every Thursday morning at 7 am. When Don was away, he made sure someone else would lead the walk. He had loaner binoculars available. These were my first organized bird walks, and while there was no real “spark bird,” I do remember being blown away by Red-breasted Nuthatches (they hang upside down!) and Myrtle Warblers (they were still Myrtles back then) on one of my first walks.

How long have you been birding?

I think those first bird walks were in 1977, so that makes 34 years.

How often do you go birding? And where do you regularly go birding?

It's quite variable, depending on the weather and my administrative workload. I usually do at least a little birding every day, and certainly when I'm leading field trips (about 150 days last year) I'm birding almost all day (while also looking at other bits of natural history). I live in Cape May, so I do a lot of birding here, but I also get to Costa Rica several times most years.

Where is your favorite place to go birding?

I live in Cape May largely because I love this place. Cape May is, admittedly, promoted heavily (and often with absurd hyperbole), and there are slow days here, but the really great birding days in Cape May are indescribably awesome. And we can count on quite a few great days every year.

Do you have any local birding hotspots that may be yet unknown to other birders that you would be willing to share with us?

Not a lot of unknown birding spots around Cape May, but if you drop the word "local" I would say that the highlands of West Virginia are wonderful spots for warblers and not well known among birders.

Where in your New Jerseu would you say is the most under-birded place that may have great untapped potential?

I would have to say the NJ Pine Barrens. While the habitat can be monotonous, I am sure there are some pockets that get loaded with migrant songbirds from time to time.

How would you describe yourself as a birder? A “watcher”, a “lister”, a “chaser”, “ticker”, “twitcher” all of the above, or something else?

Among these categories, the best fit would be "watcher". I enjoy adding birds to my life list, of course, but I very rarely chase a rare bird – if it's in my neighborhood, or if I happen to be in its neighborhood, then yes, I'll try to see it. But I rarely even travel one hour away just for an unusual bird. I don't know how many birds are on any of my lists – ABA area, state, world – though I can pretty much remember what birds I have and have not seen.

What kind of birding equipment do you use?

I am sponsored by Nikon as part of their “Birding Pro-Staff” program, and I’m extremely happy with the Nikon EDG line. I use the EDG 8 x 42 bins and the 65 mm EDG scope with the 20 – 60x zoom eyepiece. I haven’t yet invested in a digital SLR (my old Minolta SLR film equipment has gathered a lot of dust in recent years), but I enjoy using the Nikon Coolpix P100, which has an extremely good zoom.

How do you keep track of your bird observations?

I don't keep meticulous notes – I know, I know, I really should do better. But a lot of my birding days are pretty casual. I am getting better all the time about entering my sightings into eBird, which I consider to be a wonderful resource.

What is your favorite bird sighting and what is the story behind it?

I have real trouble picking out "favorites" of anything, I consider all top experiences to be equal, but I can pick one for you... 

Thirty years ago, still quite the beginner, I was driving back east from a summer job on the west coast, traveling across Nebraska on Interstate 80. I had learned to watch roadsides for raptors, and would delight at the number of red-tailed hawks I might find on any given stretch of road. But I tried to slam on the breaks when I glimpsed a hawk on a roadside fencepost that seemed extraordinarily white. I couldn't brake fast enough, so I had to drive about 5 miles to the next exit before I could turn around. I had a long way to go, but I doubled back anyway, and was rewarded with my lifer Ferruginous Hawk.

What is your favorite backyard bird?

Michael O’Brien is a neighbor, and he tells many of us around Cape May that if we hear nocturnal migration overhead, call him. I have done so several times, and Michael has come over and sat on the back deck with me as migrants flew overhead in the dark of night. One night the thrushes were amazing, including several Bicknell’s Thrushes that we heard flying overhead. Magical!

Which birding publications and websites do you read and recommend?

I don't spend a lot of time with this, but I like Don Freiday's blog, Birding Magazine, Bird Watcher's Digest, and Pat O'Donnell's Costa Rica blog.  (Pat was featured in a Birder Profile here back in Nov 2010)

Which is your favorite field guide and why?

I learned with the Golden Guide, and I still enjoy this book (Arthur Singer's painting of the Great Horned Owl is my favorite all-time field guide illustration), but I have long relied on the National Geographic Guide. It's partly sentimental – Claudia Wilds was an important mentor, and Claudia played a major role in getting this guide started – but I like the size and format, I like the regular updates and revisions, and I generally find the book quite useful. I rarely turn to a field guide to identify a bird any more, instead I use them to show a picture of a bird recently seen to members of a group. I do find the specialized guides, such as The Shorebird Guide, to be exceptionally helpful. And I am turning to the Sibley iPhone app instead of lugging a book along with me.

Which three books from your personal birding library would you recommend to other birders?

Oh gee, this one is hard. Birds of Costa Rica by Stiles and Skutch, for its great natural history information about tropical birds; The Birder's Handbook, which answers so many natural history questions about North American birds, and Birds and Birding at Cape May, by Clay and Pat Sutton, which covers my home turf comprehensively and which is very nicely written and illustrated.

Do you have any formal bird-related education background?

I did take one ornithology course as an undergraduate.

If a fellow birder had a question about a bird, do you consider yourself an expert (or at least proficient) on any specific family of birds?

No. I know a little bit about a lot of things, but I don't know a lot about anything.

What future birding plans do you have?

I will keep visiting Costa Rica and Alaska every year, I'll keep birding Cape May when I'm in town.

Are you involved with any local or national birding organizations? If so, which ones?

I belong to ABA and I am active with the Audubon Naturalist Society and the New Jersey Audubon Society. When I lived in Maryland I was active with the Maryland Ornithological Society.

What is your nemesis bird?

It's a toss-up between Leach's Storm-Petrel and Dovekie.

Any birding related pet-peeves you’d like to vent about here?

I get upset when birders put their own interests ahead of the welfare of the birds or ahead of common, decent courtesy. There’s no excuse for trespassing onto private property, harassing rare birds, etc.

Outside of birding, what are your other interests or hobbies?

I am fascinated with “place.” I strive to understand places holistically – to understand the underlying geology and climate, to see how that influences plant communities, how the plant communities support wildlife, and the human role, good and bad, that influences the plant and animals we see in a given area.

Anything else that you would like to humbly brag about?

I have collected a lot of friends thanks to birding and nature study.

Total life list?

Something above 2000, not sure exactly.

Most exotic place you’ve gone birding?

It's hard to define "exotic", but I've birded in Tanzania, Australia, Ecuador, and a number of other far-flung places.

Your mission in life as birder?

To get beginners enthused and empowered to enjoy birding, to help birders appreciate other aspects of natural history, to facilitate wonderful, memorable experiences for people.

Come meet Mark in person and listen to his presentation, "The Joys of Ecotourism" at the Midwest Birding Symposium, Sept 15-18 in Lakeside, Ohio.

Birder Profile is a weekly blog segment at "Birding is Fun!" spotlighting a fellow birder.  If you would be interested in sharing a little about yourself and your birding experiences, please send me an email.  Is there a birder you'd like to see featured?  Please nominate that person by sending me an e-mail too.  Enthusiasm for birding is the only prerequisite!

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