Monday, August 20, 2012

Reveling in the Regular - Pledging to Make a Difference

With the end to the summer swelter in sight, things are beginning to push past the summer doldrums. Shorebirds have long since been making their way back to winter quarters and migrant passerines are trickling through to quench the ticking thirst of birders anxious to cast their eyes upon something new and maybe even rare. As we all look towards the streams of migrants that will fill the fall fields, woods, and wetlands it is easy to overlook the common things that sustain or perhaps even lit the fire that set us on the birding path. As birders, many of us have spent more time and money than we might like to admit chasing the rare thing that blows in on an ill wind. Way back “in the day”, before the advent of the eBirding craze and instantaneous capability of social networking, I used to pick up our old land-line phone (remember those?) and call something called the Rare Bird Alert. As the voice on the other end slowly (and sometimes excitedly) rattled off the occurrences of birds in spots hot and not, I would hone in on the unusual; a Black-billed Cuckoo skulking around in a city park or a Buff-breasted Sandpiper seen at a sod farm. If the report was within an hour or two of home, I’d often find a way to get wherever “there” was to add the new bird to my list.

In the process of growing my life list, I would zoom past perfectly birdy places and potentially birdy people to see that one bird. I did that for years. Go to the hotspot with the same bird-nerd friends and see the rare thing. But in the midst of my birding evolution something has (is) changing. Don’t get me wrong. If I get wind of a something showing up where it shouldn’t be, I will usually make my way to see it –within the reasonable constraints of responsibility and the willingness of a bird-nerd friend to share the ride. Finding a Scissor-tailed Flycatcher in a nearby pasture was like lost treasure. So I still seek the odd thing. More and more though, I’ve begun to think about how to bring others into the fold. I know that sometimes it is a rare or spectacular thing that captures someone—a kettle of Swallow-tailed and Mississippi Kites floating above a hayfield and hawking dragonflies and grasshoppers will hook almost anyone with a heart. Can anyone ignore the pigment-splattered palette of feathers that is a Painted Bunting?

But then, I am willing to bet money that many of you weren’t pulled in by the rare thing or the unusual. No, many of us were first “sparked” into the hobby by the common. I was intrigued as a child by the snowbirds - juncos in slate-colored tuxedos - that fed voraciously on the coarse grits my grandmother scattered in the yard. The mysterious bawls of Barred Owls that called from the creek bottom scared and fascinated me at the same time. I sought to discover the hiding spots of Bobwhite quail as if they were the rarest birds on earth.

The vermillion brilliance of a Northern Cardinal in a suburban backyard or the mellow warbles of an Eastern Bluebird along a rural fence row has probably hooked thousands of birders alone. Cardinals are common in many places and eastern bluebirds too.

Watch an American Robin hunt for earthworms and you’ll be impressed with its predatory efficiency. A “V” of Canada Geese on an autumn wind is still stirring even if the flock is only moving from golf course to city park pond. Roger Tory Peterson told the story of being hooked by a Northern Flicker that exploded from a mass of feathers he reached out to touch. If the Dean of American birding could be caught by what was known at the time as a “common flicker”, then I think perhaps we might all stand to pay more attention to the things that regularly show up. It is in the recognition of the common that we re-learn that all birds are miraculous creatures and deserve our appreciation. There’s really nothing common about flight, feathers or the wonderful things that birds do.

In the midst of appreciating the ordinary we birders have an extraordinary opportunity to do something special. Next week, August 24-26, the first global initiative to “grow” birding will take place. The Pledge to Fledge (P2F) initiative, a brain child of Dave Magpiong, Danielle Mohilef, Michelle Mohilef and innovative field guide author Richard Crossley, is to bring birding to new and diverse audiences all over the world. In that effort, it is not so much about seeking rarities and visiting hotspots. No it is about showing our passion to others who otherwise might not realize how important birding can be to their well-being as well as that of their communities and the world at large.

Think about how felt with the first bird that pulled you in; heart all aflutter and brain abuzz with the possibilities of that next discovery. From waterfowl to warblers there's something out there to "flip the switch" of folks who may have just passed birds by. How you feel when you watch a Red-tailed Hawk tracing circles in a blue sky or hear that first Wood Thrush of spring? Do you ever cease to stop in wonder at a hummingbird’s hover? So now take those feelings and grab someone who doesn’t bird—maybe it’s a younger family member, perhaps it’s an older church parishioner. Of all the rare and wonderful things one might see at places like Magee Marsh during The Biggest Week, warblers, thrushes, vireos and the like, I will never forget that one man who was reveling in the beauty of a Red-winged Blackbird, certainly not anything approaching a rarity. It was a beautiful thing!
Whoever it is, stretch yourself just a little bit to go outside of your normal circle of birder friends. Take the opportunity to “preach” to a different choir. Maybe it’s watching pigeons and sharing an appreciation for the oft-overlooked Rock Pigeon’s aerial artistry. Find a feeder and show someone how deftly a chickadee deals in the smallest treasure of a sunflower seed. Find a spot where the birds are easy—a backyard , a park, a pond, and the results could be astounding! Be patient, be passionate. Celebrate the common and don't drag your fledgling too quickly into uber-birder world. One new “convert” doubles the passion for each birder who pledges to fledge at least one person. You might not add any rarities to the list but maybe you’ll add a new comrade to the cause of conservation. Now that’s an investment in the common that will pay off for the birds and the birders!

Peace and Good Birding!



  1. Another eloquent post, Drew! So happy you're part of the BiF! team.

  2. Your passion for the nuances of birds is infectious:)

  3. Beautifully written! Outstanding post!