Birding for Beginners: The Big Year

So, earlier this year I was out in the wilds and furiously snapping pictures of every bird that came my way when someone with me said “Hey, are you a birder?”.
“I don’t know.” I replied.  “I just like taking pictures of animals”.

They said “Well, have you seen that movie ‘The Big Year‘?  It reminds of you.  You see a pink-footed goose yet?”

Well, immediately I had to check that out.  So I did.

the big year

Steve Martin, Owen Wilson, Jack Black!  Sold.  It’s a movie that tells the story of the competition of the same name put on by the American Birding Association every year to see the most different species of bird in one calendar year in North America.  It’s based on a true event with fictionalized characters that is based on a book of the same name.

Well, being impressionable as I am, I decided a few months ago that I wanted to do a big year in 2014.  Having already mastered (I thought) the common large birds of Louisiana, I knew that although I had no aspirations of winning, I could do pretty well as I travel a lot with my job.  I was so very, very wrong.

So, first thing’s first.  Following the advice of a coworker who was an avid birder, I joined www.ebird.org.  The website allows you to register and view or submit observations of birds on a map.  You can also sign up for notifications when a rare bird is sighted in your area or when a bird that isn’t on your list yet has been spotted nearby.

This led me to rediscover the term “life-list” that birders use.  It’s a list of all the birds you’ve identified in your life.  I thought “hah, that’s easy” and went through my photos for the past four years that I had been actively photographing birds.  A quick blow to the ego came when comparing my life-list total of four years at 66 to the record big year holder Sandy Komito’s record of 748 species.  And my list counted my trip to Costa Rica in 2009 where I was basically handed a buffet of easy to photograph birds, including the very rare Resplendent Quetzal which I just happened upon with a guide in the cloud forest of Monte Verde.

quetzl

This was just the female, the male (which we also saw) had just flown away.

I quickly discovered where the numbers came from and it wasn’t just the endless travel portrayed in the movie.  There are hundreds of small, hard to identify and hard to spot species all around us.  Of course, a couple of years ago I only had a small digital camera with a 10x optical zoom.  So, maybe that wasn’t so bad considering what I was working with.  I was geared to go on Christmas 2012 when I got my first Nikon D5100 DSLR and a 55-300mm zoom lens.

I spent the first start of my preparation for my big year taking weekly trips to the New Orleans Couturie Forest and Arboretum in City Park, a well known birding “hot-spot” in the NOLA area.  I took my best yet photographs of species like great egrets, yellow-crowned night herons and blue egrets.  I thought I was doing great.

DSC_0089 - yellow crowned night heron

But then something happened.  The big birds weren’t adding up to big numbers.  So, I decided I needed to go in search of smaller subjects.  I spent an entire afternoon in City Park and probably photographed 20 species of bird.  When I got home, I realized I could only reliably identify a fourth of them, even with three field guides and the iBird Pro app on my Android phone.

So, here’s my serious N00B view on learning to bird so far:

  • Bird’s appearances shift depending on the type of bird, gender, age, the season and sometimes even regional diet.  This makes identification for a newbie extremely difficult without a skilled friend.
    Example:
    orchard oriole
    I originally posted this one as a Prothonotary Warbler although I had my doubts because of the white wing stripes.  Turns out it was a female Orchard Oriole.  A species that didn’t even come up on my iBird app’s features “Similar Species” as most field guides and this app seem to use the male bird as the example for the species.
  • If you post on ebird.org and aren’t 100% sure of your identification, please include a photo.  I’ve submitted many observations that were flagged as “rare” that ended up being wrong identifications which were fixed because I included photos.
    Example:
    I was in Gueydan with an old Cajun guy that pointed out a flock to me that he said were Whooping Cranes.  Although they were flying away from us, I started snapping pictures until I got a passable one.
    wood storks
  • After posting the above picture to ebird.org, the website let me know that this was a rare sighting for this time/location.  Sure enough, less than 24 hours later, I got an email from a fellow ebird.org member correcting me that these were not Whooping Cranes but were Wood Storks.
  • Get a pair of binoculars.  I’d been trying to bird with just a zoom lens, but it isn’t good enough.  A lot of birds spook once you come within 200 feet of them.  As I read recently on one site “If you’re birding without binoculars, you’re not birding. You’re feeding the insects”.  Too true.

My current field guides:

  • Louisiana Birds by George Hines Lowery
    Oddly enough, I found a copy of this very outdated book up in Wisconsin during a visit for a wedding.  Despite being outdated, this book has amazing plats showing similar bird types.  The author also throws a lot of non-scientific, yet incredibly helpful information in about most species including what he has observed as their habits.  A great book.
  • Peterson Field Guide to Birds of North America by Roger Tory Peterson
    A great book for understanding immediately what bird it isn’t by checking the range maps.  I have an old copy so the photos and illustrations are not great for identifications.
  • National Audubon Society Field Guide to Birds of North America by National Audubon Society.
    A great reference since it separates perching birds by color.  Invaluable identification guide.

That’s all I’ve got for now, I’ll continue to update my progress as I try to learn this arcane field.  Check out my current life-list photos here.