Saturday, November 12, 2011

Birding with Mudman

Note: For many years I have posted my weekly column on Saturday. The column is now monthly and appears in “The Commons” (see link on right). From time to time I will dip into my archives and post an old column. The archival dipping begins today.

Mudman is an occasional birding companion who does not like to talk with other people when he is birding, especially other birders. He’d rather find birds himself, and he distrusts the attitude of other birders. With some good reason.

Black Skimmers
Several years ago, we were birding along the salt marshes near Cape May. Other birders were scattered on the berms on either side of the road, intently scanning with their scopes. A car stopped and disgorged several intense young men. “Seen anything good?” the apparent team leader demanded.

“There’s a flock of Black Skimmers out by the sand-bar,” I replied. Mudman and I were both accustomed to seeing only one or two of these unusual birds on the northern New England coast, so we were excited about seeing over thirty at one time.

Tricolored Heron
There was no verbal response, but the facial expression and body language from this group of young men was one of sneer and contempt. “Seen a Tricolored Heron?” another asked.

“All the herons except that one,” I responded.

He turned to his companions. “Listen. Let’s not waste our time here. Let’s go someplace good.” They piled back in their car and sped off.

I won’t repeat what we muttered to one another, but you can imagine. I can tell you that we were both deliciously satisfied when, within five minutes of their departure, we saw their desired Tricolored Heron.

Least Bittern
That kind of snobbish attitude among some birders is a definite turn-off. But unlike Mudman, it does not prevent me from talking with other birders. The next day we were birding through the old cow meadows in Cape May (now a migratory bird refuge owned by the Nature Conservancy). A group of women stood in an intent group by the side of the trail. Mudman avoided eye contact and quickened his pace. I stopped to ask what they were looking at. Before I could say anything, a woman stepped away from her scope, whispered, “Least Bittern,” and signaled me to look. Mudman joined us and we spent about fifteen minutes watching the bird until it slowly stalked into the reeds. “Thanks for talking to them,” Mudman said. “That’s a new bird for me.”

There’s the dilemma in that question: “Seen anything good?” How do I know what is “good” to another person. Five species of warbler in one bush is “good” to me, even if I have already seen all five individually on that same day. But often the questioner really means (without saying it): “Have you seen a bird that hasn’t been seen around here ever?” And on the off chance that you have, he won’t believe you. The question is a Catch-22. However you answer, you lose.

When asked the question, “Seen anything good?” - I usually respond, “If I’ve got a bird in my binoculars, it’s good.” And then in as friendly a manner as possible, I ask the question which I think should have been asked, “What have you seen?” Sometimes I will risk posing the question as: “Have you seen anything unusual?” - hoping that the person I am asking will tell me about rare sightings.

Most birders I know are journeyman birders like me, and we don’t need to be subjected to the arrogance of those hot-shots who think they know everything. But we do need to receive information, and in turn share it. We simply enjoy the birding experience.

By stopping to talk with that group of women in the cow meadows at Cape May, I made it possible for Mudman to see an elusive bird for the first time in his long birding career. His high from that experience floated him over the marshes for the next hour. That was good!

Blue Grosbeak
And then near the end of the day ... when our eyes were beginning to cross and our minds were turning to mush from long concentration and intensive searching ... and when I suggested he scan the field one more time, concentrating on a particular bush .... and when I was able to say, “That blue bird is not an Indigo Bunting .... and he said, “Blue Grosbeak!?” .... and I said “Yes.” .... and it stayed in that bushing singing while we put a scope on him for a long close look ..... and I said, “First sighting for me in a long time” .... and Mudman said, “Life bird for me!” - now that was great!

Good birding!


Dan Huber said...

Wonderful post Chris - great pictures too. I find it interesting the responses to "anything good". Even when someone is excited about a blue jay, it is neat to see the enthusiasm. I count myself lucky not to have bumped into too many snobby birders.

Jen Sanford said...

I agree that this is a wonderful post, so glad you dug it out of the archives! I always get embarrassed when someone stops to ask me what I'm looking at when I am just watching a House Finch pluck berries off a branch or something else common...

Laurence Butler said...

Lovely pictures and a compelling narrative. It is unfortunate how many birders have a need to prove their credentials--rattling off as many sightings or facts as they can it those introductory minutes--it sullies the experience, and always surprises me that they think such braggadocio will enhance their reputation or whatever. I like your response, and will try to apply it soon.
Thanks for sharing


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