Wednesday, November 2, 2011
Dave and I would like to complete the transition into full birder, but we have problems. It doesn't just happen on its own. I once got a very clear look at an enormous bird with distinct markings, every one of which I memorized, and when I checked it in a field guide, it exactly matched a bird whose entire range is the southern slope of a single mountain in a country I can't get a visa to, and you'd think birders would get excited about a thing like that, but they don't.
Half of these were pros, employed by HawkWatch International, and they were counting raptors on their migration. There was also a banding operation going on. A "raptor" is defined as a "bird of prey." If you don't mind my saying so, this is a little dismissive of your robins or woodpeckers, which do one heck of a job locating prey that isn't even visible, let alone flapping or squeaking. The people who make these distinctions are way more impressed by birds that eat other birds or mice or something. So be it. You may be the world's champion finder of invisible insect larvae, but you don't get to be called a raptor, no sir.
Not so much. Our birds were dots on the horizon, up to fifteen miles away. Nevertheless the pros were confidently marking them down as one bird or another. "Red-tailed," one would say, squinting into his binos. "Male. Immature," he'd conclude, as the dots popped wheelies in the sky. I don't know how they did it. As one confided, "you can definitely tell a female Sharp-Shinned hawk from a male Cooper's, but there's a whole intermediate range where you're just going to have to give it your best shot." Let's check the field guide for the differences, shall we? Sharpie: Adults blue-gray above, pale reddish below; young brown above, striped below. And the Cooper's: Adults blue-gray above, pale reddish below; young brown above, striped below. Hmm. Sharpie: tip of tail usually looks squared-off, but can look rounded. Cooper's: tip of tail more rounded (can be hard to judge). All-righty-then!
How they resolved the dots is still a mystery. For each species there's a regular phase, and a winter phase, and an immature phase marked by general dishevelment, plus random variations for vagrants, and assorted gang colors. The writers of the bird field guides are not as careless as the hiking-guide people, but their product still falls short. They are sorry about it, they really are. They know how to tell the birds apart, but they have to keep it simple so as to avert despair and burn-out in the novice birder, and refrain from details such as the particular wardrobe favored by female goshawks on Bunko night, or the freckled camouflage of juveniles sneaking out on a toot.
So I didn't really learn much. But I was happy to serve as a dot-spotter, hollering my find on the horizon and causing three real birders to wheel my way and squint my dot into a slot on the hawk count. Proud, even.