Thursday, February 5, 2015

Confessions of Filth: Birding After the Death of the Perpetual Weekend

Meet Troglodytes pacificus meligerus, the form of Pacific Wren found from Buldir Island to Attu Island, in the western Aleutians.  Some birds can't be just have to go where they live.  Buldir Island, AK.

There are castes of birders.  It is known.  I know this, you know this...the Global Birder Ranking System (GBRS) knows this.  There are the birding legends and pioneers, there is birding scum (chronic stringers, of course), and there is everything in between.  While some take decades to build their reputations, be it good or bad, others can see their GBRS rank skyrocket in a single moment. San Luis Obispo birder Bill Bouton recently experienced this when he photographed a Black Scoter in Crescent City, CA.  Looking at his photos a week later, he realized that something was wrong...and so he put the word out.  He had found, and documented, a Common Scoter...a rarity to end all rarities. He had told people where to find the Common Scoter.  And the next day, birders ventured forth and refound and the Common Scoter.

Bill Bouton became a birding hero.

I've never met the guy, but I know this.  Deep in the bottom of my heart.  And so does everyone else. He may even be a bad person, but he will always be a hero.

Which is neither here, nor is it there.  We are not here today to worship our heroes, or demonize the villains.  We are here to talk about one of the commonest activities that fall under the umbrella of birding...we are talking about chasing.

Black Tern.  I have been blessed to see many thousands of Black Terns, and I hope I will see many more.  I highly recommend seeing hundreds at once instead of a wayward migrant. Photographed somewhere in North Dakota.

Why does this come up?  Well you may remember, not long ago, I experienced something called the Perpetual Weekend.  Year after year I would get to bask in the warm glow of the Perpetual Weekend, and bird to my heart's delight.  I was birding at will.  I could go abuse myself with gulls, or go after some rarity.  I had ample time to do both.  Often I would chase, often I would not.  You remember that Common Cuckoo that showed up?  You want to know what I was doing that day when I heard the news?  I was sitting at home, drinking coffee, hitting "refresh" on my browser over and over again waiting for news of a rare bird.  When the initial report of a "probable" Common Cuckoo showed up, I just sat there waiting for the inevitable confirmation or denial of the bird.  When I got the green light 20 minutes later, I was already packed and ready to go.  I saw the bird very well, had prolonged and sustained views, and managed to beat the hordes of birders that showed up later that day.  It was glorious.

But no more.

Now I work 5 days a week.  No more sitting around on weekdays, casually pondering if I should go out and flog the shrubbery myself or wait for some Vague Runt to be dropped into my lap via the internet.  I no longer have the luxury of birding at will, because I feel the need to maximize my available birding time.  Like most wage slaves, now I can only bird 1-2 days a week. And what do I find myself doing more and more often?  Chasing other people's goddamn birds.  If one wants to see the most unusual birds for the smallest amount of effort, this is what many birders end up doing.  It's completely understandable.  But I've been doing it so fucking much lately that I just feel...dirty. Filthy, even. For reasons I cannot explain, I'm experiencing a sort of anxious guilt. And let me tell you, not every chase has a Common Cuckoo kind of ending.  The singular worst birding experience of my life (that did not feature horrific car accidents or getting robbed at gunpoint) was the monumental misery that was the treacherous Ivory Gull Chase of Y2K10.  I was left in a catatonic state of depression for months afterwards, and Dipper Dan almost died of a broken heart. Things have never been the same since then, and I dread having to relive it over and over again with a constantly changing cast of rare and awesome birds.

And I haven't even told you about BRAMBRING yet.  I could...but it will wait another day.

Osprey.  This bird flew over us as we were forlornly staring at the sea lion carcass that the Ivory Gull had just been feeding on.  I felt like the sea lion.  I felt like that headless fish. Sometimes, I still do.  Pismo Beach, CA.

Of course, if you don't dip on the birds you are chasing, everything is aces.  It's great.  That's how birders can stand to do big years (not counting modest county-level big years), which consist of mostly just chasing birds other people find.  They end up seeing most of the shit they chase.  It works, I suppose.  That said, just thinking about spending an entire year doing that or compulsively chasing all over the state just to inflate some county lists leaves a bad taste in my mouth.  There are birders who do nothing but chase other people's birds...all of the time. And by all of the time I don't mean just regularly, I mean pretty much every time they go "birding".  They almost never find interesting birds on their own...they don't care to try.  They don't care to bird without rarities on the brain.  I can't imagine that. Travelling is fun, yes, but never birding for the sake of birding?  It's kind of gross.

I've chased my share of Chestnut-collared Longspurs here in California.  But seeing all of those birds doesn't come close to watching crippling males bust out song-laden, facemelting flight displays on the prairie in summer. Photographed at Medicine Lake National Wildlife Refuge, MT.

So why do I chase at all?  Why does the #7 birder in the United States stoop to chasing birds other people find?  For the same reasons that #1-6 and #8-10 chase birds...we fucking love birds.  We are hopeless bird junkies.  We love looking at birds we've never seen before. We love looking at birds we've only seen a couple times before.  We love looking at birds we only get to see every few years, or once or twice a year. In fact, we love looking at birds.  That's why I've never understood birders who are revolted by the very idea of chasing.  Don't you like looking at birds?  Especially ones you don't get to see very often?  It's bizarre.  Sure I like to pad my California list and a few counties, but I am fully aware that no one gives a fuck how high my lists are except me...and if anyone did care, even a little bit, they certainly wouldn't tell me.  So it's not like I'm competing with anyone.  It's not like I'm doing a big year.

It's time to put this rambling screed to rest, I think.  As I've said, though I love Vague Runts, I feel a bit dirty these days...though it might be the BRAMBRING talking.  In time, I will find a balance.  I've never birded the bay area in spring before, and soon I will be hurling myself at common migrants left and right. I'm looking forward to it.

Right.  I like birds.  Pretty big news I suppose.


  1. Mwuahahahaha get in line like everybody else wage slave!

    My last few weekends have been all about the chase, and I'll admit to feeling a bit dirty about it, largely because I know that this is not making me a better birder. However, I'll always gravitate towards chasing birds that are in nice areas, unless there are special circumstances, as that entails finding other birds as well.

    MT and ND this summer! I'm not even bothering with vagrant longspurs this winter in AZ, and it feels great.

    1. Dude, that's awesome. I loved birding up there. As a warning, the fracking scene is crazy in ND so you might have trouble finding lodging sometimes.

    2. Thanks for the tip. It'll just be one or two nights in ND, driving to the western part of the state for some of the plains birds and to officially be there (50 before 50) and we'll be camping.

      Any geo-caches, buried treasure, or old poop mounds of yours I should look for?

    3. A lot of the birding I did in ND was actually on the clock on private property, but I worked/lived at Lostwood NWR. In summer its good for BAIS, STGR, SPPI, PIPL. Des Lacs NWR nearby can be good if the river isn't hella high. The only birding in eastern Montana I did was at Medicine Lake NWR, which I thought was very good. Lots of BAIS, CCLOs, and the only LABU I've seen do flight displays. UPSAs are pretty common wherever there is grassland left.

    4. I didnt get the chance to go but Teddy Roosevelt National Park is supposed to be pretty cool. Not sure how the birding is, but thats definitely a potential camping spot.

    5. Teddy Roosevelt (the unit well away from the interstate) is absolutely wonderful! I highly recommend it, even though I spent just a few hours there. Another hidden gem is Red Rocks N.W.R. in southernmost Montana at the Idaho border.

  2. Have you chased the scoter? Some birds are just too good not to chase.

  3. Bill is as close as most of us will ever get to an old school Gentleman. And man, is he lucky. Got the famous whale-feeding-in-bait-ball-among-SUP's in Avila that made all the papers a couple years ago.

  4. Botany geeks have a similar dichotomy - stumbled-upon finding of species that grow in an area, and looking up the GPS coords in online herbarium records. The first obviously much more gratifying, the second sometimes pretty much the only way to see certain species. But it is just a step above seeing them in a botanic garden, so you're not bragging about the find around the fire at the botanizers camp-out.

    1. Do botanists really brag about finding plants around the fire? In my experience, they are too busy drinking (which is a refreshing change from what most birders do).