Tuesday, August 22, 2017

The Human Birdwatcher Project Presents: How To Chase a Rarity

I've seen only three Yellow-throated Warblers in California. All were wonderful, and all found by other people. I used a nominal amount of wit, cunning and persistence to find them. But what is a nominal task for some birders is a seemingly insurmountable hardship for others. It doesn't have to be that way. Photographed at Ferry Park in San Francisco, CA.

According to the Human Birdwatcher Project (where "birders are people too!"), approximately 95% of birders will chase rarities at least occasionally, and 87% of birders will chase a bird at least once this year, be it near or far.

I am the 87%.

I chase a lot of birds, within a certain radius anyway. Always have, probably always will. I love seeing birds, don't care who found them. Sure, self-found birds are way better, but the idea of snobbishly avoiding going to see a rarity because someone else found it is absurd at best. If you are waiting to find your own Ivory Gull instead of looking for one someone else reported...good luck with that. I hope you have a long life ahead of you...you're gonna need it. The trick is not getting into the habit of doing nothing but chasing. But I digress, because this post is dedicated to chasing. More specifically, how to maximize your chances of success and comport yourself with some dignity.

Why write this post? For years, I never really believed that writing this post was necessary. Chasing a bird properly never seemed overly challenging, though of course there is never a guarantee that you will find what you seek. However, birders are a...special bunch. They need help sometimes. I've seen this at stakeout after stakeout, and it is time someone speaks up about the fact that, sadly, many birders are astonishingly bad at chasing birds.

Do you find that you dip and grip more often than you nail your target birds? Do you ever leave a chase feeling confused and embarrassed? The Human Birdwatcher Project is here to help. Let us cut to the chase...

I knew the approximate area where one could find the secret, not-so-secret Common Black-Hawk in Sonoma County, but once I got myself there I did not really know where to look. Mistakes were made. Luckily, some last minute texting got me pointed in the right direction, and all was well in the world. Photographed at a secret, not-so-secret location in Sonoma County, CA.

1) Get directions to get to the right place. This is fundamental, but if you don't have the fundamentals down then you don't have anything. Use Google Earth/Google Maps satellite imagery to pinpoint the exact spot and the correct access route prior to loading up your chasemobile. Know that when birders provide coordinates for a bird, even if that means nothing to you, you can just copy and paste them into Google Maps and that will display the location of where you need to get yourself. For example, I got my lifer Long-toed Stint at 52.371129°, 175.882463°. Plug that in and see where it takes you.

Read all the emails in the listservs, which typically provide better directions than eBird descriptions. It's usually pretty simple, and does not require you asking everyone in the listserv all over again about how to get to see the so and so when directions that could not be any clearer have already been posted for your convenience.

2) This is for you Geris out there...and with that said this is going to be ironic, but here goes: don't be ageist. I can't count the number of times my birding testimony at stakeouts has been doubted by other birders who don't know me, simply because I am unwithered and not wearing a Tilly hat. We "younger" birders don't assume old birders are untrustworthy, so why does anyone under 40 get viewed with suspicion by the ancients? This habit will not help you see your birds, ageist Geri birder.

You would think that any birder chasing a Falcated Duck, one of the most facemelting and unique waterfowl species in the world, would not need help identifying it. Sadly, you would be wrong. Photographed at Colusa National Wildlife Refuge, CA.

3) Study first. Again, this is fundamental stuff, but it bears repeating. What does the target bird look like? What does it sound like? Is it similar to other birds likely to be in the area? What are the clinching, diagnostic field marks? I've seen a great number of birders show up at a stakeout and require the bird to not only be found for them, but to be identified and interpreted to them as well. In short, they need their hand held. Hey, I like to hold hands too, but it's better to be prepared to identify a bird on your own.

4) Look at photos of the actual individual bird you are searching for prior to looking for it. While this was impossible 20 years ago with how long it took to process film and distribute the results (which in turn required a freaking projector if slides were involved), these days it couldn't be any easier. Check eBird, check listservs, etc. While not necessary for some birds, it can be extremely helpful for Vague Runts of many species.

One day, I looked for this Snow Bunting. I did not utilize all the available resources because I did not think finding the right spot would be difficult...I was wrong. Rookie mistake. Not only did I miss the bird, I never got to the right place. Luckily a couple days later I met Flycatcher Jen for the first time and she took me straight to it. Photographed at some parking lot by the Portland Airport, Portland, OR.

5) Utilize all available resources. Check multiple listservs, eBird, forums, rare bird alerts. The more information the better!

6) Birders are notoriously awkward and socially stunted. When at a stakeout, don't be afraid to talk to people to get details. Birders will sometimes be looking at the MEGA RARITY that you drove 3 hours to come see, and they won't bother telling anyone around them, knowing you are there for the same reason they are. Not chill. Talking to people at stakeouts can pay off in all manner of ways. Also, if a bird is not showing and birders are spreading out to track it down, it is wise to exchange phone numbers with someone else scouring the area.

7) Though I encourage birders to communicate, that comes with the caveat that most birders are not experts, and some are downright stringy. It takes practice to figure out the type of birder you are talking to when they are a total stranger. Are they legit? Inexperienced? Stringy? If someone says, "the split supercilium was surprisingly conspicuous from certain angles", they are probably more credible than someone who says "we knew it was different because it was feeding differently". So keep this in mind...when you roll up someplace and someone says, "oh, the bird was just here", that may not necessarily be true.

Unless you pray at the alter of your county list and nowhere else, you don't need to look for the unexpected Surf Scoter, Black Scoter, or White-winged Scoter that turns up. You must look for the Common Scoter. Crescent City Harbor, Crescent City, CA.

8) Sometimes, you just have to go. Veteran birders have a good sense of when they absolutely must drop everything and go for a bird immediately, beginners and intermediate birders don't. This is in part because they are acutely aware of the level of rarity any species has in their area, and to a lesser degree because they have a good grip on what species may be "naturally occurring". As the old saying goes, "look for the Barnacle Goose in January, not the one in July".

There isn't a birder out there who does not regret missing out on a certain chase, but it's better to have one chase regret (California's last Eastern Whip-poor-will immediately comes to mind for me) than ten. When in doubt, go for the bird!

9) Don't be afraid to look for the bird somewhere else besides where it was last seen if it's not showing up. This could simply mean looking a few hundred feet away, or a mile away. There is risk in this, but the reward can be great, and if you do refind the bird elsewhere you won't be standing in the middle of a crowd of birders, feverish with birdlust.

10) Time and tide are not to be ignored. Birds often settle into patterns quickly when they arrive someplace. Take note of the time of day when stakeout birds are being seen. If you are in a coastal area and are searching for a waterbird, tides often make a huge difference on the distribution of birds. I recommend getting an app for tides in your local area.

Cass and I waited an entire day for this Great Gray Owl to appear; many birders came and went, and a couple of them even made fun of me for Brambring. But, as anyone who has seen a Great Gray can attest to, the wait was well worth it. Since then, frankly, things have never been the same. Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park, Humboldt County, CA.

11) Be patient/try again. This one is simple. Sometimes, it literally takes all day to find a bird. Don't be afraid to put in the work. It may also take 3 or 4 or more attempts to find the bird you are looking for. Birding can not only be hard, it can be pain, and you have to be willing to endure it.

12) If you have the time, don't forget to peruse other birds in the immediate area. The Patagonia Picnic Table Effect is real...ignore the other birds around at your own peril.Vague Runts beget Vague Runts.

13) Most importantly...don't string. I know this is hard for some people (I'm looking at you, notorious repeat stringers). If, for example, you string a stakeout bird and are the last person to report it, there is a good chance you are going to cause birders to drive out to look for the bird from god knows how far away. That's a dick move, isn't it? And when they see your facepalm-inducing photo or bullshit description on eBird, you aren't going to be winning any popularity contests (#birdingpariah). Most importantly, your birding victory is an empty accomplishment, false and hollow. And somewhere, deep down in your heart of hearts, you know it to be true. Can there be anything worse?


There you have it birders...hopefully you learned something, or at least got a refresher. Forever and always, The Human Birdwatcher Project is here for you.


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  2. Great post! I respectfully add one more rule: DON'T be an ARSEH*LE. I enjoyed the Common Scoter of Crescent City. That beautiful bird was on the water, looked down on by people up above on shore and viewing platform. It was Friday when a complete S*itwad decided he wasn't close enough to photograph the bird with his b'jillion dollar photographic equipment. So he walked down to the boat launch, only about a foot above the water level of the Scotor. Immediately all the waterfowl in the little inlet freaked, flushed & took off, including the Common Scoter that never returned. That was a Friday morning (as I recall) so all the working birders that showed later that day, and on Saturday did not see the Scoter all because some sh*tehead, selfish, idiot photographer who wasn't satisfied to photograph the bird from above with everyone else. Don't be an arseh*le! Respect the bird, respect your fellow birders and keep a respectful distance from ANY bird.

    1. Always. Not that I've never flushed a cool bird because I wanted to crush it, but I don't do that shit at stakeouts. Glad you got to see the scote at least.

      I think I preferred the first iteration of your comment, there was more venom!

  3. Perhaps a corollary to rule #8. If there is doubt about whether a certain rarity is wild, or ship-assisted, or an escaped captive, go for the bird first and argue about it later.

    1. I feel like I've done well in this regard in recent years, with the exception of the Sonoma BBWD from a couple years ago (which I agree is most likely a "plastic" bird, as the Brits say). The EUKE in Humboldt last winter would have been a tough one at the time, luckily it peaced out after one day and I never had to make a decision.