I’m not one, but I’ve observed enough of them to legitimately list their characteristics in this post. It’s a given that they know the field marks and have mastered bird identification. I’m talking about the additional and more subtle traits of these masters. Most have been birding since childhood and have stories of being introduced to birding by a parent or grandparent, often remembering their personal index bird. They grew up with binoculars on the window sill and a well-worn bird guidebook, usually Petersen’s, readilly available.
They have mastered the difficult families and genera. I don’t know about you but I break out in a cold sweat when a novice birder asks me about the various gulls, sparrows, terns, or flycatchers. The advanced birder is not even phased. Their knowledge of the changing plumages of gulls, for instance belies a lot of fieldwork and careful study. The sparrows and terns are a piece of cake for them, whereas the flycatchers are difficult for everyone, even them.
The fall warblers offer another challenge. I was birding at a local warbler haunt on Tilghmann Island, Maryland last fall when I ran across an advanced local birder in the woods. As you have all experienced, he asked “seen anything good”? “No, just the routine including a Yellow-rumped Warbler.” He surprised me by replying, “I hope you didn’t really see a butter butt, as that would mean the fall migration is almost over–they migrate late, you know”. Big swallow by me, and he continued, “I’ll bet you saw the same Magnolia Warbler I saw earlier–you know they also have a yellowish rump.” This was 3 traits of an advanced birder displayed at once: 1) knowledge of the timing of migration for a species, 2) knowledge of the similar and confusing field marks among birds, 3) the ability to teach and tactfully correct the mistakes of a fellow rising birder.
Knowing when each species arrives in your locale and when it departs in the fall adds a whole new dimension to birding. It speaks to years of careful observation and becomes another of our personal timepieces marking the passage of the seasons.
The advanced birder depends on bird behaviors, shapes, and habitats as much as field marks to make an ID. The nuthatch is running up and down the trunk, the Palm Warbler is near or on the ground, pumping its tail, and the tanager is found high in the canopy. Birds often have characteristic flight patterns recognized when field marks are not visible. There’s the alternating rapid flaps and glides of the Accipiters, The jittery soaring of the Turkey Vulture, and the undulating flight of the finches as examples of these patterns. The advanced hawk watchers bird by silhouette recognition as describe in an earlier post, Hawk Watching.
The skill most impressive to me is the advanced birder’s knowledge of birdsong, even to the extent of knowing several calls for many birds. One may be for staking out a territory and another for warning of danger from an approaching hawk. Before I even get my binoculars and camera around my neck in the parking lot my advanced birder friends have ID’ed a dozen birds by sound alone. I had more to say about this in a prior post, Birding By Ear.
Advanced birders have recognized that you can’t cut corners on your choice of binoculars. You usually see them with Zeiss, Leica, Swarovski, or other high end glass, often with the well-worn look of years in the field. Not everyone with high-end binos is an expert, but all experts know the value of the sharp, bright image in a large field-of-view glass.
Advanced birders are teachers. You come away from every birding session with them acquiring new pearls, even about the common birds. For instance: 1) the Least Sandpiper is the only peep typically found inland–look for its yellow legs, 2) the Tree Swallow arrive first in the spring since it’s the only swallow that eats berries and seeds in addition to insects, or 3) a Blue Jay can do a remarkably good imitation of a Red-shouldered Hawk. These and many more bird facts make your day in the field with them even more rewarding. Have you ever noticed that they rarely carry a field guide, except perhaps to demonstrate a new bird to others? I’ll bet it’s been committed to memory.
The signature of an advanced birder is not the length of their life-list or the number of birding trips abroad, but rather their joy in even the routine outing where they always seem to find something new or interesting, and happy to share it with others.