Who Saw That Bird First?

Cinnamon Teal, Anas cyanoptera

If a birding year has a theme, this one has been chasing rarities in Florida. On the surface it sounds like adventure birding, combing through alligator-infested swamps and among trees dripping with Spanish moss, all to make a discovery for “science”. Not really. With but one notable exception, these are rare birds which have been discovered here, outside their normal ranges, by others; meticulous birders tuned to the minutiae of this pursuit much more than I will ever be.

Palm Warbler, Dendroica palmarum

Just this week eBird reported a Cinnamon Teal just east of Fort Myers. I had previously ticked this bird in southern Arizona in its expected range, but Andy had never laid eyes on it. After getting temporarily lost in the rural steppe of Old Florida, we came upon the reported site, easily identified by two other cars on the shoulder and birders sporting the telltale scopes aiming at a roadside pond. We were kept at bay by a wire fence and several large cows. The shallow pond or watering hole was 75 yards away and a dozen dozing ducks were backlit and poorly seen. If it wasn’t for the kind birder who invited us to peer through his scope we would have never seen the teal.

American Coot, Fulica americana

This begs the question, who saw that bird first, anyhow? Someone must have pulled over along the remote road, and carefully studied the plumage of all those distant ducks. Despite the poor viewing conditions, they recognized the plumage of the vagrant bird, and properly called it a Cinnamon Teal. Now that’s a real birder. The rest of us who flock to the site of his or her discovery are just interlopers. That first intrepid birder also had to convince the skeptics at eBird of the sighting, whereas all the rest of us had to do was report a “continuing bird”.

Mangrove Cuckoo, Coccyzus minor

There are many examples of my interloping tendencies. Take that recent Mangrove Cuckoo at Ding Darling, the Groove-billed Ani and Ash-throated Flycatcher at Festival Park, and the Hammond’s Flycatcher at Corkscrew and the Vermilion Flycatcher last season in the Great Cypress Swamp. Some careful birder had the thrill of the initial discovery and was willing to pass it along to the rest of us via eBird.

Sandhill Crane, Grus canadensis

Back up north, a few years ago, I chased a Glaucous Gull reported way down in southern Dorchester County on the Eastern Shore of Maryland; talk about rural and off the beaten track. I amazed myself by finally seeing this white gull among many others, just as I was preparing to pack up and head home, disappointed. There it was, flying in like an apparition, allowing the perfect shot. Who saw it first among the teeming flock of similar gulls swarming around the waterman, fighting for his discarded bait?

Glaucous Gull, Larus hyperboreus

I crossed over into Delaware and to the shore of its large bay chasing a reported Sabine’s Gull. It also seemed like a hopeless task, scoping all the birds from the deck of the Dupont Nature Center. There were thousands of shorebirds, gulls, and terns on the breakwater and opposite shore of the inlet over a hundred yards away. They periodically rose and landed in a confusing and frenzied flock. Who saw that slightly different bird with a black hood and yellow-tipped bill among the many commoners? Fortunately another birder pointed the rarity out to me and I gratefully added another tick to my life list. Just a guiltless interloper.

Lesser Scaup, Aythya affinis

Andy and I did make one initial sighting of a rarity ourselves; or perhaps a semi-rarity. We were at Eagle Lake, near Naples, toward the end of our birding trek and talking more about politics than birds, when I noticed a perching black bird right off the trail. It was too large for a grackle and too small for a crow, and had a bulky bill. About the same time we both blurted out, “Ani”. We knew the bird from a prior trip to Panama, but had never seen it in Florida. It was a Smooth-billed Ani.

Common Gallinule, Gallinula chloropus

We posted our observation on eBird and had our fifteen minutes of fame in the birder’s world, as the initial discoverers. But our notoriety was short-lived. Another birder, posted the same bird a few days later and reported the Ani as “the continuing bird, first seen by…” He gave credit to someone else; we were robbed; our sighting was thereafter assigned to another! C’est la vie. We know who was really first, just that one time.

Smooth-billed Ani, Crotophagi ani

Don’t think for a moment that our chasing of rarities down here is universally successful. Careful observers have been reporting a small flock of Redheads, the duck I mean, down in Sugden Park, near Naples. I’ve seen the bird in Maryland, but never down here in the heat of South Florida, and Andy had never seen it anywhere. We got excited when we saw a single duck with a light back and dark head swimming off shore, but closer observation revealed a Lesser Scaup. Andy tried to convince me that the head had a reddish tinge, but that was just the wishful thinking of a frustrated birder.

Pied-billed Grebe, Podilymbus podiceps

I’ve made two more “empty” trips to the park to see this duck and Andy is now up to six excursions, still with no luck, even on a day when other birders had reported the target Redhead. His greater efforts reflect that urge to add a life bird, something that all birders will understand.

Limpkin, Aramus guarauna

Those trips are really not “empty”. Birders also know that there is never a bad birding day, but rather a chance to see some antics of common birds, try a new photographic technique, or catch a bird in an unlikely pose. Those coot and gallinule shots are from the Sugden trip. The Limpkin seemed like an uncommon bird here just a few years ago, but not now. In fact one keeps us awake nightly with its ghastly call, right outside our condo window.

Muscovy Ducks, Cairina moschata

I ended the Sugden Pond trip witnessing the almost brutal copulation of two Muscovy Ducks. Ducks are known for their aggressive breeding habits, and now I can attest to that. The larger male chased and finally caught the female and almost drowned her in the long process. She finally did escape and survive, but barely. It was all just another sighting on an “empty” trip chasing rarities in south Florida.

Birding Daily, Almost


Osprey, Pandion haliaetus


They were loud, almost obnoxious neighbors.  When we slept with the windows open to catch the gentle summer breeze they were the last thing we heard each evening and the first raucous greeting each dawn.  But now they are gone, without even a neighborly adieu, and I admit to missing them already.

Osprey family

There are three Osprey platforms along our shore and each hosts a successful breeding pair every summer.  The parents, new fledglings, and yearlings certainly created an interesting summer on San Domingo Creek this year, learning to fly, fish, and chase away the bullying Fish Crows.  But now they’re all gone and the quiet is eerie.

Eastern Kingbird, Tyrannus tyrannus

Other quieter cast members have also left the stage, exit south.  I refer to the Eastern Kingbirds, whom the permanent resident Northern Mockingbirds allowed to breed beside the cove, and the related Barn and Tree Swallows who breed under the dock and in the Bluebird houses.  Any day now they will be replaced by large noisy flocks of migratory Canada Geese and a new cacophony will begin.  Alas, another season has passed.

Barn Swallow, Hirundo rustica

My birding has evolved, and not necessarily for the better.  It’s been a long time, since Norway in May, for me to purposely set out on a birding excursion.  You know the drill; an early AM start armed with binoculars, camera with telephoto lens, guide book or cell phone, bug spray, sun protection, etc.

Tree Swallow, Tachycineta bicolor

I may have become a victim of the eBird challenge for us to bird continuously, submitting daily lists of sightings as we go about our non-birding lives.  Their intentions at Cornell are laudable, trying to expand the world-wide data base of birds to assess population trends and birds at risk.  But I think I may have carried this all too far.

Northern Mockingbird, Mimus polyglottos

The eBird app makes it too easy (http://www.ebird.org).  We went out for a seafood dinner along the Tred Avon River with a large group and I secured a waterside seat so I could clandestinely count the cormorants and gulls between bites.  No one knew.  One of my favorite personal locations is a comfortable hammock strategically positioned in the back yard between a feeder and birdbath.  The chickadees, finches, and hummingbirds hardly notice me there unless I snore and drop the iPhone.  I even got a few ticks through a hospital window during a brief illness last January.

American Goldfinch, Carduelis tristis

eBird got serious about these daily tabulations last January when they announced the “Checklist-A-Day Challenge”.  Submit your daily sightings all year long, even if a session is as short as 3 minutes, and be eligible to win a set of Zeiss binoculars on December 31.  More importantly you contribute to a valuable growing database of birds.  I started the year on a roll, 133 straight days of sightings, but then life intervened.  Not to worry, you just need an average of 1 list per day and there are still 97 days left in 2019 to make up the deficit.

Lincoln Park, Chicago

We recently took two short non-birding trips that allowed me to squeeze in a few observations.  One was to a spectacular family wedding at Chicago, Lincoln Park.  The joy of seeing my nephew and his beautiful bride begin their lives together, and seeing the satisfaction and celebration of the supporting families and friends overshadowed even the birds.  But I did count some on the shore of Lake Michigan and during an architectural tour on the Chicago River, whose flow, by the way, was remarkably reversed by engineers in 1900.

Keuka Springs Winery

The other trip was to Upstate New York, my native stomping ground.  To the New York City crowd, anything north of the Tappan Zee Bridge is called “upstate”.  The rest of us know that the true upstate is Syracuse, Rochester, Ithaca, Watkins Glen, Skaneateles, and countless other small towns nestled among the rolling hills, wineries, and the Finger Lakes.  The residents here even sound different than the big city folks.  I don’t believe there is a more beautiful and comfortable place anywhere in the summer.  But forget the winters.

White-breasted Nuthatch, Sitta carolinensis

It was another chance for some soft core birding while we became reacquainted with family and friends.  My sister has maintained and restored the old summer cottage that my Dad and Mom bought on Keuka Lake in 1956, and my brother has recently relocated just down the road.   We had dinner with the same next door neighbors that I knew in the 1950’s, now with several generations of offspring all returning to their homestead each year, similar to those migrating Osprey.

Wood Duck, Aix sponsa

I’m the only birder in the family, so for one week the old feeder is dusted off and filled with sunflower seeds.  It only takes a few hours for the chickadees and finches, to find the cache.  I’m particularly pleased with the nuthatches climbing the trunks of the ash and pines near the back door.  We have Wood Ducks, American Black Ducks, and Common Mergansers on the lake, all new since my childhood days when we only saw Mallards.  There even was an Osprey fishing near the shore, apparently just as happy with the freshwater sunfish and bass as their more common salt water catch.

Common Merganser, Mergus merganser

The last stop in Upstate was Ithaca, the home of dear friends and also the famous Sapsucker Woods and the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.  I can “blame” them for my list-a-day craze, but Cornell and their brain child eBird have seriously revolutionized birding.

Sapsucker Woods Pond

Their data, even my sightings from the hammock, have documented the loss of 3 billion birds from the U.S. and Canada since the 1970’s, 30% of our total bird population.  “More than 90% of the losses are from 12 families including sparrows, finches, blackbirds, and warblers”.  But all is not doom and gloom.  The water fowl population has grown 56% and raptors are up 200% over the same period.  Those ducks and the thriving Osprey families can thank Cornell, dedicated ornithologists, and even lowly eBirders for this revival.


Birding Paraphernalia; the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

Too Much Stuff

Too Much Stuff

A few years ago there was a popular song by Delbert McClinton called Too Much Stuff, which describes the trap most of us fall into as we go through life.  Birders are no different as we accumulate various birding gadgets, aids, clothes, etc. over the years.  I thought it may be helpful to the rising birder to describe what has worked and what has not worked for me.  I perfectly understand that one man’s albatross, (no offense to albatrosses), may be another’s favorite tool, so take these ideas as personal opinion only.

Eastern Meadowlark

Eastern Meadowlark

The Good

1) After years of toting around my favorite, well-worn, and dog-earred bird guide, it barely fitting in my pocket and weighing down my trousers on one side, I finally listened to a friend and went digital.  It was a good move.  I now have two bird guide apps on my smart phone, iBird PRO, and Sibley Birds, which have all the same info as the book, and more.  The bird calls are now available and I frequently play them in the field to refresh my memory and use this valuable ID tool.  The phone is also a safety link to civilization when I bird alone, and has a GPS if I get hopelessly lost.  It has a decent camera to take those vista shots that my birding lens can’t get.  Also my trousers no longer droop on the right.

2) Cornell’s program eBird (www.ebird.org) has been one of the greatest breakthroughs in birding.  Its not just the tracking of your lists, but the access it gives you to others’ observations.  Now when I travel to a new birding destination I go to eBird first and see exactly what people are seeing at that spot, at that time of year. If its a new bird for me I can review what to look and listen for before heading out.

3) Traipsing around for hours with things hanging around your neck gets old and leads to headaches.  Get a “figure 8” shoulder strap for your binoculars to take the weight off.  Speaking of straps, try a UPstrap (www.upstrap-pro.com) for your camera.  I find that the manufacturer’s shoulder straps tend to slip off, but the UPstrap is wider and has a rubber/friction surface that makes it much more secure and comfortable.

4) Invest in an extra camera battery. You know why.

5) Last, but most important is the glass.  I’ve gone through a slew of binoculars; big and small, cheap and expensive.  For a while I thought small and light was good, but they just don’t have the light-gathering capability and field-of-view you need for birding. Then I went large to 10X, 50mm, and even tried the impressive image-stabilized binoculars. They’re just too heavy for the field. For me the sweet spot is 7-8X and about 40mm.  And I’ve tried cheap (less than $100), medium $100-$1000, and expensive >$2000 glass. One of my greatest eureka moments in birding was when one of the birding pros at Cape May took pity on me and my cheap, small binoculars and let me borrow his extra high-end Zeiss glass for the day.  What a difference!  The field-of-view even seemed brighter than real life and birding was easier and much more fun.  The lesson is to spring for the best glass you can afford.

Cactus Wren

Cactus Wren

The Bad  

1) There are some situations when you need a good scope and stable tripod, but not many.  I have one ready in the car as I drive along the dikes at Blackwater Refuge in Maryland, or Bombay Hook in Delaware, or occasionally when on a bluff or wide beach, but for general birding they’re just “too much stuff”.

2) I feel sorry for the birders pushing the carts filled with the huge telephoto lenses, multiple cameras, etc.  It reminds me of the young parents in airports with car seats, strollers, diapers, etc. trying to board a plane.  For me those days are over.  Only take what you can easily carry.  For me that is binoculars and camera with a small telephoto lens.  I’ve gradually gone from 200mm to 300mm, and now to Canon’s 400mm F5.6L.  That’s turned out to be a great portable birding lens, used by many for years, and for me the largest lens one can comfortably carry.

3)RAW vs. JPEG photos.  This is where I’ll get some push back.  Keeping with my philosophy of K.I.S.S. (keep it simple stupid) I have returned to JPEG.  RAW is great and necessary if you plan to sell or publish your pictures, but for me the data storage requirements and post-processing time were more than I bargained for.  For now, at least I’m a JPEG man.

Loggerhead Shrike

Loggerhead Shrike

The Ugly

“Ugly” may be a little strong, but I’m not telling you anything you don’t already know when I say that birders are not slaves to fashion.  We are practical folks who wear what works.  Just look around on your next group birding trip.

1) I’ve learned the hard way that sun protection is key, both with material defense and chemical warfare.  Long sleeve sun shirts and caps with earflaps are now standard garb for me–life is not a fashion show.

2) For a while I thought you could not have too many pockets.  The long baggy cargo shorts with large pockets (perfect for guide books), and fly fishermen vests with 17+ small pockets were standard.  Since I’ve gone to a smart phone and have lost too many things in all the pockets, I’ve scaled back. (K.I.S.S.)

3)  If you’ve ever had Chiggers you know why many birders wear long pants tucked into socks with bands around their pant legs, or wear tall boots, even in the hot weather.  I had 3 or 4 infestations and itchy, sleepless nights before I learned that they were the barely visible larval forms of a mite which lurk in the grasses waiting for unsuspecting birders to walk by.  They get inside your pant legs and borrow into the skin.  Luckily they are not a vector of disease like the deer tick, but just do their damage by causing local irritation, inflammation, and cellular chaos.  You’ll survive, but you’ll think twice about your next trip into the grasslands.

The Ugly

The Ugly?

So for what its worth, that’s one birder’s opinion of our paraphernalia.  Good luck and good birding.