Sunday, October 11, 2009

Beth, Birds, Boy Scouts and Bill of the Birds

On Saturday I took a group of 12 Cub Scouts and 8 parents/ chaperones to Peace Valley Park to go birding. Bill Thompson went along in the form of his book, A Young Birder's Guide, which I distributed to all the kids. It was a fabulous two hours full of discovery for these young people. And I had a good time, too.

Bill's book ready for distribution

It drizzled all morning, but we had Scout badges to earn, so we met in the parking lot of the Peace Valley Nature Center where I gave a quick lesson on the use of optics and a field guide. The attention span of a ten-year old is about 6 seconds, so I lost them pretty quickly.

Off to the bird blind where we saw Mourning Doves, Eastern towhee, tufted titmouse, Carolina chickadee, Northern cardinal (easily the day's favorite bird), blue jay, white breasted nuthatch and house finch. While in the blind, I took the opportunity to talk about feeding birds, male vs female plumage and migration. The Scouts impressed me with their intelligent questions and their observations. I anticipated a bunch of apathetic pre-teens who would rather be in front of an X-Box or the computer. Boy, was I mistaken. They were anxious to learn and that warmed my heart (which was shivering in the cold drizzle).

On Deer Trail in Peace Valley Park

Checking out a bunch of rocks where a snake might live!

On to the woodland trails. We saw bluebird and owl boxes which gave me a chance to talk about nesting habits and nocturnal birds. One of the boys saw a great blue heron fly in and perch in a tree over Lake Galena, so we all got great looks at it. Meanwhile, three belted kingfishers were doing a noisy display diving for fish. We trekked for about an hour and saw gray catbird, American goldfinch, mallard duck, downy woodpecker (thanks to a quick spot by one of the parents - I love it when the parents are involved), red bellied woodpecker, Canada goose, Northern mockingbird and the last bird of the day - double crested cormorants. By the time we saw the cormorants perched on rocks in the lake, the boys were more interested in tossing pebbles, so I knew it was time to wrap up the trip.

Tallying up the day's list

The Scouts also found deer and raccoon tracks, deer poop, a small animal den (with a front and a back door, one of them pointed out), turned over rocks looking for snakes, and picked me a beautiful bunch of wildflowers to show their thanks. But the day's best find, and the one that garnered the most excitement and shouting each time it was spotted.....the gray squirrel.

We gathered back at the picnic pavilion to write down our observations and have a snack as well as to gather for a group photo.

Me and the new birders (note some of them holding up their new field guides)

It was a fun birding day (20 species - not bad for a day in the rain with a rowdy group) and I hope that I was able to turn at least a few young boys into birders. Thanks boys. I had a blast.

And a special thanks to Bill of the Birds for a wonderful book that helped us immensely throughout the day.

My thank-you bouquet

Thursday, October 1, 2009

My Notebooks, My Treasures

When I started birding four short years ago, I took a tiny notebook with me and wrote down every single thing I noticed about birds. Field marks (I didn't know that's what they were called), behavior, lists of what birds I saw or heard, mammals and flowers (with little stars next to the bird name if it was a lifer), sketches of tail or head shapes, date, weather conditions, time and location. Looking back over these four books (one per year), it is amusing to see how my skills (limited as they are) developed.

I never wrote down in my trusty Peterson field guide (my favorite because it was my first) where and when I saw each lifer, but the notebooks keep those memories alive.

What made me smile recently were the pages from September 17, 2005 *8am, foggy conditions* at Hawk Mountain in the Pocono Mountains, Pennsylvania. It was a two hour drive early one morning. I was going alone to meet members of the DVOC for raptor watching at the height of hawk migration. I had just joined DVOC and had not met anyone from the organization or gone on any sponsored field trips. I was shy and nervous and little did I know that raptor migration was one of the hardest ID situations next to gulls.
I got to the parking lot over an hour early (told you I was nervous) and decided to start the hike up to North Lookout myself and meet them on the mountain. Improperly prepared/ outfitted, wearing sneakers instead of hiking boots and certainly not in the best physical shape, I struggled to make the climb. I felt it was a good thing I was alone instead of embarrassing myself in front of more experienced DVOC members.

photo courtesy of

I made it to North Lookout and was expecting a flat platform with railings, maybe some benches. Ha! Nothing but boulders, steep dropoffs and experienced birders perched all over. I was so intimidated. And scared out of my wits. I knew if I dropped off the face of the earth (a distinct possibility) none of my family or friends knew where I was. I was about to die alone.

I found a relatively flat boulder and perched gingerly. I tried to focus on birds that people were calling out all over: Magnolia warbler, Philadelphia vireo, Cape May warbler, cedar waxwing, rose breasted grosbeak, olive sided flycatcher, chimney swift, merlin....all of these would have been life birds if I could have seen them. When someone would call out a bird, everyone would jump up and swivel to find the bird. The first time I jumped up, I felt myself lose my balance and that was the last time I stood up. My butt got numb from sitting for almost 4 hours, but I was too scared to climb down! Besides, now it was quite crowded on North Lookout. I saw the DVOC group arrive, but I was so thoroughly cowed that I kept to myself and did not join them.

On a clump of trees in front of me, I noticed small bright yellow birds with black caps and wings. I looked frantically through my field guide, but couldn't find an id. I gathered my nerve and asked the woman sitting next to me (birders are truly friendly) and she told me they were American goldfinches. Wow! My first goldfinch and I thought they were gorgeous. I stared at them for 30 minutes. They were the only birds I truly saw on that trip. I wrote down every bird that others called out, but I only saw the goldfinches and waxwings.

I eventually climbed down the mountain and drove home. Enamored of birding, embarrassed by my shyness (I have certainly gotten over that!) and addicted to my notebooks where I write down everything I see.

Do you use notebooks in the field?