Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Bird of Brothers

My oldest brother is not good at identifying birds.

The other day he called me to ask about a bird he saw because he had no idea what he saw, but said it had a crest and wasn’t a blue jay. When I asked if it may be was a tufted titmouse, he said he didn’t know because he didn’t know what a tufted titmouse looked like. It turned out to be a cedar waxwing.

He is not good at identifying birds. He is, however, a good birder.

I know that sounds odd, but he has all the skills and abilities of a natural birder, just he doesn’t know his birds. He likes to be out in the wilderness, likes to walk quietly on trails (though we do chit-chat when out) and is quick to pick up on any noise or movement. He is also pretty good at looking for identifying marks and can often tell when something just ‘feels’ like a different species.

In other words, he is the perfect birding partner for me. Hey, I like to go birding with people who know birds, but when I go out to add to my list, I want to be the one who identifies it. I don’t want others to point out “hey, look, there’s a yellow-rumped warbler!” I don’t want people to find things for me; my list is birds that I have seen and I have identified. Otherwise what is the point? So when I go out birding with my brother, he does all the good things that birders do except spoiling the identification for me.

He is learning, though; that’s what happens when you go out birding. Last weekend I visited him and we went to a couple of places and hiked around for hours each day and got lots of birds, and I am sure he walked away knowing basic birding skills and even some advanced ones. I doubt he’ll be able to distinguish the Greater and Lesser Scaups, despite us looking at them for 20 minutes to figure it out (it was only Lesser Scaups…dammit, why couldn’t it have been both so I won’t have to do that again?), but I think he’ll be able to identify buffleheads and green-winged teal the next time he sees them.

I also think he’ll have his Fish and American Crows IDs down too, which is funny because before a month ago I didn’t even have their identification down. Sure, I knew the description from the field guides and from birders that I know, but I lived in Kentucky for 12 years and never saw a Fish Crow there and so it was only theoretical that I knew the difference. Besides, I thought the difference was bullshit (sort of like how the Scaup difference really is fake bullshit). So, when we started this Year of Birds project, one thing I decided to do was to really clarify in my mind the difference.

So I did what anyone wanting to perfect their birding skills does: I went to the internet!

Oh, Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology, how I lean on you for birding help! I went to the sound section of both American Crow and Fish Crow and listened to the sound clips a bunch of times each (including some Fish Crow ones that are over 100 years old). Ok, I can hear the difference, but is that REALLY true? Are they REALLY different and distinct like that?

Yes. Yes, they are.

I first spotted Fish Crows at my work a while ago, but it really stands out how different they are when they are in a similar area. This weekend, I went to Terrapin Nature Park in Maryland (which is right over the Bay Bridge from where I grew up) with my brother, and not only were there both types of crows all over the park, but they stayed together with their own kind. When we drove in, all we could hear were Fish Crows all over the parking lot, but as we went to different areas of the park we could hear American Crows. It was like different gangs scoping out their territories in a corvid turf war (oddly enough, the next day we saw the same scene play out in another park with Turkey and Black Vultures).

Hearing them side by side really helped, but just like when I was listening to the sound clips on Cornell’s website, it was just the repetition that crystallized it for me and probably also my brother. Just like any other aspect of birding or language or anything that has an extensive body of work to learn,  you just have to keep at it and soon it will come to you and you won’t even know how you know it.

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