Birders and birding explained
At this time of the year our region is inundated with migratory species of birds and with the winged migrants comes this odd group of people who do not make much sense to us. Many birds flocking to our region have been used as subsistence resources for many years whether for their meat or the delicious contents of their eggs. So this group of people who come to just watch birds are very difficult to understand.
Sometimes we see them along the roads piling out of tour vans setting up their big spotting scopes or cameras with huge lenses. One yells seeing something interesting, the others respond by turning their lenses in the direction of the report. It just seems weird, they are just birds after all. What is so interesting about birds that an individual would spend tens of thousands of dollars on equipment and travel?
Understanding a birder probably has more to do with understanding an individual birder’s motivation of why they bird. Ornithology is the study of birds, whether it be their taxonomy, ecology, physiology or behavior. If you have ever put out a bird feeder and watched the interactions between individual birds, you quickly find that birds are sometimes quite entertaining.
Feeder watchers observe how birds interact with each other within their species and between species. They begin to understand what individual species feed on and predict what foods they can put out to attract new species. Having a feeder outside your window is like having a fish aquarium in your house. There is something about watching fish or birds that is calming and enjoyable.
Feeder watchers are able to participate in the “Great Backyard Bird Count”, also known as GBBC, where individuals identify and count individual birds of each species and then submit those observations. The GBBC takes place three days in February each year and is run by The Cornell Lab and the Audubon Association.
And so we being to understand what it is to be a birder.
My interest in birds started when I was young, spending time outdoors with my father. I remember listening and watching birds in the creek that flowed in front of our house. I was fascinated by the many sounds and colors of the different species such as the American Bittern, Great Blue Heron, Red-winged Blackbirds and many more that inhabited the area.
Today I keep a list of species in and around Shishmaref to see if there might be species affected by the changing climate. Are there any invasive species due to the warming trend? My motivation is about the knowledge I am able to contribute about the species in our community and local area.
To many birders it’s about the life list, a list of birds that a person has seen and identified in their lifetime or at least since they started birding. For some that may mean just the different species they have been able to attract to their feeder(s), for others their local area, for others wherever they may travel worldwide.
Local people are amazed that I have seen 129 different species in and around Shishmaref in my 10 years I have been documenting species that use or come through our local area here. My friend Monte Taylor was recognized by Surfbirds.com for photographing his 800th American Birding Association, or ABA, bird so I have a long ways to go. There are many birders who have documented well over 1,000 birds in their lifetimes. That life list becomes somewhat of a badge of honor. “I have a life list of 826 species, how about you?”
Life lists are a little harder for us to understand unless you think of it in terms of someone from our region saying they have won eight Iditarod basketball tournaments in their life. The more species on their list, the more they feel they have accomplished.
Probably the least understood birders are the “Big Year” birders. Yes, this is not just a Steve Martin and Jack Black movie, it is a real thing. These individuals fly all over the ABA region to see who can document by sight or call the most bird species in one calendar year. Last year, I met John Weigel, a Big Year birder, who was flying out to Gambell on Thanksgiving weekend to chase a Pine Bunting. John set a new Big Year record with 780 species, a new record by some 30 species. Amazing to me is that John funded all of his travel with personal money. To be noted, most birders consider these guys a little bit crazy as well and considering John broke his own Australian Big Year record with 770 species in 2014, sometimes a whole lot crazy.
The biggest thing I believe birders get out of birding is the human interaction. Talking with like minds and going out on birding adventures to places like the Seward Peninsula. Meeting new people with similar interests and making new friends is very important to birders. More experienced birders help beginners and novices. Building these relationships are important and makes it even more rewarding.
Environmental conservation is also a huge part of what birders do. Being active in saving lands occupied by endangered or threatened species or just saving “wild” lands is important. Understanding human impacts are often very visible with birds as many birds are secondary consumers within the food chain. They show a problem with primary consumers and or the producers in the ecosystem. So birding observations can be very important.
And maybe you still will not understand birders but understand that the money generated by this sector of ecotourism is very important to our region. Entrepreneurs who are able to take birders to locations where they will find species that the birders want to see make decent amounts of money as well as our airlines and local Native corporations through land use fees.
If you want to get involved with birding, one way you can get started is through the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, which administers the “Wings Over Alaska Birding Program”. Individuals can report the species they have identified and earn certificates for 50, 125, 200, and 275 species identified in Alaska. This program encourages birders to explore more of the state of Alaska, become more involved in birding and take their skills to a higher level, and get people more interested in birds and habitat conservation. If you are interested in this program visit www.birding.alaska.gov. Or if you are interested in some of the amazing bird photography that occurs in our state, check out the Birds of Alaska page on Facebook.