Personal Story

How to Enjoy a Bird Walk—Finally!

Debbie Blicher is Senior Producer of Talkin’ Birds.

If you are a Talkin’ Birds listener who hates bird walks, you are not alone. Until recently, I did too. But then I went on a bird walk that I loved—at last. Here’s what happened.

I have been on nature walks since childhood, and I’ve even led a few. But I went on my first genuine bird walk only four years ago, at the 2016 L.L.Bean & Maine Audubon Birding Festival over Memorial Day Weekend. Ray, Mark Duffield, and I went to Freeport a day before the broadcast so we could straighten out any technical glitches. When we were done, Ray asked Mark and me whether we’d like to join him on a guided walk at Wolfe’s Neck Farm. The guide would be some dude named Doug Hitchcox. Neither the place nor the name sounded familiar to me, but Mark agreed to go, so I did too. “Why not?” I thought, “A walk outside on a lovely day? How could I not enjoy it?”

But it would not be a nice walk outside on a lovely day. It would be staring at every tree and bush and fencepost and bit of rocky shoreline and waiting for forty people to take their turn at a spotting scope while Doug explained everything anyone has ever known about every species we were looking at. But I didn’t know that when we set out.

We arrived late. Wolfe’s Neck Farm is a lovely recreational area that includes fields, forest, and some shoreline. It does not include much parking. Ray parked where he hoped he wouldn’t block traffic, and we scrambled out. He grabbed his binoculars from the trunk; Mark and I had none. We also had no sunglasses, no sunscreen, no outerwear, no water, and no snacks. Worst of all, we had no idea how long this bird walk would last.

We found the group easily enough: about forty people had arrayed themselves in a long line looking at a field. A young guy with dark hair and large binoculars was standing by a spotting scope and talking about Bobolinks. This was Doug Hitchcox—not “some dude” but Staff Naturalist at Maine Audubon. As in, “some dude who really knows his stuff and can make it interesting to anyone.” Ray and Mark, being taller than I, could see what he was pointing at, but I couldn’t. We were too far away to hear him. Ray offered to share his binoculars, but they didn’t help because all the tall people seemed to be in front of me. Eventually I pushed through the crowd and peered through the spotting scope. I saw a bird. Sitting still. In a field. What was so interesting about that? I watched for a few seconds and then let Mark have a turn.

The afternoon wore on like this. Doug would see a bird, and we’d stand in one spot for a long time while he said things I couldn’t hear and everyone tried to see the bird. I could never see it. I got thirsty. I got cold because I didn’t have a jacket; Mark got cold even though he did. The sun burned my nose and the back of my neck. Ray stayed nearby and kept offering his binoculars, but I didn’t want to hog them, so I said no. Mark quietly walked away and sat down on a rock. My feet started to hurt. After Ray enjoyed the walk for a while, Mark and I let him know that we were ready to leave.

This year, at the 2019 L.L.Bean & Maine Audubon Birding Festival, I hadn’t planned to attend Doug Hitchcox’s walk at Wolfe’s Neck Farm, but I had come up to Freeport on Saturday afternoon on my own for the technical check and I needed something to do afterwards. I had binoculars, a jacket, sturdy shoes, sunblock, and water. I had some idea of the terrain. I even had the Merlin Bird ID app on my phone in case I couldn’t hear or see what Doug was talking about. So I decided to go.

I arrived at Wolfe’s Neck Farm early and parked out of the way. I grabbed my gear, adjusted my new binocular harness, and followed some other folks wearing binoculars who looked like they knew where they were going. We coalesced around three L.L.Bean employees who had us sign waivers. And then we were ready.

Once again, there were about forty people. Once again, Doug Hitchcox saw birds high and low and set up his scope so we all could look. Once again, he engagingly explained everything about the birds, their lives, and their larger role in the ecosystem. But this time I stayed near the front of the group so I could hear him. If I couldn’t see the birds he pointed out, I asked for help, and then I turned around and helped others. When Doug softly demonstrated bird sounds over his phone, I went to the back of the crowd and played the same sounds softly with Merlin so that we all could learn them. I didn’t get sunburned. I drank when I got thirsty. My layers kept me warm. My feet didn’t hurt. I had a great time and saw my first Yellow Warblers, Semipalmated Plovers, and Semipalmated Sandpipers. And now I want to go on more bird walks.

So here are the lessons I learned.

  1. A bird walk with even the very best guide can be boring if you’re not prepared.

  2. Even though birding isn’t a vigorous activity, treat it as if it were. Dress for the weather and bring the right gear and plenty of water.

  3. Help others. Everyone on a bird walk wants to learn. You don’t have to be knowledgeable—just kind.

My First Great Backyard Bird Count, Part 2: The Count

Debbie Blicher is Senior Producer of Talkin’ Birds.

I registered for the GBBC (Great Backyard Bird Count) in early January. (See previous blog entry to find out how.) My materials arrived in early February, about two weeks ahead of the count. They included a handbook, an identification poster, a tally sheet, a calendar, and instructions. (See photo below.) They also included my registration number.

packet.jpg

I immediately created an account on the Project Feederwatch website with my registration number. That number will remain with me for all future GBBGs. Kind of like a driver’s license, but without the terrible photo.

As the GBBC approached, my family sprang into action. My teenage daughter left the country, my teenage son made plans with friends, and my husband suddenly came up with a work commitment. I’d be on my own. But no matter: I’d have my handy chart with me, plus our household field guides and Merlin Bird ID.

It took me a little while to get used to the protocol for counting. To prevent repeatedly counting the same individual bird, you’re supposed to report the greatest number of birds of the same species that you see at your feeder at the same time. Doing this makes it impossible for you to report the same individual more than once if it keeps flying away and coming back.

So here’s what my tally sheet looked like. The first photo shows my count early on the first day. The second photo shows my count at the end.

Tally sheet early Saturday

Tally sheet early Saturday

You’ll note that, in addition to the species counts, there are places at left to indicate the amount of time I spent and the weather, and at bottom to record any interesting interactions I saw.

Tally sheet late Sunday

Tally sheet late Sunday

On Saturday, I watched the feeders for 20 minutes in the morning and 30 in the afternoon. I sat at the dining room table with a cup of tea and the tally sheet, the chart, the field guides, and Merlin Bird ID. I wished my family were home so I could ignore them for the sake of science.

When I was finished, I logged in to the Project Feederwatch website and logged my data. And I was DONE. Having submitted my data electronically, I did not need to mail in my tally sheet.

So that was it! I had contributed to science by sipping a cup of tea at my dining room table while watching bird feeders. You think I could apply for a grant to do this full time?




My First Great Backyard Bird Count, Part 1: Registration

Debbie Blicher is Senior Producer of Talkin’ Birds.

I know what you’re thinking. “You’re Senior Producer of Talkin’ Birds and you’re only NOW doing a Great Backyard Bird Count?”

Um…yeah. But in my defense, I’ve been a little busy, okay?! You have no idea what it’s like to work with—um, never mind. (Sorry, Ray!)

But seriously: I had three very good reasons for not doing the GBBG until now—and maybe you have the same ones. First, I didn’t know what it was. Second, I didn’t know when or how to register for it. And third, I thought I wasn’t skilled enough to participate. The good news is that I did it anyway, and I had so much fun that I’m going to give you the resources to do it with me next year.

So—here were my first three questions about the Great Backyard Bird Count, plus the answers.

1. What is it, again?

The Great Backyard Bird Count (GBBC) is a citizen science project under the auspices of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. Each February since 1988, people all over the world have counted bird species coming to their feeders and reported their findings. These days, more than 160,000 people participate in the project, most of whom enter their data online. Together, we create an annual snapshot of species distribution.

Here’s Ray discussing the GBBC with NPR’s Scott Simon on Weekend Edition Saturday, February 16, 2019.

You can read more about the GBBC here, on the official website.

2. When and how do you register?

You can register any time, even during the GBBC. However, I recommend that you register in early January because it takes a few weeks for the materials to arrive in the mail. Register here, at the GBBC website. Bonus: Once you register, you keep your registration number from year to year. You still have to sign up for each year’s count, but your number stays the same. Me, I like to be efficient with my time, so I’d rather forget a number once than have to forget a new number every year.

3. How skilled do you have to be?

Excuse me while I laugh my head off.

(whew) All set. Honestly, if I can do it, so can you. I’m okay identifying my neighborhood birds, but I need help with many others. The packet from Cornell comes with a poster of common feeder birds; one side with eastern species, one with western. I used the poster plus Cornell’s smartphone app, Merlin Bird ID. So—you know that nightmare we all have about taking a final exam when you haven’t studied? (Or doing a radio interview when you don’t know what you’re talking about? Right, Ray?? ) It’s not like that at all.

I’ll write again soon about how to do the actual count and upload the data. For now, why not go to the GBBC website and register for next year?