Lets face it, birders today go into the field armed to the death. High powered binoculars and spotting scopes, field guides, blackberries with checklists, e-mail and recordings all set of every North American species. Digital Camera, camcorder, sketch pad (for the old-timers), hat, sunglasses (I never understood wearing sunglasses while birding, since all birds have the same color then- ha!), bottled water, inspect repellant, toilet paper (forget it once, you’ll never forget again), map, flashlight (for nocturnal birding), identification to present to the authorities when you are arrested and your name sewn into your underwear so they can ID the body after you get mauled by a bear.
But with all that equipment, are we better birders today then we were say 30 or 40 years ago, when most birders took a comfy pair of shoes and binoculars into the field? Certainly the use of digital photography has meant that many rare or unusual birds have been recorded and positively ID. You rarely hear the term “probable” anymore because of this. But while ID’ing a rare bird at home is certainly a thrill, have our skills diminished that much that we can’t ID it in the field? I dunno.
Its almost that we have become handicapped by all of our equipment, we have become almost dependent on field marks because we have optics that allows us to count feathers at 500 yards. But we’ve lost some of those skills such as judging size, shape, watching behavior and understanding habitat and time of year. I find a lot of new and casual birders lacking these skills, trying to find the perfect match in a book, rather than looking at the birds! Danika was very much in this group until recently. Lately we have been studying gulls at the Coxackie Boat Launch in Greene County. Anyone who studies gulls knows there can be great variation in plumage, especially in young birds. I’ve gotten her into the practice of looking for the “odd” gull, the focus more on size and shape than color. Her efforts were rewarded when she was able to pick out her life, Lesser Black-Backed Gull by noticing certain details on the bird, before the obvious field marks.
That’s not to say there isn’t a place for equipment, I certainly use a scope and the best pair of binoculars I can afford. But there are times, when I simply leave them in the car and I challenge myself to find and identify as many birds as possible without the aid of equipment. I find I learn a lot more about, even common species, little details which I never noticed before in my rush to find, ID and check off a species. Once you start to look at every bird you find in this way, the rare and unusual birds will show themselves and after all who doesn’t like finding a good bird?