I’m a bird nerd. And I am afraid it’s getting worse.
This year I paid for my first guided bird tour while on a winter vacation in Mexico. And although I loved the beautiful local species like the Vermillion Flycatcher, my favourite part was seeing Canadian species also on vacation: Northern Cardinals, Great Blue Heron, Common Yellow-throat Warblers and all manner of ducks and raptors.
Photo- Vermillion Flycatcher in Loreto Bay, Mexico, by Veronica Woodruff
Photo: Great Blue Heron Suntanning away the winter blues. By Veronica Woodruff.
And now that I am a bird nerd, or nerder for short, I mourn the passing of yet another fleeting bird season which is generally May through August. The migratory birds move into Pemberton and the males start singing their little hearts out to attract a female, as it is only the boys that have this talent. Or if you are a Norther Flicker, you begin drumming on the metal vents on my roof to show all the ladies how your robust echo can resonate through the valley.
In 2001, I was introduced to birding by a friend and colleague. I was awed that she knew how to identify birds by song. This being the Pacific Northwest with its dense brush and the tallest of trees, relying on sight to identify a bird would leave you with a short list. It seemed impossible to learn the songs of 261 local species (thanks to the Whistler Naturalists and Pemberton Wildlife Association for keeping track all these years). She says to me, “You have to start with the ones you know. Obviously you know what a robin sounds like.”
Now, my middle name is Robin and I acknowledge that my connection to nature is partially attributable to that name and to being able to identify this annual spring migrant as a child. But in that moment I couldn’t say I had ever actually listened to a robin sing. It all seemed so daunting.
I took her advice to learn five birds per year. She said, “Learn them well enough that you know everything about them including their song.”
I started with the easy ones: American Robin (who as it happens has a series of complex songs and many call notes so one could forgive me for ignoring it all those years); Stellar’s Jay; Spotted Towhee; Black-capped Chickadee and Northern Flicker. Every year I attend the breeding bird survey to learn from the experts and add five more to my list.
Technology has made learning birds much easier. Way back in 2001, I had to use a field book actually made of paper to identify birds! And the good ones were big and heavy! Now there are great apps and websites dedicated to learning birds, no matter what your experience (Merlin App for beginners, Audubon or Sibleys for intermediate/expert birders, E-bird for those ready to submit sightings or look up local lists or All About Birds by Cornell Lab of Ornithology for great life history info and the best bird cams).
Learning our local birds has added depth to all the other things I enjoy outside. This year I finally feel like I am putting it all together. Many times during this breeding season, I followed a sound I couldn’t recognize and been rewarded with the sight of baby birds peeping an unfamiliar song. As the season ends for yet another year, I can proudly say to my snickering friends that I am on my way to becoming a birder and can’t wait to add another five next year (tricky warblers). And I can also say that I have inspired friends, many of the snickering types, to join me along the way so be careful who you are calling a bird nerd!
Photo: Little baby Macgillvray’s Warblers cozy in a nest. By Veronica Woodruff.