This is your trusty reporter checking in from the New River Birding And Nature Festival, where I have been embedded for a week into a platoon of birders. I am in full birder camo with binoculars and zip-off pants and have undergone training in birder posture, mouth agape and head cranked back in a position known to cause strokes in elderly people. There are plenty of birds that muck about on the ground but we seem to be focusing on warblers in the treetops. Sustained warbler-watching causes a painful condition known as “warbler neck.” (The development of streaky chin feathers is a whole different condition.) This can be alleviated with the purchase of a strap-on neck rest, which has the side benefit of maximizing dorkiness, by which solitary birders can recognize each other and possibly pair off.
In groups, birders tend to bunch up and point skyward, swiveling in unison like the coordinated tentacles of a sea anemone. Any individual tentacle may take responsibility for pointing out a “bird,” which is what they call indistinct flitting movements in the peripheral vision. After that the tentacles operate as a unit.
The group leader is responsible for conjuring up the birds, concentrating on “lifers,” or birds that someone doesn’t already have on his Life List of birds. “What do you need?” the leader will ask, and then track down the target birds somewhere in the vicinity. He or she does this through the use of alert ears and the same slack expression also noted in daydreaming students and schizophrenics. Once the target bird is located by ear, the leader draws him closer by means of an iPod playing the bird’s song, which compels the bird to get right up in his grill and point out that he’s trespassing. This may seem like cheating. That’s because it is cheating, but all the birders get a nice look, and the bird gets a “win” and a boost of confidence when the iPod shuts off.
This is known as “calling in” a bird, and, in fact, even at night, a group of birders can go out with an iPod set on “barred owl,” and, if everyone remains very quiet, call in another group of birders with an iPod set on “barred owl.” It’s marginally satisfying.
Most birders, even the ones not qualified to lead a group, know a lot about birds. Many a time I found myself locked onto a bird, helpfully squeaking “birdbirdbird,”
and someone would materialize behind me with a running narrative about the bird in question, like a proximity-animated audio tour in a museum. And some have specific areas of expertise. Susan Kailholz-Williams
, for instance, is in the raptor-rehabilitation business. Susan walks around with eagles on her wrist. Susan’s first inclination, upon spotting a mouse in her bathtub, is to go fetch one of her handy birds of prey to take care of the issue. If Susan, who has an enormous personality, only some of which is in her shirt, wants to impart some of her wisdom about birds, I intend to listen carefully and say ma’am, yes ma’am.
I was pleased once again to be in a beautiful Eastern deciduous forest, not as fernily voluptuous as an Oregon rain forest, but more diverse in many ways and more likely to host salamanders. There were drawbacks. The woods are not as dense as I’m used to, and a person has to hike a long way to be out of sight of the others. Who are, after all, scanning every inch of the territory with binoculars. So if you were to tip over while peeing (for instance), and gash your knee and soil your left shoe (say), there might not be anyone to help within earshot. (Theoretically.) However, it cannot be ruled out that you would be dead center in a spotting scope with a 30x magnification and under surveillance by a line of twenty fascinated people.
The bunching-up behavior of birders is best observed in a place like Cranberry Glades, a beautiful bog in which human traffic is confined to a narrow boardwalk. The birders bunch up at a warbler sighting, then break up and drift away only to bunch up later next to a waterthrush. Seen from above, and speeded up, they look like an embolism.
Another behavior that might be observed in a clot of birders is the tendency of one or more members to make a “pish-pish” sound in an effort to attract birds. (Collections of British gentlemen, although similar, are distinguished by their ascots and beaks.) So, to recap, we have a group of people behaving in concert like a sea anemone wearing dorky paraphernalia and sounding as though they have sprung a leak. We are not here to judge, people. Remember, birders are human, too, and they may well have a life list, but they do have a life. Also, a list.
I’m listless, but heaven help me, I’ve gone over. Now I’m going to be the person in the car in front of you slaloming over the highway with my head craned out the window looking straight up. Don’t give me that look, Miss Cell Phone Blabbypants.