There is an elephant in the room. Admittedly lots of birders talk about it but in secret, but it’s a shame that nobody ever tackles it collectively or takes a strong position stance as it presents a very worthy topic for discussion and learning opportunities.
Increasingly modern birders are including playback and mob calls in their digital toolkits. “Fundamentally, birding disturbs birds.” – David Sibley has addressed the issue of playback very well here. The mob call is not mentioned in this article, which is very different and being used more widely locally.
After birding for the better part of two years now and being privileged enough to bird with most of the top birders in the province, I’ve been exposed to all kinds of birding philosophies and techniques. I will say I trust the judgement and personal choices of experience birders so I’m not taking a poke at any of you, I’d tell you if I were 🙂
From day one I’ve had my own ideas about it though. At an early age, I learned that picking up the frogs and salamanders and taking them home for pets led to disaster not only from an angry mother, but the animals often died. As adults, we should know that our strong desire to connect with nature needs to be tempered with respect for the wild kingdom.
Most of us birders are guilty of “disturbing birds”. We can’t seem to help ourselves trying to get closer for the great shot and justifying seemingly harmless methods to get the edge. The lines between birder, bird photographer, and naturalist blur repeatedly in the field and among friends. We push the envelope largely to get that National Geographic worthy shot.
I’ve retreated a bit from birding recently as I fell into the twitching trap and chased some Western vagrant birds around. I always feel sorry for the birds (yes I heard the Yellow-billed Cuckoo was simply drunk on berries…LOL) when we do this but the temptation is so great to check lifers off the list.
Don’t get me wrong, the good majority of local birders are very concerned about the future of birds and wish to do no harm. But there is a contingent of newbies who have no idea of the consequence of their actions who could benefit from guidance in field practices. Where does the line get crossed? I believe if the bird is stressed or frightened or disrupted from it’s usual behavior then we have gone too far, and we know it and it sucks. Truly I think this is a discussion worthy topic.
Based on what I have learned and my early life experiences, I personally believe there is a case for limited use of mob calls or playback in the field for documenting species and locations depending on the circumstances and time of year. But surely having a lot of people blasting sounds indiscriminately at the birds (who already have enough problems from development, window strikes, climate change, cat predation, etc.) is not the best judgement.
It was an extremely exciting migration season here in Nova Scotia and it’s difficult to get any looks at the rarities without chasing them. I get it. I do it. I am just asking that we all (myself included) continue to check our conscience and if you don’t know what I am talking about at all make it a point to speak with a birder who has been observing birds in the field for many years for a balanced point of view. The less invasive we can be the better it will be for our fine feathered friends that we love so dearly.
Walking quietly has always netted the best birding results for me. My new canine pal Macy is a fine companion in the field when she’s on leash. We have sat quietly together and waited for the birds to come to us and I’ve gotten some great photos. Admittedly sometimes she ruins the photos but she is “in training” and we have many years ahead to improve.
Most of the best wildlife and birding photographers stress that you will get better looks at the critters if you wait until they come to you instead of chasing them. Interesting as well that some of the best birders only carry binoculars and a notepad. The world before digital was not that long ago and we should not lose our core birding skills in the frenzy of nabbing the best photos.
As for twitching, I’ve heard a few people say “imagine what we are missing?”. If you are out chasing other people’s birds, you will miss the opportunity to find your own. And that first sighting the initial observer had, well it only comes once and they got it.
Everyone will do their own thing and I respect that and enjoy the company of all my friends here in our wonderful birding community. For me, I will continue to focus on learning about habitat and microhabitat (which is key for finding vagrants). Next Spring and Fall I’m going to try to cover more territory to find my own birds, probably with my good friend Macy in tow although there are times she needs to sit it out for sure.
There are many native birds I’ve yet to check off my list. So, that should keep me busy this winter. Black-backed Woodpecker and Northern Goshawk are just two that have eluded me so far that I’d like to get good looks at, and perhaps a nice photo of course.
So, dialing it back. I’m also resetting my immediate goals to try to get better photos of repeat species. I have no decent photos of a Horned Grebe or Green-winged Teal for example. Both relatively common but beautiful subjects worthy of more attention.
Anyway, this has been on my mind to bring up for a long time but it’s an extremely controversial topic which can heat up conversations quickly. Perhaps better for pondering. And if you decided to speak to me about it at the AGM, perhaps see how many glasses of wine I’ve had first?
Seriously, we have an amazing birding community I will step off the soapbox now and look forward to continuing to spend time with all our good folk.
What are your winter birding goals btw?
Angela & Macy (bird dog in training)