DUCKS: FOR A START

You’ve been a birder for a while now, and occasionally help identify birds for the less experienced members of your club. Not surprisingly (to those who have been there before you), the club president, field trip chair, or like personage has asked you to organize and lead a trip. If you are like many us, your initial reaction may be a mixture of satisfaction in having achieved this degree of acceptance, and reluctance at the prospect of being in the spot light. At first you decline saying you lack the necessary experience both as a birder and as a leader/teacher; but you’re asked again a few weeks later, and then again. In fact, it’s becoming increasingly difficult to refuse because you know the “new blood” in your club needs more time to develop and the old-timers (who taught you) have been shouldering more than their share for quite some time. For better or worse, you eventually agree. The good news is you get to determine where and when the trip should take place.

Obviously, you want to do a good job, or you would not have agreed to become a field trip leader. You also recognize this means doing more than just finding birds. It means helping those less experienced to learn how to find and identify birds, and how to share their finds with others. But where and how to start?

Many people, birders and non-birders alike, appreciate the beauty of birds. However, some of our most beautiful species, such as warblers, can be hard to see because they frequent the tops of trees, are in near constant motion, are only around a week or two at a time, their songs and calls are hard to learn, etc. Wouldn’t it be nice (not to mention convenient) if there were beautiful, showy, cooperative birds that are easy to identify?

Well, there are, and perhaps the most obvious group is breeding plumage male ducks. In fact, many non-birders already know at least one, the drake Mallard. So why not plan your trip for a time when good numbers of waterfowl are in your area?

If possible, schedule a pre-field trip mini-workshop to go over the species you hope to find. When I first did this, in the mid-1970s, I had to rely on my club’s incomplete slide collection. Today, with the advent of instructional birding software, we are not so limited. During much of the 1990s, I connected  my laptop to a TV monitor via hardware I had purchased. This worked, but the images were not the best. (This was not a big deal as the computer images were not that great.) Now I have access to a video projector which nicely beams the much improved software images onto a movie screen. Add some inexpensive computer speakers, and your audience can hear the birds, too.

A potential problem is that using commercial software this way without permission may be a copyright violation. However, every time I have sought permission from the manufacturer to use its software in this manner, permission has been granted. This should not be surprising since these workshops sell the software.

A point I stress during these workshops, especially with less experienced birders, is to ignore the harder to identify species until they are comfortable with the easier ones. Not only will there be lots of time for the others, but learning is necessarily a sequential process.

One advantage of waterfowl for newer birders is that they usually can be viewed through a spotting scope. Not only will this overcome a common beginner problem of poor binoculars, but it also makes locating the birds much easier. As such, you will want to have at least one scope on your field trip.

You probably own a scope, and it may work well for you. However, not all scopes are created equal, nor are all tripods. Unless your club is very unusual, your field trip will draw people of varying heights. In other words, regardless of how tall you set a spotting scope, it will not be convenient for everyone. Scopes with angled eyepieces present less of a problem in this regard, so many experienced trip leaders prefer these. But most important is the all-too-often ignored maxim that the scope height must be set for the shortest person. (Taller people can bend down, but shorter people are not likely to grow during your trip.) An even better approach is to arrange for three or four scopes which then can be set at different heights. If it is within the means of your club, having extra binoculars and various field guides for the use of trip participants can be very helpful. Remember, the only essential piece of birding equipment is good binoculars, and using poor ones is one the few ways of turning birding into a bad experience. It’s also helpful to let new birders field test different guides before they decide which buy.

Where you take your trip participants involves an analysis of the typical level of participant experience, the number of birders likely to attend, the potential birding locations in your area, the time of year, the likely weather, etc. If possible, try areas with small to medium ponds that allow observing the birds from elevated view points. For example, one of my favorite places to watch ducks is Bunker Pond in Cape May Point State Park at the southwestern tip of New Jersey. Along its south edge is an ten foot tall sand dune with a fenced pathway to the beach near the mid point of the Pond. From the top of this rise, virtually all of Bunker Pond can be viewed. Even better, to the west of Bunker Pond is the multi-tiered Cape May hawk watch platform. Again, virtually all of Bunker Pond can be seen from the platform, which is about ten feet above the water. In the early morning, I prefer the dune to avoid looking into the sun, but in the afternoon, the view from the hawk watch platform can’t be beat, particularly in the spring and fall when American and European Wigeon, Blue-winged and Green-winged Teal, Northern Shoveler, Ring-necked Duck, Ruddy Duck, Northern Pintail, American Goldeneye, Gadwall, Hooded Mergansers, etc., are in!

Another option is the coast, especially areas with jetties that can be walked upon safely. The added height will make it that much easier to view sea ducks riding the swells that can be present even on calm days. A favorite site of mine is Barneget Inlet State Park along the central Jersey shore where Harlequin Duck and Common Eider sometimes frolic with scoters, Red-breasted Merganser, and Long-tailed Duck. Avalon, in northern Cape May County, is site of the annual Cape May Bird Observatory Seabird Watch. Avalon was selected because it extends almost a mile farther east than the area immediately to the north, often causing the birds to pass close to shore. Don’t be surprised if in migration you see teal and Wood Duck mixed in the scoters and Long-tails.

Half a continent away, on the south Texas coast, is the South Padre Island Convention Center complex which features a board to the eastern edge of the Laguna Madre. In the ponds, look for various puddle ducks. On the Laguna, look for Redhead, Canvasback, and Red-breasted Merganser.

At the north end of Mustang Island, along the central Texas coast between Corpus Christi and Rockport, is the Port Aransas Birding Center. This fresh water area features a board walk and three story observation tower. This area can be especially good for Black-bellied Whistling-Duck, Cinnamon, Green-winged and Blue-winged Teal, Northern Shoveler, American Wigeon; and is where I had my closest look ever of a Fulvous Whistling-Duck (at my feet!).

The Birding Center is a good place to see another group of relatively cooperative, easy to identify birds: the waders. These birds (herons, egrets, bitterns, ibises, spoonbills, etc.), tend to be less showy than breeding plumaged male ducks, but are often even easier to observe because of their generally larger size and tendency to remain motionless while hunting. (Another advantage of waders is the video Watching Waders by Michael Male and Judith Fieth. Although not intended to instructional per se, it contains excellent footage of all ABA area waders and is generally enjoyed by birders and non-birders alike.)

Even if you advertise your trip as a beginners special, you will probably attract at least a few more experienced participants. If your trip is progressing fairly smoothly, you can begin to work with these people on identifying some of the slightly more difficult species, such as separating the young night-herons (by height and leg length if they next to each other, and by bill color even if they are alone). With time and a little experience, you’ll develop a feel for what your participants can handle, and locations such as those noted above are usually good for more challenging species as well.

An aspect of teaching birding that is underrated is the degree to which it improves the identification skills of the teacher. This is because you will have to address a wide range of questions (some of which may appear to come from far beyond the left field fence). By the time you have worked your way through this seeming mine field, you undoubtedly will have gained a greater appreciation of bird identification.

Although I have just scratched the surface, I hopefully have given you a sense of what to expect from introducing others to birding, and that you can do it. Just remember that as you gain experience, you will be better able to help others enjoy birding as well as improve your birding skills.

Mike Hannisian

3-17-02