Atop Hawk Mountain, Pa., 2010

Atop Hawk Mountain, Pa., 2010
Photo by R.E. Berg-Andersson

Monday, January 2, 2012

How to Look like an Expert

As a birder I consider myself an enlighted intermediate rather than an expert. Compared with the pros - the David Sibleys, the Pete Dunnes, the Kenn Kaufmans and Roger Tory Petersons - I am a rank amateur. But compared with my nonbinding friends I am a genius, the go-to person for identifications.

I know better. I was not born with this expertise. Where I grew up in Brooklyn I remember exactly five birds: robin, cardinal, jay, pigeon and “sparrow,” the common House Sparrow (which technically isn’t a sparrow at all but an Old World weaverbird that might’ve stowed away on the Mayflower). Since moving to the suburbs with my husband my bird universe has expanded, as did my curiosity about what was coming to the feeders.

When I didn’t know something I looked it up. As I bought different types of guides I learned more. As with anything you WANT to learn more about, the information stuck.
Then I would go out into the field and apply that knowledge to what I'd read. The more I went out, the more I learned and the more that made me curious, which would send me back to the books, etc., etc.

The problem today seems to be a population - we who grew up with television as a nanny and sedative and our kids and grandkids after - that is passive and wants to be told rather than be active and get a book and look it up or actually go outside in the cold and explore.

The Internet has prompted more activity, yes, but when it comes to learning something the Internet has a lot of information that is not necessarily true but still gets taken at face value.

I encourage you to question everything you read, including me.

Anyway, when I am talking to someone and the subject of birding somehow comes up, I usually get this:

“You’re a bird watcher? I saw this bird…”

I don’t know how birding became such a big deal but I find a lot more people at least interested in what they are seeing, if not the actual practice of taking a camera or binoculars out into the field. Like television, it is easier if someone tells you.

But I’m no genius, and usually when they have described what they’ve seen my curiosity is piqued enough to ask the following questions - questions you, too, can ask if you ever are in such a situation.

How big is it? As big as a robin, sparrow or other bird you see a lot more often?

Where was it when you saw it? In a tree? Flying over you?

Where were YOU when you saw it? Standing on a beach? Walking through a forest? Crossing the street?

After determining size and location, I move on to color. Was it a solid color or were there wing bars or speckling or a different color on the bird’s breast than on its back and/or wings?

What color was its bill? Was it thin and sharp like a starling or large and wide like a cardinal?

Was it all by itself or was it with others of its kind? Or was it with others more familiar to you?

Was it calling? What did it sound like to you?

Sometimes you can get stumped. At a recent party the hostess described a bird a guy pointed out to her that to me sounded exactly like a starling except for one detail - a green breast.

In this part of the world, bright green is not that common a bird color although there are many birds with greenish backs or flycatchers that are olive green. Bright green is more common a color on birds like parrots from the jungles and rain forests, where they can easily blend into the canopy.

(Many areas of the greater New York metro area have colonies of monk parakeets, which are bright green. But even tho’ they likely started out as someone’s pet that got loose, bred and eventually went feral, parakeets are easy to identify.)

Starlings have no green in them, but they are iridescent and if the light hits the right way they can look greenish or purple. My friend later emailed me a picture the guy had sent her and, yes, it was a starling.

More typically, after I go through all the questions and provide my best guess I get either “Wow. Interesting” or “Oh, well thanks.”

Kind of a letdown sometimes. But that’s how reputations are made.

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