Atop Hawk Mountain, Pa., 2010

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

Sunday, May 8, 2016

The Good, the Bad, the Birding in the Rain

April is the cruelest month, breeding lilacs out of the dead land, mixing memory and desire, stirring dull roots with spring rain.
-- T.S. Eliot, "The Waste Land"

Well, what about May?
-- Margo D. Beller

Thanks to Omega Blocks and riding lows and the other technical jargon weather forecasters like to throw at us, it has seemed more like Seattle than New Jersey so far this May. Rain, clouds, drizzle, cold. We've had to put the heat on again and use two quilts on the bed some nights.

Lord knows we need the rain to fill a major deficit, but why May? Why not April, when the showers were supposed to bring May flowers?

Whippany River, Patriots Path, May 7, 2016 Note the raindrops. (Margo D. Beller)
So it has been raining. And that has slowed down the northbound migration of the birds. But migration hasn't stopped and I have been seeing too many reports of warblers, tanagers and other passerine (perching) birds making their way to the various regional hotspots - Central Park in New York, Garrett Mountain and Great Swamp in New Jersey, among many others.

It was making me miserable. My free time during the week has been taken up by a number of things - starting with WORK - and I have been unable to get out to find some of these wonders. Recently, the weekends have been busy.

Finally, free time opened up Saturday and out I went - later than I had planned and wetter than I wanted it to be.

I don't know of any birder who likes birding in the rain. For one thing, it is hard to use your binoculars to look for movement in treetops. When the rain isn't making a branch twitch as though a yellow warbler is on it, the water is blurring your vision. And let's not forget the mud under your feet depending on where you happen to go.

Local knowledge is extremely helpful. So when the light drizzle started getting much harder, I knew that where I was going - part of a linear park known as Patriots Path that is lined with gravel, minimizing water ponding and muck - was going to be ok to bird in my sneakers rather than putting on heavy boots.

I was extremely lucky that day. Many, many birds were calling even though it was many hours past dawn. Maybe birds like singing in the rain, or they didn't realize time was passing because the clouds obscured the sun. Whatever, they were singing and since I had to depend on my memory and my hearing I had a fine time noting the many birds out there.

Another benefit - I was alone. The exception was a woman who opened her car door and two giant yellow labs bounded out, barking, and ran to me. Don't get me started on how much of a pain it is to encounter an unleashed dog in a park as I am seeking birds. The dogs scared off the hooded warbler that had just started singing close enough for me to touch. I was trying to find it when they arrived. I yelled at the owner, who quickly leashed the dogs and took them up the trail and into the woods.

Patriots Path itself. One of the few really wet areas, despite the crushed stone below.
(Margo D. Beller)
I went the other way. The only person who passed me was a man, in full rain gear, on his mountain bike. I expect he ran into the woman with the dogs and can only hope she kept them on the leash once out of my sight so they didn't charge him.

Aside from that, it was me and the birds.

Birding in the rain can be tricky. Besides the discomfort of being soaked to the skin, looking up for land birds is difficult. There was the time we got caught in a downpour at Prime Hook in Delaware. Luckily we found a lean-to and waited for a letup that never happened. We might've heard a sparrow of some kind but otherwise, nothing.

Once we were in Chicago only for a very short time and wanted to bird some of the big areas near Montrose Beach on Lake Michigan. It rained our one day there and it kept up when we got off the closest El stop and only got harder as we walked to the lake, the famous wind making the rain hit us sideways, our umbrellas nearly useless. A birder in shorts and sandals (wisely, no umbrella) ran up and asked if we were looking for the common loon that had been reported. "We're all loons here, brother," I thought but did not say. (No, we did not see the loon, which is very common in New England, where we've seen it many times, but not in the midwest.)

Not only were we completely soaked, but so were the contents of my knapsack, despite my attempts at protection. That was the worst "birding in the rain" experience we've had. Thank you, Windy City.

Great Blue Heron (R.E. Berg-Andersson)
Not every rain experience is bad, however. We wanted to visit Pea Island in the Outer Banks of North Carolina. I'd read a volunteer gave free tours on only one day. That day it poured. MH said, they won't hold this. We went into the office and there was the volunteer, ready to go, whether anyone showed up or not. We and one other couple went out with him but the other couple quickly bailed.

He set up his scope atop one of the dikes and we had a wonderful time observing water birds not disturbed at all by the rain - great blue herons, great and snowy egrets, white ibis and the usually reclusive American bittern among many. Looking straight out rather than up was a big help.

Rain doesn't bother water birds. And as I learned the other day, rain doesn't bother land birds singing without stop because they are intent on setting up territories and finding a mate to continue the species.

Still, I hope my next big bird outing is in sunshine.

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