I’m home now recuperating from the brain overload of all the new birds we saw and learned about at the Biggest Week in American Birding. (The event continues through May 14, so if you can possibly make it to the Toledo area, I highly recommend it.) Eric and I added several dozen new birds to our life lists, and went to a few educational presentations, and got lots of exercise in the fresh air. I can honestly say that was one of the best weekends I’ve had in years.
And we both agreed that our favorite part of the whole thing was this: We were walking the moderately crowded boardwalk in great weather on Saturday, when suddenly it started to rain. As we pulled up our rain hoods and tucked binoculars under our jackets, we noticed that almost everyone else was heading back to the parking lots. The rain grew harder, to what I’d call a heavy shower, and after a few minutes the boardwalks were practically deserted. We knew the birds would all take cover during the rain, but we continued out further into the marshes hoping to see something anyway. After 20 minutes or so, just when we were starting to feel foolish, the rain slowed and the warblers began singing all around us. It was like nothing I’d ever experienced before — our own private symphony performed by the prettiest little birds you could ever hope to see. At one point we looked at each other and both broke out into huge grins, because we realized how special the moment was, right as it was happening. If you’re not a bird person, this type of experience might turn you into one. Birds are such beautiful, amazing, and special creatures, and too often we take them for granted.
Now to answer the question posed above: Are we birdwatchers or birders? Most people don’t even know there’s a distinction, but in the world of birds it apparently matters to some people. Generally, it seems that a “birdwatcher” is less focused on keeping lists and identifying birds by sound — maybe more of a feeder watcher. “Birders”, on the other hand, are often thought to be more likely to travel to see specific birds and to place importance on their lists. There are differences of opinion on all this, and other bloggers have written about it too. After what I wrote about our experience this weekend, you might think we’re birders, right? Not so quick. Yes, we got very excited about checking off warblers on the list we were given at this festival, but I still feel like I enjoy watching and listening to them more than getting another species checked off on my list. So I guess I still feel like a birdwatcher.
We may end up traveling to more birding events, and I’ll continue to keep my personal list of birds I’ve seen, but I can’t imagine ever turning into one of those people who does a Big Year, racing around North America trying to get the highest species count for the year. Speaking of competitive birding, the book “The Big Year” is being released as a major motion picture this fall, starring Owen Wilson, Jim Parsons, Jack Black, and lots of other big stars. I wouldn’t be surprised if there’s an explosion of interest in birdwatching…or birding…after that movie comes out. I loved the book — if you want to find out what real obsession (and competition) are all about, this book will give you a very good picture. It’s almost unbelievable how these men were willing to go to any expense to win this competition, sometimes flying back and forth across the continent after getting a tip of a particular bird’s location. Really nuts, but fun reading.
A couple more thoughts about our experience at the Biggest Week: I can’t help but compare this birding event to the numerous knitting events I’ve attended over the past decade. At a large knitting event like a Stitches or Michigan Fiber Festival, it’s easy to see that there are thousands of people there. And while the numbers were similar at this birding event, the people are spread out in the woods and marshes, so it doesn’t have the same congested feeling. But at both knitting and birding events, you can recognize your fellow enthusiasts around town by your outfits: knitters wear hand-knitted clothing and carry tote bags, while birders wear vests with lots of pockets and have binoculars around their necks. Oh, and don’t forget “the” hat — seen at right. And let’s not forget the license plates of the most enthusiastic in both worlds: K2P1, K2TOG, and KNITZ for the knitters, and 4BIRDZ, BIRDFRK, and ICBIRD for the birders. The creativity never ceases to amaze me!
Ok, a couple more warbler pictures before I go….