Birding In The National Parks: Time To Pledge To Fledge
The time has come to "pledge to fledge," folks.
The coming weekend is Pledge to Fledge weekend, a grassroots movement by the Global Birding Initiative to inspire experienced birders to take non-birders out on a birding excursion.
Through these introductions, people will develop an appreciation for birds and nature, with many of them becoming casual birders. And we all know what happens to casual birders - they become serious birders, who then become whatever we call birders who drive 150 miles through raging blizzards to see a "possible" Slaty-backed Gull.
I’d like to see some folks piggyback this onto a pledge to get more people into the national parks. We’ve established how spectacular the birding is in many of our parks, so why not take someone on her first trip to a national park AND her first birding trip simultaneously. That’s killing two bir…oh, never mind. That’s a bad metaphor for this column.
Here's the actual pledge: "I pledge to actively share my enthusiasm for birds with non-birders by taking them into the field to show them birds and foster their own appreciation for birds whenever possible. I will strive to be friendly, patient, helpful, and welcoming when approached by ‘non-birders’ or asked about birds by acquaintances. I believe that individual birders, as part of an international grassroots movement, can effect positive and profound change for our shared birds and their future."
That's good stuff. And it works. I'd encourage everyone to check out the P2F website for ideas. The key to the pledge is that "whenever possible" part. It's nice to have an official weekend, but we should be taking non-birders out birding whenever we can. We should be friendly, patient, helpful, and welcoming to non-birding strangers we encounter every single time we go birding.
For me, one of the great pleasures of birding is that moment when a stranger walks up and asks if I'm looking at birds. I reply that I'm checking out a Sandhill Crane. The stranger gasps, saying she's never seen one. I point over her shoulder and tell her she walked past one within 30 feet of the boardwalk 90 seconds ago. That's a true story from several days ago, and things like that happen all the time.
I was interviewed on a local radio program last weekend about birding. It's a pet talk show, but they do a wild bird show every spring. One of the points I stress every time I'm on that show is how many different birds are right here in Ingham County, Michigan.
Ask a non-birder with a very casual appreciation for nature how many birds can be seen in a year in your local area. The answers will probably vary from a dozen to maybe 40 or 50. Depending on where you live, the actual answer could be almost ten times that number.
Here in Ingham County, the Big Year record is 228. That blows non-birders' minds. With very little effort and a cheap pair of binoculars, anyone could get a hundred birds in a suburban yard with a wooded area around here. For someone who thinks the only birds in the neighborhood are "crow, chickadee, robin, cardinal, woodpecker, sparrow, and blackbird," hearing that is a challenge. A casual birder is born.
With the whole P2F thing in mind, I want to stress one other thing. When taking a non-birder out, remember that you don't need to make it an excursion that would impress the likes of the late Roger Tory Peterson. Pick a spot with a lot of charismatic and fun birds. I call them ambassador birds, because they're good ambassadors for the hobby.
A vagrant sandpiper or a very early sparrow may be the stuff that gets birders' blood flowing, but those aren't the kind of birds that rock the worlds of the non-birder. By all means, if there's a vagrant sandpiper, scope it and tell its story. Talk about wrong-turns in migration, climate change, random chance. Just make sure you show (and allow) that same excitement for a close up of a Yellow Warbler.
I've been using Hooded Mergansers as ambassador birds around here lately. We have a trail system that runs along two local rivers connecting downtown Lansing, our zoo, a couple parks, and the Michigan State University Campus. It's heavy walked/jogged/biked. No one stops to look at the river. No one notices the absolutely absurd-looking duck floating by. At least not until they run past when I'm there.
A weird guy staring intently through binoculars at the river causes a percentage of the trail joggers to stop and inquire what I'm all about. Most of them have no idea what a Hooded Merganser is and are flabbergasted such a creature is commonplace on these streams.
Herons make great ambassador birds as they tend to stay in one place long enough to show them off. Warblers don't share that trait, but if you get one in the open, use that bird to recruit!
And then there's the ambassador of ambassadors: Bald Eagles are one of the most "in" of our inside birding jokes. Strangers love to come up to binocular-toting folks like us and tell us about a place we can go to see real live eagles. They aren't aware that Bald Eagles are conspicuous and easy to find over much of North America. So we smile and pretend to be excited about the information. At least I hope we do.
Dismissing a non-birder's enthusiasm about an eagle with a lecture on how common they are to birders is precisely the opposite of what we should be doing. Embrace eagle enthusiasm! Dare I say, take a non-birder out to see eagles. It is shocking to me how many people live near me in Michigan who have (as far as they know) never seen a Bald Eagle. Some of them have surely seen immature eagles and not known it. Most have just never looked in the right place at the right time. Namely, "up" and "whenever."
We all know how we can chase a nemesis bird for years, and then, after finally finding it, you start to see the bird regularly. The same thing happens with eagles. Show a newbie an eagle, and suddenly they notice them everywhere. Then a magical thing happens. That person starts caring more about pesticides in lakes, toxic lead shot, wetland destruction, and anything else that might hurt the beautiful birds turning up everywhere.
It can all start with an eagle. Or a duck. Or a warbler. Or a heron. It starts when we let someone into this world of ours and show them that birding is fun.