Road Trip USA Week 3, Birding Experiences in General
As we left Kansas City to begin our journey to the California Coast via Colorado, Utah and Nevada we stopped at one of the best birding sites in North America, the Cheyenne Bottoms. This is an in land drainage wetlands that fills during the rainy season and then the water level drops during the dry season. Like the Okavango Delta in Southern Africa is becomes an important breeding place for fish and other water organisms, again attracting secondary feeders like birds and reptiles. This area then like the Everglades in Florida becomes an important nature conservation area. The U.S.A. is good at protecting such areas and also in making them user friendly with good road networks, walkways, viewing platforms and information boards. While fishing and hunting is allowed in certain areas and in season it has become a prime venue for birders. Some of the nearby birding areas had been closed due to the heavy rains but the Bottoms was open and we soon were delighted to see and photograph our first American Avocet, a really stunning bird.
Birders make up a strange group of people who speak a language that is a mystery to normal people. Audrey and I have learnt a new language that is known only to those who are fully initiated into the Birding fraternity. Terms such as ‘pishing”, “twitching”, ”bird party”, “primary coverlets”, “atlassing”, “upper wing plan”, “vagrant”, ”jizz”, may or may not appear in dictionaries, but not often with the meaning they have to a group of “birders” dressed in brown or khaki, stalking through the bush, swamp or jungle with binoculars hanging around their necks, looking and listening for “lifers”.
Some new sayings have also been coined such as “a bird in the bush is worth another look” and “birds of a feather are probably of the same species”. To be accepted as a birder you have to have a life list of at least 500 different birds and be able to tell the difference between a Karoo Pipit and a Mountain Pipit even if you have never been to the mountains or the Karoo. Anyway to be able to list 500 kinds of birds (out of the S.A. list of about 950) you will have needed to have visited both the mountains and the Karoo. If you happen to be lucky enough to spot a Karoo Pipit call me immediately so that I can come and see it as I don’t have it on my life list.
Identifying birds is not an easy task and I have heard a couple of expert birders argue for several minutes and even days about the species of a particular raptor that we all saw quite clearly on the fence next to the road. “It is obviously a Forrest Buzzard”, stated expert number one with great authority. “No it’s an immature female Steppe Buzzard” said expert number two with equal authority, can’t you see the slightly lighter feathers around the lower part of its chest” and so ending the discussion. “No”, chirped in expert number three,” it’s actually a molting Honey Buzzard in its third year, you can clearly tell by its slightly larger size”. How in the world does poor little I have a chance to ever reach the expert status of these men and women?
My brother Paul and his wife Jenny have a method of identification that seems to work pretty well at times. Jenny was the first person I saw who goes on holiday with a briefcase full of bird books and you will soon see why. On spotting a new bird Paul will immediately say with authority, “it’s a Karoo Pipit” to stick with that illustration. Jenny will then say,” but Paul what about the slight contrast between the upper and lower mandible and I think the eye stripe is too well defined”. So the discussion will go back and forth with many of Jenny’s books being consulted. Eventually they will usually agree that Paul was right in the first place. Not because Paul stands at 6 ft 6inches in his socks, but because he has a good eye for detail and an uncanny ability to usually be right in his first diagnosis.
Some birds look so similar that they can only be told apart by their call. Shortly after taking up this new interest my mentor, Graham Winch (a birder of note) told me that any serious birder has be able to identify the difficult species by call. So I dutifully purchased the tapes/C.D.’s with the calls of all 950 birds of Southern Africa and began listening to and memorizing them. Soon I could in fact identify quite a few of the easier ones like the African Fish Eagle, the Brown hooded Kingfisher and the Hadeda Ibis. This is however mainly because the Fish Eagle appears on an advert for some type of whiskey, I forget what kind. The other two appear in our garden on a daily basis and so their calls are often heard and easily remembered.
This did not really help with identifying a Coud Cisticola from a Desert Cisticola, who from all photos and drawings in the handbooks look completely identical and were the only diagnostic difference is the “Slightly spatulate tail” of the male Desert Cisticola. The Desert types range also overlaps into the Cloud type in case you are thinking location would obviously be the easy answer and as strange as it may seem the Cloud Cisticola is not found in the clouds. The secret is in the call. The cloud species calls ‘chich-chich –chich’ and the desert one’zink-zink-zink’. The other clue to identifying these two species is that one snaps its wings as it descends from its mating display and the other does not, and for the life of me I cannot remember which one does what.
Audrey and I were lying in our beds the other morning listening to the ‘dawn chorus’, another new term to the uninitiated, when we both ‘twitched’. This may conjure up some strange images in your mind but in birding parlance it simply means we froze and paid full attention to the appearance either visibly or vocally of a bird, that is either rare (a big tick), or one we have never seen/heard before (a lifer). The bird we heard from outside our window was definitely’ a lifer’ as we had never heard this call before. As I jumped up to fetch the tape recorder to check out the 950 calls carefully recorded for just such an occasion, Audrey tried a different and possibly more practical and useful approach – she looked out of the window! The problem of this new sound was soon solved when she noticed that our neighbor had put out a cage with some kind of canary in it and it was indeed singing beautifully. I searched for it for quite a long time on the sound tapes before I remembered that they did not give calls of birds imported from Asia and so we could not even add it to our life list. It is actually tempting to sometimes cheat in this way but caged birds are not permitted, according to the unwritten laws of birding.
In case you are dying to know, my South African life list stands at 512. I think can identify about 30 birds reasonably well by their calls. We will however have to do a trip to the Karoo soon to listen for the Cloud and Desert Cisticolas, who have to date avoided making it onto our lists.
During our trip in the U.S.A. we added about 150 new birds to our world life list and some of them were what can be considered mega ticks. The Trumpeter Swans in Wyoming, the Sandhill Cranes and Magnificent Frigate Bird in Florida and the rare Snail Kite found only in the Everglades would be in that category. The extremely rare Whooping Cranes that we were fortunate to see on the Texas coast would probably rate as our biggest tick at present! While this road trip was not really a birding trip I have to admit that as I surfed the net in the planning stage, the 20 top birding spots on my list did help to lend focus to the route.