Thursday, 20 September 2012

My Birdy Big Year

When looking back on things, whether it's a month, a season, or a year, it is in our nature, I think, to look for the high points. I had many high points this past year, too many to name, actually, but some stand out more than others and are worthy of being recounted in a year-end round-up fashion.

I knew going into 2011 that it was going to be a big year for me as far as birding was concerned, and I was right. The entire year has been a turning point in my birding career, and I feel like I have started to come into my own. Do I have lots more to learn? Sure, but that's a big part of the fun. Lots of details finally started to click for me this year, and I'm happy to say that I'm beginning to see a bigger picture. I don't see "just a bird" anymore, but also how the bird is connected to the habitat it uses, and how we are affecting those habitats (for better and for worse). I'm also paying more attention to bird behavior, and find myself continually asking "what does that mean? why are you doing that?" My own birding "philosophy" continues to evolve, which I will share at some point (I already have to a certain extent, when I wrote about the Emotional Life List), and I watch with curious interest some of the discussions other birders have about things like "what differentiates a birder from a bird watcher?"

A male Magnolia Warbler, captured and released at the New River Birding and Nature Festival, May 2011
The New River Birding and Nature Festival that I attended in May in West Virginia went a long way to expanding my bird knowledge. A full week of birding immersion was better than I ever could have imagined. I look forward to making a similar trip in May of 2012, this time up in Michigan. It will be a different set of birds, different habitat, different flora, but some of the same friends will be there, and I have no doubt the experience will be spectacular.

A Red-eyed Vireo fledgling, probably newly out of the nest the day this photo was taken.
Breeding pair of Orchard Orioles, a first-year male on the left and a female on the right.

Participating in the Ohio Breeding Bird Atlas this summer was also a fantastic experience that contributed to my growing avian knowledge base. This was an activity that I took part in largely on my own (as opposed to a festival or group birding outing), and it was empowering to be able to recognize and identify some new birds without assistance, as well as to find evidence of breeding either in the form of a nest, adults carrying food, or in some rare cases, fledglings that were not too many days out of the nest. I still remember the joy in my heart at finding several teeny Red-eyed Vireo fledges along the side of our road, and the great excitement at tracking down a begging Blue-winged Warbler on our neighbors' property and a whole party of begging Ovenbird babies just feet from my own front door! (A challenge for upcoming breeding seasons is to find an actual Ovenbird nest on our property, which is a tall order, as their nests are notoriously well-camouflage and difficult to find!)

A Great Egret flies over Meadowbrook Marsh near Lakeside, OH
The last big birding "event" for the year was the Midwest Birding Symposium (mark your calendars for September 19-22, 2013, when the symposium will be back at Lakeside, OH!), where I found myself with so much to do and see that although we went up to Lakeside a few days before the symposium even started, I still didn't get to visit all of the birding hotspots on my list. This time around we took part in the sunset cruise (we missed it when we went up in 2009), which was my first pelagic-style experience (although I'm not sure if riding a boat in the windy chop of Lake Erie really counts as pelagic cruise). I was surprised and pleased to see many birds at Magee Marsh at close range. Magee is known as a mecca for spring migrating birds (they rest there before crossing Lake Erie to get to Canada), but it is also obviously a good resting spot for them during fall migration as well.

The male of our nesting Eastern Phoebe pair after being banded.
Speaking of migration, another thing that I got a little more in tune with this year was the arrival patterns that define spring migration. Before breeding season even begins, it pays to listen to when the year-round-resident birds start to sing, sometimes as early as February. Likewise, I listen especially close every day starting in early April as I await the return of our nesting Eastern Phoebes. The Woodcocks also start moving into southeast Ohio in mid- to late April. Come the beginning of May, the floodgates open, the trees are flowering and new singers are added to the dawn chorus every day. Just thinking about it right now on a damp December evening makes me giddy!

Surprised?  Scared?  Happy?  Who knows what's going through this little Saw-whet Owl's mind here, but it was love at first sight for me!
 An especially poignant moment came on my birthday in early November, when I got to not only observe the banding of a Saw-whet Owl, but I even got to hold, "pet," and release the bird. You can read the full details of the experience HERE.

Yours truly giving a birding program at the Athens Public Library in January 2011.
 As I look forward to 2012, I anticipate a similar array of experiences, each with something new to teach me. I also hope to engage more with my local community, teaching them about birds and showing them why I think birds are awesome, and just maybe setting a foundation in place for a local birding group, which this town is sorely lacking. I dearly love my birding friends from other parts of Ohio and beyond, but I also want to make more birding friends right in my own back yard.

Here's wishing you all a very birdy 2012!


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