Redux: Who Are the Next “Great” Birders?

The next era of birding will be ushered in by a new crop of great birders. Who will they be?

This post originally appeared in August of 2010 on my old Birds, Words, and Website blog, during a time of shifting and upheaval in the birding community. I revived it here on NTN as a guiding light for the future of birding.

In a January blogpost, I proposed the following:

“Birders and nature enthusiasts: I propose we collaborate on an important mission: spread the accessibility of nature. Make it knowable to someone who hasn’t yet discovered it. Vow to take as many of your uninitiated friends as possible into the out-of-doors this year. Show them what you see and hear, help mend that disconnect…”

Birders gather to spot gulls at the Midwest Birding Symposium.

This weekend I took a group of beginning birders out to watch birds. They were friends of mine, people with a curiosity of birds but who hadn’t ever received the benefit of an one-on-one introduction to local birds.

I enjoyed that weekend field trip. Besides collectively basking in the brilliance of a Blue-winged Warbler, I was able to give back in a way that so many friends and guides have done for me. And I didn’t have to wear, or pretend to wear, the mantle of “Expert.” I was just Laura, showing her peeps some birds.

Teaching kids birding

I’m sympathetic to beginners, they were me not so long ago – they still ARE me every time I venture into new habitat! But much of what I know today, I owe to the instruction of patient bird guides over the years. I never take for granted the gracious help offered by someone more knowledgeable than me about birds. Anyone with curiosity deserves someone who will teach them.

Beginning birders—those with a thirst for knowledge but a world of birding yet to learn—have it tough.

First, we don’t know the possibilities yet – there is an overwhelming amount of information about birds to absorb and apply but it takes a long time to be confident in what we know.

Second, it takes a long time to earn a sense of our own limitations in bird identification. Ironically, it sometimes happens that once we DO feel a sense of confidence in something, our assumptions are premature and overreaching, and we make a bad call. That hurts.

Third, beginners enter the birding scene and are told there is a certain way to do things, from describing field marks to reporting trip lists. If we do it wrong, or do it in the wrong place, the error is revealed by awkward silence or direct reproach. While there’s a need for precision and accuracy when it comes to the scientific record, there’s a time and place for it.  Rigid protocols in more casual settings (even listserves) can have a chilling effect on outsiders who aren’t in the know.

Beginners soon sense what really goes on in birding circles: the catty judgment about who knows what more than who and embarrassment over bad calls and misunderstandings of bird distribution. Some segments of birding operate like an exclusive country club where the cost of entry is not piles of cash, but loads of birding cachet. But who does that leave behind – and what is the cost?

Regrettably, we’ve all seen the enthusiasm of novice birders stamped out by the corrective whoop-di-doo of birding hotshots. We’ve seen dialogue on listserves squelched by those who assert that backyard sightings and tangential birding trivia has “no place on this list.” We’ve seen legions of birders too afraid to ask questions for fear of being wrong, stupid, clearly “not a REAL birder.”

Yet even if someone can’t identify every warbler in the forest or sandpiper on the shore, they can still contribute mightily to the world of birding. The growing field of citizen science—where every day birders collect bird data and submit it to scientists—is one example. The legions of volunteers who run small nature centers and birding clubs is another.  Anyone with the curiosity, passion, and cooperation to get involved should be welcomed, their talents harvested.

Around every corner, we hear chatter of declining memberships in birding organizations. The old guard is making way for the new, but the new is nowhere to be found. Birding is as relevant today as it ever was—indeed more so due to the rapid pace of habitat destruction that threatens populations plus all the tools, gadgets, and electronic accoutrements that help us dive deeper into its fascinating minutia.

This burgeoning public interest is reflected in the media. Newspapers are supporting bird-watching columns in a number of states, best-selling books such as The Big Year by Mark Obmascik and Life List by Olivia Gentile chronicle the birding lives of our most rabid members. As I write, Hollywood crews in Vancouver, BC are filming scenes from a screenplay based on The Big Year, with the birding behavior of our own friends (e.g., Greg Miller, an Ohio birder and character in the book) being “studied” by actors Jack Black and Owen Wilson.

So now that Hollywood and Harcourt are hot on our trail, what are we going to do with the increased visibility?

By nurturing the spark of new birders, we create a win-win: either we have new birders coming up the ranks of birding clubs and conservation organizations, or at the very least, we help nurture an understanding and appreciation of the natural world–one that will inform a person’s decisions the rest of their life.

Kids birding at Cache River NWR by Friends of the Cache River Watershed

USFWS

A nurturing birding ethic leads to a broader conservation ethic.

I would like to see each of us commit to being an ambassador for the birds—you do not need an official pulpit or loads of birding cachet to be am ambassador. Just realize the power that you have to spread the joy of birding.

Let’s create a birder’s welcome wagon of epic proportions and refine the hospitality of the sport. A number of small but important efforts will help:

  • We commit to teaching nonbirders about birds. Teaching others is not only for the “experts,’ any birder can do it. You don’t need to know every bird in the forest; just take friends into the field and show them what you see and hear. The beauty of birds speaks for itself and you’re sure to impress. To reach new birders, link up with your local birding club’s “new birder” trips or organize your own—just do it.
  • We talk to kids about birds. Offer to go into your local school(s), lead a field trip, teach a grandchild, or simply read a short bird book. The awareness you create will have a ripple effect.
  • We offer to write an article for a local paper or website. If you have a gift for words, offer to write a short piece on seasonal migration, local birding hotspots, or anything to engage beginners in the sport.
  • We make an effort to show nonbirders the view through our scopes. If we’re excited by what we see, they might be, too.
  • We come up with a better name for “nonbirder.” The term is harsh and inaccurate. Even without a khaki vest and Tilley hat, most people watch birds to some degree. “Beginning birder” is fine, but it’s a mouthful and it implies too much. I like the ring of “early birder,” as in “early in your birding career” but it may not be spot on.
  • Speaking of floppy hats: We stop dressing like geeks. A growing number of birders I know lament our choice of field dress as being so geeky as to be unapproachable. Others are on a mission to ban khaki across the sport! To each his own, but the idea is this: does anything about your dress make you seem unapproachable in the field?
  • We stop being cliquish. Why do so many serious birders exclusively hang out with other serious birders? Too much exclusivity can hasten one’s irrelevance. We bring others, especially younger birders, into the fold. We talk to others on the boardwalk. We lean over and say “Did you see that?” to someone outside of our circle once in a while.
  • We go out of our way to make new birders feel welcome–in the field, on the phone, in the backyard, on the listserv. We let them know it’s okay to ask questions. Rather than remain quiet, we reach out after they’ve shared something cool; we demonstrate that we relate to their enthusiasm.
  • We moderate the moral melodrama about how humans are wrecking the environment and harming birds. New birders don’t want us to harsh their new-birding mellow.
  • We freely admit our own mistakes and gracefully accept those of others. Beginning birders need to understand that the truth of an ID is to be held higher than all other truths, even that of a fragile ego, and all birders need to demonstrate gracious self-correction. I’ve seen many great examples of this in the field, but beginners are often stunted by the perception of quiet, unspoken judgement. So by sharing a story of our own fallibility, we make birding more human, more accessible, and start to change the world.

The next era of birding will be ushered in by a new crop of great birders. Whereas we commonly measure a Great Birder by his or her skills in bird identification and insights into changing bird populations, our assessment should broaden to include “softer” skills such as enthusiasm, approachability, and level of cooperation.

Many of us are fortunate to have brushed with such great birders – their imprints last a lifetime. While scholars will always hold a special place in birding, a broadened definition of “great birder” will help ensure a new generation of recruits is around to carry the baton.

Kids: The future of Honduras

Acknowledgements

In appreciation of Jane Goodall’s “feathers on the eagle” analogy, I’d like to pay special recognition to a number of individuals with whom I’ve held discussions on the future of birding: Mike Powers of Feather and Flower, Jeff Bouton of Leica, Richard Crossley, author of The Shorebird Guide, Bill Thompson, III of Bird Watcher’s Digest, the staff at Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Chip Clouse and Dick Ashford of American Birding Association, Iain Campbell of Tropical Birding, and Patty Kocinski of the Rochester Birding Association. Special thanks to the new birders in my life, too. What a great day of spring birding we had.

Also read:

If you enjoyed the spirit of this piece, you may also want to read Inclusiveness by Kenn Kaufman.

Have a link to add? Post in the comments and I’ll add it here.

 

Leave a Comment

  • Kirby Adams February 7, 2014, 10:56

    I agree wholeheartedly with the Welcome Wagon suggestions. Back when this was first posted, I was a neophyte birder with only a year of birding under my belt. My wife and I were enthusiastic, but we ran into plenty of condescending and generally unwelcoming individuals. Luckily for us, (I’m too humble to say this is lucky for the birding community as a whole!) we didn’t let it get us down. When a condescending remark or cold shoulder was thrown my way, I just thought “your loss” to myself and moved on. I was bullied for many years as a school kid, so I don’t give that crap the time of day as a 40ish-year-old.

    Now, my name is somewhat known in local and even national birding circles – not because I know what the heck I’m doing in the field (I still don’t…yet)- but because I talk a lot. I’m writing for blogs, writing for the ABA, writing for Michigan Audubon, jumping into online discussions. I write better than I bird, so my contribution is ambassadorial. I try to get people excited and make them feel welcome.

    In 2010 I went to a prominent birding spot and encountered a prominent birder. I asked the cliched, but time-honored question: “Anything exciting today?” I received a grunt. I talked a bit more and the grunts turned into a literal cold shoulder turned in my direction. I walked away and a friend of mine visiting from across the country approached the birder and got exactly the same treatment. Ten minutes later two more birders approached the original one and received a back-slapping, high-fiving welcome. Apparently we weren’t in the clique. I looked down at my $250 binoculars. Maybe if I’d had Swarovskis?

    If my skin had been thinner, that incident alone might have led me to not bother anymore. Luckily there were other times. Michael Retter, wearing a Tropical Birding hat at the time, guided a tour of Ottawa NWR during the Biggest Week festival. He looked through my dirt-cheap little scope at an obvious Canvasback and told me what it was and why. Pretty much everyone else there had good equipment and were better birders than my wife and I, but we didn’t feel the least bit marginalized. Michael was carrying a Nikon scope that day, so I went out and bought one, taking the next step up the birding ladder.

    I’m wildly optimistic about the future of birding, and it isn’t the same kind of forced optimism I have about the preservation of biodiversity and other issues rife with bad news. I truly believe birding is poised to become something better than it’s ever been. The under-40 birding crowd is, with very few exceptions, exceptionally welcoming. They don’t take themselves too seriously, they take conservation and ethics very seriously, and they welcome diversity. When my wife (a better birder than I in many ways) and I approach some seasoned birders, it’s typical for the birder to address me alone with “seen anything good?”, ask me alone for confirmation of a bird, and give directions solely to my face. That kind of sexism, even if largely inadvertent, is disheartening to young women. (Not to mention angering.) We rarely (never?) see that in the young crowd. We also never have a problem zipping around with an openly gay birding friend. Sadly, all my birding friends are white, so I need to work on that one. But I have no doubt any birder of color would feel right at home in this crowd. Newbies? The crowd of highly-skilled 20-something birders I often hang with will be literally falling over each other to be the one to personally guide the beginner. Showing someone why a Brown Thrasher isn’t a Veery can be as exciting as finding your first-of-year Canada Warbler.

    Occasional public grumbling aside, I think the future is bright for birding. And that can’t help but make the future a little bit brighter for birds.

    Reply
  • Laura Kammermeier February 7, 2014, 11:53

    Hi Kirby,

    So good to hear your thoughts on the 40-and-under crowd! Fascinating!

    What I like most about your story is that it demonstrates a two-way street that’s as important in life as in birding.

    My post encourages highly skilled birders to have an encouraging attitude towards others. But it’s just as important for a new birder to not take things personally, to let negative experiences slide off like water on a duck’s back (pardon the bird metaphor). The truth about birders is that the overwhelming majority are kind, decent, and welcoming.

    I think the bottom line I like to make is that one doesn’t have to be an expert to be an important ambassador.

    I think the American Birding Association made a great move in this direction by the creation of the Betty Peterson Award for Conservation and Community. That award “will recognize those who, like Betty, expand, diversify and strengthen the birding community, or who work – perhaps behind the scenes – to build a support network for conservation. The focus of this new award is less on ornithology, per se, and more on the effective application of skills that support and connect people.”

    http://blog.aba.org/2014/02/announcing-the-2014-aba-awards-winners.html

    Reply
  • Denis Cleary February 7, 2014, 18:17

    I love this post, Laura! So glad you put it up again (missed it the first time). And Kirby, your comment was a terrific addendum–thanks for sharing your thoughts.

    I wish I could share the enthusiasm you both have for the future and demographics of birding, and I truly hope that you’re right and that my experiences and are atypical and my impressions off-the-mark (I live in NJ and until recently worked for a statewide conservation organization). While there are often exceptions, generally what I see are largely older crowds on birding trips and some real excitement and enthusiasm coming from the pre-high school age group, but then a noticeable drop-off in participation from high school through child-rearing years. And yes, I’ve seen my fair share of arrogance and elitism on the trail, but so have I seen welcoming and inclusion–but unfortunately not nearly enough. So the “Birder’s Welcome Wagon” concept to me is insanely great. Please make it so.

    I sold birding optics for many years, so I’ve had the pleasure to have sold many “first” binoculars as well as many “last” (high-end) binoculars (spotting scopes are usually a one-time, “first & last” purchase). From my experience many first time buyers are too intimidated to go on local birding trips, believing (incorrectly) that they are for the “elite” birder and that a newbie would be a drag on the group (while that does happen it’s not the norm). Despite my steadfast assertions to the contrary, it was always a difficult argument to win (of course introversion and shyness were factors as well). So you have a fair number of bins that never leave the backyard; birding skills and interest plateau, and we lose future birding trip/festival/tour participants (and high-end manufacturers lose future customers). This hurts everyone, but we’d retain more of them if we truly implemented Laura’s Birding Welcome Wagon.

    I’m heartened by the burgeoning New Nature Movement which started with a focus on children but has expanded to include all ages. This movement, combined with the almost-daily barrage of research studies proving the mental and physical benefits of turning off, shutting down, and going out, will hopefully lead to more people outdoors and a larger pool of potential birders. (My current focus is promoting the concept of “nature optics”–binoculars to enrich the nature experience, not necessarily birding–and my hope is that more people with binoculars will ultimately lead to more birders).

    There’s work to be done for sure, but I have to say that Laura’s post and Kirby’s comment made me more hopeful that the change we seek will actually happen. Thanks!

    Denis Cleary

    Reply
    • Kirby Adams February 7, 2014, 19:54

      New Jersey? There’s your problem right there, Denis!

      I jest, of course. I’ve never birded the Garden State, but hope to soon as several birders out there have invited me. I’ve heard tales of a grumpy and crusty unwelcoming crowd at Cape May, but we have spots that seem to be gathering sites for the same type of people here in Michigan. I don’t know what’s up with that.

      Let me clarify one thing about demographics. On any given local Audubon walk or Michigan Audubon statewide field trip, the make-up is old and white with few exceptions. Women are well represented, but if you’re under 55 or have anything other than a moderate tan, you stand out like a jaeger in the desert. And, frankly, I avoid those events because it seems like a young person (I’m 40, but pass for a healthy 38) has to prove himself before he’s allowed to have an opinion. Sarah(32)and I were on a walk in Arizona last summer and she was getting completely dissed by everyone except the guide – until the guide started enlisting her help to get on and ID some birds since he recognized right away how sharp she is at leaf-canopy birding. Then one of the participants, a woman, asked Sarah if she’d learned all of her skill from me. Keep in mind, I’d kept my mouth shut the entire hike and demonstrated no skill whatsoever. I thought Sarah was going to kick that lady right off the canyon wall. So, I think on many (not all, by any means)organized walks there is a culture of sexism and ageism that is keeping the demographics monotone.

      When I talk about the bright future I see, I’m talking about college kids packing 5 people in a 1997 Honda Accord and driving four hours to a rarity. And then being the ones at the rarity to engage non-birders (best term I have…sorry, Laura!) who stop to ask what’s going on. College birding clubs are catching on, at least here in Michigan. Young birder groups are popping up in every state. So perhaps the traditional Audubon walk isn’t going to be the vehicle of change. I think it might be the person with the bins on the nature center trail who smiles rather than scowls at a family with a young child making noises that make Yellow-headed Blackbirds sound melodious.

      I think mid-20’s through child-rearing years will always see a decline. If we had kids, I sure wouldn’t be birding every day of the week! But I think good experiences before that will carry on at least partially through those years.

      I like your “nature optics” concept. I know a lot of people at our botany club walks carry high-end bins to look at ground plants without constantly stopping over. Not to mention how bins make great magnifying glasses for examining moss when you use them backwards. I’ve also talked to several recent “converts” to birding from herping who say their herping is far more enjoyable now that they have bins in the car. Anything that enhances the experience with nature…

      Reply
      • Denis Cleary February 8, 2014, 10:44

        Thanks, Kirby.

        You should definitely come to Cape May and its environs at some point. I could probably put names to some of the crusty grumps you’re likely to bump into, but as you say in your comments you’ll also find plenty of extremely friendly and knowledgeable folks eager to share with you their passion for birds to the extent you want and need it. You will have a grand time (I worked and live significantly north of CM but have traveled there many times).

        I haven’t seen it yet but I’m hopeful that the new film “A Birder’s Guide to Everything” (Google if you haven’t seen the trailer yet), coming next month, is a runaway hit and attracts lots of young people (of all ages) to birding. I’m sure elitists will nitpick (the last line of the trailer is open to question) but overall I’m hoping it’ll be great advertising for birding.

        Denis

        Reply
        • Kirby Adams February 8, 2014, 11:39

          Yeah, I cringed at the last line in the trailer, but if that’s the worst thing in there, that ain’t too bad. There could be more context to that too.

          Reply
  • Kurt Grenig February 5, 2016, 12:59

    Great read, thanks. It really hit home this morning, especially experiencing some of the same things in birding cliques recently. Had to share.

    Reply
  • Gary S. November 8, 2016, 21:58

    Hi Laura,

    Excellent stuff. I especially like the welcome wagon list. Do you know if anyone has implemented some or all of these items within their group?

    Reply