Skip to main content

The Catbird Seat: What I Don’t Like About Birding

By Pete Dunne, Illustration by Jeff Sipple
Pete Dunne talks about birding

Related Stories

Did you ask me if there was anything I don’t like about birding?” I inquired. The person in the audience nodded. “Can’t think of a blessed thing,” I said.

Well, I lied. Having given the subject more thought, I have come up with three aspects…maybe situations…that I do find borderline irksome. I relate them here not because I’m a sour old curmudgeon who takes exception to the most innocuous things—which is true, but that’s not the point. I draw attention to these minor avocational foibles.

Birder After the Fact

Picture this. You’re standing on the hawk-watch platform at Cape May. There’s an adult male Peregrine Falcon soaring so close you can smell the ptarmigan on his breath. It is stunning. It is rod-and-cone searing. It is precisely the moment some benighted soul sticks the back of a camera in your face and starts scrolling through images of the bird that is still overhead.

First off, I’m farsighted. Without reading glasses (which I don’t wear in the field), I can’t see images closer than arm’s length. But more to the point, why would anyone think that a rendering of a bird is more engaging than the real bird in real time?

I get it, of course. Somebody has captured a great image and is eager to share it. But it’s just an image! And, unlike the circling bird, it’s not going anywhere. After the bird is on its way to Bermuda, then by all means share your portrait shot with me. Or, better yet, send the image as an email attachment. At which point I’ll have my reading glasses on and will actually be able to see it!

Tantalus Syndrome

If image capture makes some birders retro-focused, there is another faction of birders who appear terminally forward thinking. I’m talking about birders whose attention seems never to be on the cool bird that’s right in front of them, but upon a bird they haven’t seen yet. Birders who use every opportunity to ask: “When are we going to get the…?”

You can be surrounded by a million-and-a-half Short-tailed Shearwaters, 200 Laysan Albatrosses, 40 bubble-feeding humpback whales. But there’s no Mottled Petrel, so…“Say, when are we going to get the…?”

You can be standing at the edge of the mother of all ant swarms. In your face, savoring them till you go blind—antbirds, antwrens, antthrushes, antshrikes, ant-this-that-and- the-other-bird. But the instant every species is countably accounted for, it’s back to:

“Great. Now when are we going to get the…?”

Some people see the world as a glass half full. Some half empty. But in a world brimming with riches, it seems incomprehensible that some glasses seem fated to be forever empty.

Talking a Good Game

For everything, there is a season. A time for birding. A time for conversing. But have you ever run into a birder who, while very good at the latter, seems never to engage in the former?

Don’t get me wrong. I can talk and bird at the same time. One of birding’s most endearing elements is the opportunity to engage fellow birders while, say, waiting for the Plain-capped Starthroat to show up at a feeder or whiling away the hours at Hawk Mountain when the skies are blue and the winds southerly.

But some birders do not understand that when there’s a reported Western Sandpiper among 20,000 peeps, the tide is coming in, and you are scouting for the World Series of Birding—that monosyllabic utterances, avoidance of eye contact, and focused intensity are all signs that later might be a better time to discuss their theory about Ivory-billed Woodpeckers and the Mayan calendar or hear evidence that the state’s bird records committee has been infiltrated by Gnostic aliens.

Wait a minute. What do you say you help me find this Little Stint. That will really give us something to talk about.

The Cornell Lab

All About Birds
is a free resource

Available for everyone,
funded by donors like you

American Kestrel by Blair Dudeck / Macaulay Library

Get Living Bird Subscribe Now