The Top Tip for Bird Walk Leaders: Always Leave ‘Em Laughing

By Mel White; Photograph by Tim Kuhn
October 15, 2011
birding should be fun
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I’ve been teaching beginning bird watching for several years now, and I’ve come to realize that subtlety belongs in the class the same way it belongs in a symphony orchestra pops concert—which is to say, it doesn’t. If the audience walks away whistling a happy tune, in a good mood, and open to the possibility of more, you’ve done about all you can do.

Some pops listeners won’t go beyond the Star Wars theme and an ABBA medley, just like some in the bird class won’t go beyond Bald Eagles and bluebirds. At least they’re doing something besides watching television. A few people will move on to appreciate Bartók compositions and Lincoln’s Sparrows, but that’s for later. For now, at the end of three classes and a morning field trip, all I want is for the participants to understand that birding is fun, interesting, and open-ended: to realize that more kinds of birds fly around out there than they had imagined, that they behave in fascinating ways, and that the possibilities for joyful discovery are infinite.

At the beginning of the first class, I hand out field cards showing the abundance and dates of occurrence for the 405 species recorded in Arkansas. This is a variant of the old story about hitting a mule in the head with a two-by-four: first, you have to get his attention. I want the students to get a glimpse of the diversity and complexity of birdlife, to see that bird watching isn’t just standing around exclaiming over the beauty of, say, bluebirds.

I don’t, however, want anybody figuratively throwing up his or her hands, saying it’s all just too complicated. So I immediately pass out a sheet labeled “Sixty Common Birds.” Learn these, I say, and you’ll know 90 percent of the birds you see in your yard, along the roadside, and on casual walks through the park. Sixty—that’s reasonable, right?

Then it’s on to the first slide show, because the three secrets to holding people’s interest are pictures, pictures, and pictures. After passing out another sheet called “Orders of Birds,” I go through scientific classification, showing examples from each order up to the songbirds, where I switch to families. Here again, the aim is to balance surprising diversity (e.g., these things called loons and grebes look like ducks, but they’re different) with some degree of comfort and accessibility (see, you already know doves and owls and woodpeckers!).

Who am I kidding? The real aim is for the class to have fun looking at pretty pictures. The wow factor overrides everything. Let’s have Wood Ducks and Snowy Egrets in full breeding plumage! Scissortailed Flycatchers and Scarlet Tanagers and the gaudiest warblers! Yes, Baltimore Orioles nest right here in town. All you have to do is go to the river and look up into those big cottonwoods. It’s easy!

The word “easy” doesn’t apply to learning bird sounds, and I don’t pretend that it does. Just about the first words out of my mouth in that session are, “I’m not going to teach you any bird songs. I’m going to show you how to start thinking about bird songs in ways that may help you learn some of them.” And then—straight to the photos that accompany the audio.

Hoo, hoo-hoo, hoo. See, you knew that was an owl; you can worry about which kind later. Bob, bob-white! There’s a bird that tells you its name; many of them do.Cheerio, toodle-oo, see me, how are you? That’s a robin, and one sings outside your window every morning. Learn it and you’re on your way to learning a bunch of other birds. I throw in every joke, anecdote, odd fact, and goofy story I can think of during the bird-song program, because it takes all that and more to get some people past the intimidation factor of sounds. This is no place to be subtle.

Any class like this is shaped by the ideas and prejudices of the instructor, and implicit in much of this is a concept that I know would motivate me, were I taking the course: look at what you’ve been missing. You’ve never heard of these things called vireos, yet the woods are full of them. This gorgeous creature called American Redstart flits through the trees in your yard for a few weeks in spring and fall. All your life you’ve been seeing two different kinds of crows, and you didn’t know it. Those birds that you’ve been calling Whip-poorwills? Most of them are really Chuckwill’s- widows. Some people would shrug at these revelations, but those people are home watching television.

For our field trip, we meet at a spot that’s just about perfect for beginners: a paved trail that runs for more than a quarter mile along the Arkansas River, crosses a huge grassy field, and skirts several ponds, only briefly passing through dense woods. Not only do the varied habitats offer a diversity of birds, but the open sight lines allow the participants a chance to actually see things in a satisfying way. (A forest path is no good for beginners: vegetation blocks views, and birds flit around too much for people struggling to use binoculars.)

There’s nearly always a Great Blue Heron nearby, quickly filling the need for birds that (a) are big and (b) stand still. While people take turns at the scope, something interesting usually flies by. It might be a Double-crested Cormorant or a Green Heron, a pair of Wood Ducks or a lingering Ring-billed Gull. The river corridor’s avian highway helps prove the point that birders are continually looking up, looking around, and our watchfulness is often rewarded. One year a Least Tern and a Caspian Tern flew by within minutes, helpfully illustrating the size extremes of a kind of bird most people are only vaguely aware of.

The shrubs between the woods and the river always provide a singing male Indigo Bunting. “You like this?” I say between the oohs and aahs. “There’s one every hundred yards out in the country for as far as you want to drive.” A first scope view of an Eastern Kingbird or Red-winged Blackbird can be stunning to a beginner. Something about this spot attracts Orchard Orioles, a species that most on the trip have never heard of, much less seen. This year, an adult male and a first-spring male simultaneously sat in the same tree, providing the opportunity for a minilecture on the trickiness of varying plumages. That (I don’t say out loud) is as subtle as we’re going to get today.

In the grassy field stand several tall trees, dead and alive, where you can bet something big will be perched. It could be a Red-tailed Hawk or an American Kestrel or a small flock of Mississippi Kites, while below Dickcissels and Eastern Meadowlarks sing and Scissor-tailed Flycatchers sit and flit for insects. Dense thickets of Chickasaw plum crowd the trail at one spot. Every year a Common Yellowthroat sings from deep inside. Every year I explain that, although this is a common bird wherever bushes grow near water, it essentially never shows itself. One year, just after that definitive statement, I made a few pishes and squeaks and the male popped up on an open branch to sit and sing for three or four minutes, giving everyone a long scope view. Yes, folks, birds are unpredictable, aren’t they?

You can reliably predict, though, that the mulberry trees along the path will be loaded with fruit, providing a feast for sometimes dozens of Cedar Waxwings, along with the odd Gray Catbird or thrush. Near the ponds we’ll hear the rattle of a Belted Kingfisher, and usually get a good look. It’s a perfect bird for beginners: attractive, impressive, a little odd, and completely distinctive. See what you’ve been missing?

By now we’ve passed any number of singing dickeybirds that I’ve mostly ignored, having learned that only a certain amount of new information can be processed in three or four hours. Field Sparrow—no puzzling little brown jobs. Northern Parula—forget it; way too much effort against really bad odds. Acadian Flycatcher— only if it’s perched in the open beside the trail. I do point vaguely toward a singing Warbling Vireo, but only to set up a joke. That sound, I say, comes from the second-most-boring-looking bird in the state—knowing that later we’re bound to see a female Brown-headed Cowbird.

Just as in a vaudeville act, you need a big finish for a beginner field trip—something to send them back to their vehicles smiling from one last surprise. Every year, this riverside hodgepodge of habitats comes through. Once it was a big flock of migrating White Pelicans right over our heads; another time two Broad-winged Hawks engaged in some sort of agonistic or courtship acrobatics for several minutes. This spring, as I was scanning for Black Vultures (one or two sometimes show up amid the Turkey Vultures), an approaching dark shape morphed into an adult Bald Eagle.

I’ve occasionally watched others give bird programs to beginners, and often thought, “You’re making it too complicated.” It’s like explaining harmonic progression to somebody who just wants to hear a good song. As I’ve led my bird course spring after spring, I’ve continually and unashamedly simplified it, revising the presentation based on the attentiveness in the participants’ eyes, the smiles on their faces, and the questions they ask.

Is this USA Today-style dumbing-down? Quite possibly. But I’m not trying to explicate global monetary policy. I’m trying to keep newbies from being scared away by field-guide pages of hawk plumages and streaky sparrows, by vireo voices and fall warblers. And most of all, I’m trying to show them that, in the memorable words of Kenn Kaufman, the best birder is the one who has the most fun.