Birder or not?

I’ve never thought of myself as a birder. I don’t go looking for birds specifically when I kayak or walk the bay. I’m more of a wildlife-watcher who sees birds. They are fascinating and I see a fair share (according to Don Roberson’s Monterey Birds book there are 482 bird species in the Monterey Bay area). I’m entertained by busily nesting cormorants. I’ve chuckled at the bright clown feet of pigeon guillemots. Great Egret by C. ParsonsI admire the zenlike focus of a great egret fishing on an undulating kelp canopy. But I’ve never considered myself a birder. However, this blog is a confession. I’m becoming one.

I decided to learn more about my local birds (an interest but serious weakness) and signed up for a bird-watching class with Brian Weed through the Pacific Grove Adult School. We meet once a week. Most of my classmates are well-seasoned birders and they’ve been very nice and patient with me (especially with identifying little brown birds — it is winter!).

I recently learned that as a non-birder, I’m in a minority group. According to the 2011 National Survey of Fishing, Hunting, and Wildlife-Associated Recreation (which includes wildlife- and bird-watching), 71.8 million people in the U.S. last year spent time watching wildlife and “birds attracted the biggest following” — about 46.7 million people over 16 years of age. (That’s a lot of people.) What I found even more amazing was that wildlife-watchers (including birders) spent about 55 billion U.S. dollars (yes, billions) to watch wildlife — for everything from food and plants at home to equipment, meals and lodging for trips away from home.

After last week’s birding class, I understand why. Our group was standing along the shoreline identifying what we could see. PG Coast by C. ParsonsThere were pelagic cormorants flying by, Brandt’s cormorants and Western gulls on the rocks, a pair of red-breasted mergansers  in the water with a few small grebes (eared or pied-billed — I know, they’re different). Our teacher, Brian, mentioned that the trees behind us usually host a peregrine falcon, but it wasn’t there. (For those of you who don’t know, peregrines hunt birds, which was what we were watching.) Then Brian spotted the falcon flying toward us. I was thrilled. The magnificent bird flew directly over us, and I have to admit that my binoculars were glued on him/her during the entire brief pass. [One study calculated a peregrine dive at 238 mph, (383 km/h), but cruise speed is more like 25 to 35 mph (40 to 56 km/h)].

This sighting is precious given our history with this species (as well as pelicans and others). Peregrine falcons were gone from our skies by 1970 due to the use of the pesticide DDT, which weakened egg shells. The 1972 ban on the use of DDT in the U.S., along with reintroductions of peregrines, especially in cities where they eat pigeons, have resulted in an amazing comeback. In 1999, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service removed the species from the Endangered and Threatened Species List; in 2009, California removed it from the state endangered species list.

When the peregrine we were watching got close to the water, a group of gulls starting mobbing it (a bird harassment tactic). The falcon mostly ignored them and kept circling over the shallow wave wash between offshore rocks and the shoreline. Brian explained that typical peregrine hunting behavior is to circle multiple times over potential prey until the angle and time are right. We were mesmerized. Then boom. In an instant, the peregrine dropped onto the water and lifted off with a little grebe. We were stunned, thrilled and a bit sad (for the grebe). With its catch, the peregrine flew into trees beyond our view. Our lovely morning birding walk had turned dramatic, and this was just the first 10 minutes of class! (For some amazing photos of peregrines catching shorebirds, visit Will James Sooter’s website, but not if you love shorebirds.)

For the next two hours we identified about 25 different seabird and shorebird species, some locals and many migrants. I got to see five different species of gull on one rock so that I could compare and contrast them (one of my goals is to learn my gulls).

I had always been a bit dismissive of birders with binoculars, making notes on life lists, and blocking my walking path. No more. I now have a great appreciation for what birding is all about — and I’m hooked.

A Few Annual Birding Events (by dates)
RSPB Big Garden Birdwatch, England, Jan. 26 & 27 (this weekend)
The Great Backyard Bird Count (GBBC), U.S. & Canada, Feb. 15 – 18
Monterey Bay Birding Festival held in September
Audubon Christmas Bird Count (CBC) held in December/January
Birdwatching Magazine Calendar of Events
2011 National Survey of Fishing, Hunting, and Wildlife-Associated Recreation, U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service
The Cornell Lab of Ornithology: Peregrine falcon
Don Roberson’s Creagrus (general bird information) and Monterey County Bird Checklist (with photos)
Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary: Seabirds & Shorebirds
Avifauna of the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary (MBNMS)
The Santa Cruz Predatory Bird Research Group: Research Info & Falcon Nestcams

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