Gaining a Level in Bird Nerdiness

Fall warblers. Ugh. I have hard enough time identifying tiny birds high in the canopy when they’re in their breeding plumage – normally I wouldn’t even try at this time of year. But in the last couple weeks I’ve started get into eBird, and if I’m planning on submitting an eBird checklist from my walk I feel obligated to do my absolute best to identify every bird I see, even if I give myself a bad case of warbler neck in the process. This afternoon I found myself squinting up into the canopy of a birch tree at a flock of active, noisy, but hopelessly nondescript warblers, determined to figure out what they were even if it meant standing there underneath them until dinner time.

That’s when I drew the warbler butt sketch in my notebook, deeply aware as I did so that I was crossing a new threshold of nerdiness.

See, I’ve started carrying my little journal around with me to keep track of what birds I see, and today I was finally inspired to try and make some notes on the birds I was looking at so that I could compare them to field guides when I got home and maybe figure out what they were. The problem was that I was looking up at the birds from underneath, and all I could really see clearly were the undersides of their little feathery butts, so… that is what I drew. Only someone who really, really loves birds spends time memorializing this part of their anatomy with paper and ink.

Every North American birder can relate to this, I’m sure. We have all spent far too much time squinting up into the canopy looking at the “vents” (to use the polite term) of warblers, waiting in vain for them to flip upside down and show us some actual field marks, right? Well, Roger Tory Peterson proved his genius yet again when he included in his field guide to North American warblers a plate specifically devoted to  comparing the undersides of their tails. When I returned to my apartment I took my copy of this book down from the mantle and opened up to the appropriate page. The good news is, I was actually able to identify my nondescript warblers based on my sketch. SUCCESS! I HAVE ACHIEVED NEW HEIGHTS OF BIRDING AWESOMENESS! But the bad news is that they were Yellow-rumped Warblers, and I saw fall Yellow-rumped Warblers every day for months on end in Georgia and should have been able to identify these dirt-common birds without all this trouble.

…Sigh.

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18 thoughts on “Gaining a Level in Bird Nerdiness”

  1. I haven’t reached that level of nerd-o-rama, but I could barely contain my excitement at seeing my first Prothonotary Warbler and what I think was an Orange-crowned Warbler this year. I’m a crap birder, always looking for turtles instead…I did, however, rescue a carolina wren today, trapped inside the school I work at. so young, so small, stuck in a window, cupped in my hand, so delicate…and of course I had left my phone in the car so I couldn’t get a pic. my life is a string of face-palm moments.

    1. I never, ever have my camera with me when I find a turtle in the road. All the times I rescued terrapins from the causeway when I was living in Georgia, it never once happened when I had my camera. Sigh.

      1. I seek turtles out in the woods on purpose. Found three today, secretively soaking up late autumn sunlight. One female T. carolina triunguis so large that holding her in my hand I could see just the tips of my fingers from underneath her. I do rescue as many from roadways as possible too, including checking recently deceased females for viable eggs to incubate.

    1. Well, I don’t have a camera anywhere near adequate to the task of capturing a useful photo of a songbird. Sketches and notes are really my only option. (In addition to my butt sketch, I also scribbled some notes about their foraging behavior, etc., knowing that all those details could be handy later.)

      1. Hey now, let’s keep it appropriate, my boss reads this blog. (I’ve definitely heard “butter butt” before, but the only other nickname I can think of is “maggie” for Magnolia Warbler, which I suppose is less amusing. And, interesting fact, I’m actually too far north for titmice here. Also too far north for cardinals. It’s strange.)

    1. Well, the fact that they turned out to be Yellow-rumps, which I DEFINITELY should have been able to identify right away, proves that I’m really not that great a birder. Just sometimes a really determined one. Glad you liked it, though. :)

  2. I have tried so hard to identify even one warbler this year. I just can’t see well enough and they are too nondescript for me and my thick woods. I’ll try the “butt,” I mean “vent” approach.
    nellie

  3. This is awesome. As you know from reading my blog, you are far more dedicated than me in your efforts to identify the organisms you see. I fancy myself someone who will do that but find I get more enjoyment in just watching.

    Are you familiar with the work of Claire Walker Leslie and Hannah Hinchman? If not, check out these two books in particular:
    Hannah Hinchman, A Trail Through Leaves
    http://www.amazon.com/Trail-Through-Leaves-Journal-Place/dp/0393318850/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1317515793&sr=1-1

    Claire Walker Leslie, Keeping a Nature Journal
    http://www.amazon.com/Keeping-Nature-Journal-Discover-Seeing/dp/1580174930/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1317515748&sr=8-1

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