A Re-Education in Relocation

Steve BrennerBirding, General Rant2 Comments

Much like birds, people sometimes have to move around in this crazy world – particularly in these modern times full of hyper-tech global markets and the ‘Very Big Corporations of America‘. Often the reasons for a relocation involve one’s work or career, and there are a plethora of variables and consequences to consider when such things happen. But given that we are a nature blog and not so much a life coach blog (although what important life lessons can’t be gleaned from birds?), I will focus on Jane Q. Birder’s primary concerns when she moves: what kinds of birds will I be seeing in my new home? How different will the the timing and species occurrences be? What rarities can I expect? Breeding trends, migration trends, local birder dynamics?

I’ve been very fortunate to be able to travel to many places in this country, and as an added bonus I’ve gotten to work on bird research in all of these different locations. This kind of lifestyle is great because you get to see many different cool birds  and you get a chance to immerse yourself in a particular birder culture, regional bird dynamics, and local nuances of an environment. But you also have to be ready to accept some new skills, new facts, and be prepared for some serious humble-pie every once in a while. With the right attitude, it can all come together for something sweet.

As a quick sidebar, adjusting to a new location is clearly on a spectrum. Every local area has its own special distributions, levels of occurrence, and ‘expected vs non-expected’ species. But moving within a town, county, or even state can often be quite different from moving to a new part of the country, or even a new continent. However, for the sake of this post ,we will keep our relocations to areas within the ABA. Yes, I had to adjust to a whole new suite of birds in Borneo, just as fellow Nemesisbirder Cameron faces a whole new array of pretty awesome bird expectations in the neotropics (really, check out the sweet stuff he encounters). But these kinds of MONSTER shifts in location are a little more crazy.

So we probably won't be seeing Mountain Blackeyes in the ABA anytime soon, what with them being endemic to Borneo and all. A more dramatic illustration of the once familiar now downright impossible. (photo by Steve Brenner)

So we probably won’t be seeing Mountain Blackeyes in the ABA anytime soon, what with them being endemic to Borneo and all. A more dramatic illustration of the once familiar now downright impossible. (Mt. Kinabalu, 2015 – photo by Steve Brenner)

Recently, I moved to Rhode Island for a (hopefully) somewhat permanent amount of time (i.e. longer than a 3 month field season). Within days, the many joys and minor frustrations that come along with relocating my daily birding activities have surfaced. Let’s look at the positives of birder moves:

1). Chance for new species on a regular basis – The last place I held a permanent address and paid rent was the kick-ass city of Buffalo, NY. Nickel city was my home in between field jobs, and for about 3 years I got to know the birding scene there pretty well. Wintertime was full of gull-abilities, and spring and fall brought solid passerine migration. So wood warblers, waterfowl, and gulls were no problem. But now I’m on the coast. I can expect to see sanderlings and black-bellied plovers pretty much everyday if I want to. And terns and waders are everywhere in the summer. Should I be so inclined, I can hop a ferry ride to Block Island and catch some shearwaters along the way if it strikes my fancy (although the look and length of viewings one gets aboard a non-birder vessel such as a ferry or whale watch is drastically different from a bird-centric pelagic voyage). So opportunities to get familiar with these once uncommon birds for me has been a real joy.

2). Meeting cool new birders – Okay, so maybe the term ‘cool’ doesn’t ever fit with the term ‘birder’, but you catch my drift. In this great melting pot called America you get all sorts of folks that have different angles on birding and such. Although, interestingly enough, the more you travel around and meet birders, the more similar we all seem. It’s what makes us birders, I guess. Sure, almost every area has a ‘Billy Mitchell’ type, but how else is someone going to wreck house in Pac-man?

3). Fresh List – So you move from one eastern state to another….while timing and abundance might be different, you probably aren’t looking at too many lifers. But a chance at a new state list? You can add way more numbers starting at ‘0’ during migration than if you were back at your old haunt with a county list in the low 200’s just waiting on rarities.

Back in Buffalo, this Whimbrel would be RBA worthy. Here in RI, it's no biggie. But still awesome. (photo by Steve Brenner)

Back in Buffalo, this Whimbrel would be RBA worthy. Here in RI, it’s no biggie. But still awesome. (Rhode Island, 2015 – photo by Steve Brenner)

But moving around isn’t all fun and games. As much as we wouldn’t want to admit it, there are some inherent challenges to changing your own personal range map.

1). Adjusting to species expectations – Yes, moving within the ‘Eastern region’ or within the ‘Western region’ will give you pretty much the same broad suite of birds. But bird distributions are a tricky thing, and what might be ‘expected’ or ‘ordinary’ to you can be downright earth shattering in a new location. This is most common in large moves, and even just an everyday pitfall when birder’s travel. How many times do people come to an area hoping to see some type of ‘target’ species and magically get it? How often do new birders casually see a ‘familiar’ bird to them, but unaware of its significance to the specific area they are in? It happens to the best of them (myself guilty), and often missing a chance for documentation is the biggest trap. Just because it’s ‘normal’ for you does not make it ‘normal’ where you are.

Oriental Bay Owl. This photo was taken at 1500 meters, which is well above the 'normal' altitude for this species, as far as we know. (Kinablu Park, 2015 - photo by Steve Brenner)

Oriental Bay Owl. While expected in Malaysia, this photo was taken at 1500 meters, which is well above the ‘normal’ altitude for this species, as far as we know. (Kinabalu Park, 2015 – photo by Steve Brenner)

Even if we aren’t talking about locally rare or uncommon birds, everyday adjustments can often stick in your craw. Maybe you got used to a bevy of weird woodlots and unexplored migrant traps scattered across your home county. But now the topography has changed and you have only a limited location roster to see much of anything. And abundance norms can often surprise you. Didn’t think I would miss Cape May warbler this year. But an entire spring in Malaysia and an autumn in a brand new state not known for its fall warbler diversity will do that to ya.

2). Re-repping your Reputation – This can be a toughy. Biggest thing to keep in mind here is that it is NOT personal (and if it is, well, I don’t really know how to handle that. Refer to the Monty Python sketch above for existential questions and wear more hats). You work hard to be whatever type of birder you want to be, and the local scene knows you. But moving to a new spot equals a fresh start. In some situations, this could be a good thing. But often times it is more of a procedural set of birding proofs required to carve out your birder niche again. And sometimes again and again.

Remember: it’s just ebird filters, and we are all cut from the same birder cloth. Theoretically, everyone likes everyone and we are all on the same side, standing arm in arm watching the most glorious mixed warbler flock whilst riding the steadiest, calmest sea surrounded by tube-noses with no one barfing over the stern. Birder utopia. One day.

My first black-and-white warbler in Rhode Island. While I've seen tons of this species before, these guys are still incredible. (Rhode Island, 2015 - photo by Steve Brenner)

My first black-and-white warbler in Rhode Island. While I’ve seen tons of this species before, these guys are still incredible. (Rhode Island, 2015 – photo by Steve Brenner)

Personally, I find relocations and birder travel some of the most educational and rewarding birder experiences. Yes, I’m more prone to fumbling with the unfamiliar birds in a new environment. Blowing ID’s is really just a good way to learn more and absorb more. And while I may not be rolling in the lifers, I still get a fresh look at a new system. And now I can eat lots of CHOWDAAR and LOBSTAAAR!

 

 

 

 

  • Matt Schenck

    Welcome to Rhode Island! When I first moved here almost 2 years ago I had to adjust to living on the coast which i had never lived within 200 miles of before in my life. It has been a great experience so far.

    • Stephen Brenner

      Thank you, Matt – Hope to see you out birding!