Tim’s Tips for Surviving the Birding Doldrums

Not all months are created equal. Seasonal changes can be a double-edged sword, and the same natural cycles that provide fresh turnover in avian activity can also result in relative droughts when birds seem few and far between. Here in New York, March is consistently the least exciting stretch of the year. With wintering species disappearing and the prospect of spring migrants little more than a distant dream, making it through the doldrums can feel like a bit of a slog. Fear not! Birding is a versatile pastime. There are multiple viable strategies for surviving the dry spell with a smile on your face. This little list, with its early April arrival date, may come too late for readers who are already reveling in the excitement of spring. For those who are still struggling through the dark times, or those individuals already worried about the next rough patch, perhaps these helpful hints will be of service.

1) Let the common local birds show you something new

One of the most appealing aspects of birding is the omnipresence of birds. It is exceedingly difficult to find a corner of the globe where these amazing creatures are totally absent. When migratory passersby and spectacular vagrants take off to continue their travels without you, the neighborhood songbirds and town park waterfowl will always be there waiting. One can easily become desensitized to the mundane, expected species in the never-ending quest for lifers, but there are times when everyday experiences offer fresh opportunities to learn. Personally, I was quite pleased when I discovered a pair of Black-capped Chickadees vigorously excavating a hole in the birch snag just outside my kitchen window. I knew that these popular passerines are cavity nesters, but I had subconsciously assumed that they rely on natural openings and woodpecker handiwork like so many other species. It turns out that they’re quite capable of constructing their own lodgings, and they’ve made remarkable progress in the past few weeks. They’re also impressively diligent in defense of their new home, ferrying the wood chips to a dumping zone down the driveway to minimize evidence that could attract predators and fighting off House Sparrows that try unsuccessfully to enter the narrow chamber. Observing their efforts has been a fantastic remedy for nature-based ennui. Devoting some time to watching the locals often reveals that their lives are hardly as humdrum as the expectations projected onto them. A closer look may turn up surprises even in your own backyard.

2) Go birding with a non-birder and enjoy some fresh perspective

There’s a lot to be said for living vicariously through folks who are experiencing the world of birding for the first time. Someone with no expectations, unfamiliar with fallout or migration stopovers, is less likely to be disappointed by a simple, everyday stroll. Bringing a friend, family member, or partner along with you on an outing offers a chance to see familiar sights through fresh eyes. I’ve recently had the pleasure of enjoying walks in the woods with two good pals who don’t ordinarily carry binoculars. The first was a reunion with a buddy from high school who specializes in reptiles and amphibians. This is a guy who spends most of his time looking down rather than up, and while I was busy scanning the trees he found a pellet and a feather from one of the resident Great Horned Owls. We didn’t expect to see much of his preferred quarry on a chilly March morning, but a turtle basking near the shore of a pond gave him an opening to drop some wisdom on me after a few hours of bird chatter. My more recent adventure was with a coworker of mine, a Missouri native who picked up most of his nature knowledge working on a farm and going hunting with his relatives. We mused about the surprising amounts of overlap in the skills and expertise associated with our hobbies, and the burgeoning numbers of new arrivals in the forest had him asking lots of questions. How can you tell the difference between those crows and the ravens we saw earlier? Are the Wood Ducks coming or going at this time of year? Why is that bird moving its tail so much, and why does it keep flying out and back to the same perch? Ospreys wheeling overhead prompted a discussion about the conservation efforts that have helped their populations to recover. My abbreviated explanation of the mysterious and dramatic decline of the Rusty Blackbird lent some context to why I was so excited about the unobtrusive shadow nonchalantly tossing leaves at the edge of the stream. Throughout it all, my friend was rapt with attention. Trading stories and sharing in the wonder of the world is a great energizer, and the best questions are the ones that force you to go looking for an answer you didn’t know before. A crash course in the basics of birding may even help your loved ones to understand why you spend so much time wandering around outside! Be careful, though: you may inadvertently create a brand-new birder.

3) Take refuge in the pages of a bird-based book

If reality is getting you down, an infinite array of possibilities await in both scientific and literary texts focused on our feathered friends. Great new bird books come out all the time, and if you’re anything like me you probably have a backlog of titles you’ve been planning to read. I usually prefer to get out into the field and see the birds myself, but doldrums often coincide with weather patterns that make outdoor exploration difficult. Dreary conditions and relentless storms present great opportunities to catch up and engage in some avian escapism. This March, I finally settled down with a copy of Mind of the Raven, which was on my to-do list for years. Everything else I’ve seen about corvid intelligence touted Heinrich’s research as one of the definitive works on the subject, and I was not disappointed. Pick a favorite species that you haven’t seen in a couple of months and seek out a book on the subject: it’s an acceptable substitute for encountering the real deal and you might just learn something new. Got a trip planned to a different part of the country, or perhaps a different continent altogether? Invest in a new field guide or a bird finding guide written by local experts and start preparing. Full-on fiction is always an option, too, depending on personal tastes. If you aren’t feeling a full novel or reference text, check out the latest issues of nature-based magazines and periodicals. National Geographic has been putting forth some wonderful offerings for the “Year of the Bird,” including a gorgeous remake of the classic migration poster that used to hang on the wall of my childhood bedroom. The possibilities for book birding are endless, and unlike more typical targets the birds in print don’t fly away.

4) Chase rarities as often as possible…or find your own!

Unexpected surprises are one of the best cures for birding boredom. This tip is second nature for most dedicated listers, who jump to hunt down wayward vagrants whenever the occasion rises. Even the most casual of birders, however, get a thrill from seeing an unusual species in a place where it wouldn’t ordinarily be found. The scale of this phenomenon in birding is especially notable because our focus taxa are capable of getting truly, spectacularly lost thanks to the power of flight. A wild European Badger in Delaware or a Bahamas Flathead Frog that reached Florida by itself would be mind-boggling impossibilities, but a Ruff or a Western Spindalis in the same locations are somewhat expected. Observing a bird from a faraway place always makes me feel a little more connected to its point of origin, and that’s a uniquely fulfilling experience. Rarities are unpredictable, though, and getting your fix is rarely easy. When a bird as large, conspicuous, and desirable as a Sandhill Crane can avoid detection by the birding community for at least two days (according to workers on the Long Island farm where it touched down) and disappear for hours on end despite hordes of eager searchers, one can’t help but wonder how many spectacular smaller species slip through the cracks entirely unnoticed. Chasing after a single off-course individual is a gamble, but arriving in time to get in on the fun is such an incredible high that it keeps us coming back no matter how many times we “just missed it.” The only thing better than successfully twitching a rare bird is finding one of your own, a reward well-worth the necessary effort and luck. You certainly won’t find a Northern Lapwing after every storm that sweeps down the coast, but there’s no shot at glory if you never get out in the squalls and try!

5) Keep an eye on that light at the end of the tunnel

When you let yourself get bogged down in the pity party of moping about the doldrums, it’s easy to miss the signs that the doldrums are coming to an end. Keeping an open mind a pair of open eyes will help to ensure that you’re among the first to join the celebration when the turning of the seasons brings your beloved birds back. Yesterday morning, by any reasonable person’s estimation, I should have been in bed. It was an unseasonably cold and windy 32° F at sunrise on Sunday, the last day of my spring vacation before returning to my students on Monday. I had only slept for about six hours total, but I pried myself from the warm covers and headed out to Hempstead Lake State Park just after dawn. Despite the chilly breeze, the woods and waterways were alive with activity. Several dozen Palm Warblers, my first of the season, had appeared at my patch overnight, dripping from the trees everywhere I looked. Along with their cousins the Pine Warblers, they joined gnatcatchers, kinglets, sparrows, and other new arrivals bouncing around the foliage practically at my feet. Swallows dipped and dove over the surface of the pond, and a female Blue-winged Teal tucked into a small flock of Green-wings offered a wonderful side-by-side study opportunity. A Common Loon in nearly full breeding plumage was foraging on the main lake, and a Great Egret stalked the shallows alongside muskrats and turtles. A hypothetical birder sitting at home, grumbling about the cold temperatures and the long drive between them and the aforementioned crane, might still be cursing the early spring drought. Little do they know! The floodgates have yet to completely burst open, but the refreshing splash of color and birdsong was a welcome teaser for the upcoming splendor of Neotropical migration. I’m returning to my classroom refreshed and ready for the work week ahead, knowing that the hardest portion of year is behind me and the days to come are full of promise.

Birding, at it’s core, is about enjoying the natural world. These five simple tips helped me to keep sight of that fundamental goal when the seasonal conditions and my own expectations threatened to get the better of me. Whatever the next few months may bring on the birding front, I can be certain that I’ll enjoy the journey!