In 2013, Neil Hayward was depressed. He had just left the biotech company he helped start, and he was getting over the end of a very serious relationship. He had disposable income, and free time. Suddenly, he found himself doing a lot of birding. A LOT. In this episode Sam delves into the subculture of extreme bird-watching. Plus, this week’s Ask Sam is all about assassin crows.
Extreme Bird Watching Podcast
I’m terrible at identifying birds. Not worse than someone who has never paid any attention to birds, but worse than anyone who has ever called themselves a “birder.” If I’m really being honest, I didn’t realize what it really meant to be a birder until last year when my wife and I went to a “bird weekend” on Star Island, off the coast of New Hampshire.
Here’s what I thought we were getting into: a relaxing weekend spent learning the names of some birds from a knowledgeable local naturalist, Erik Masterson. While not learning about birds during idyllic strolls through the island, we would almost certainly be eating delicious food and enjoying hot beverages on the hotel porch while reading.
The agenda was more rigorous than I expected. The first bird walk began at 6 am and continued until breakfast, around 9 am. I wake up every morning ravenous for food, and my wife prefers not to wake up in the mornings at all, so the deck was stacked against us. This “bird weekend” was not going to be our ideal vacation. Breakfast was followed by more birding, which lasted until lunch. We enjoyed a brief post-lunch break from birding, but ended the day with, you guessed it, more birding. An hour or two, just to be sure no new birds had settled onto the island throughout the day and gone unnoticed. It was so early in the season that the hotel itself,and its bright and airy dining hall, was not yet open, so we were left eating with the island’s staff in the dining room of an adjacent stone building stacked full of cardboard boxes filled with food supplies.
I should mention that Star Island is not big. If one were to jog the island’s longest trail, which goes along its perimeter, it would take no more than five minutes to complete. Over the course of two and a half days, we spent upwards of ten hours patrolling this tiny island for birds.
Now, this is not to say that it was not a lovely weekend. It was. But I had not realized the extent to which birding, for some people, is a deep obsession. The second day featured a trip to a neighboring island, Appledore Island, to see a bird banding station, where researchers were capturing song-birds in mist nets, banding them and quickly releasing them. For me, it was the highlight of the trip, but one of our new birding friends declined to join us. I asked Erik why.
“Appledore Island is in Maine, and Star Island is in New Hampshire,” Erik told me. He must have realized how far out of touch I was from birding culture at that moment, because clearly I had absolutely no idea how that was supposed to be an explanation. “He is working on his New Hampshire list,” Erik explained, “Any bird he sees in Maine won’t count.”
For some, birdwatching is as much about the numbers as it is about the birds. It’s like a game, and like any game there are rules and competitions. Rules about which birds count and which don’t, and competitions to see who can pile up the biggest lists.
Read more from Outside In Radio here.
Have you tried bird watching? Share your experiences in the comment section below.
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