Birders. We’re almost a different species. It sounds like a tee-shirt slogan, but it’s kind of true. We have our own language, our own specialized tools, some dances (the lifer wiggle, the mosquito-swatting swingstep, e.g.), a traditional costume. We’ve even developed a geography that relies on questionable criteria that appeal only to the few, the proud, the gluttons for punish—I mean those of us with a be-feathered zest for life. Birder geography is… something else.
The difference between birder geography and classic geography manifests when my non-birding spouse and I plan vacations, for example. We can be looking at the same area, the same maps. He’ll start by scoping out the five-star hot dog stands and BBQ joints. Meanwhile, I’m plotting our agenda around the closest swamps we can get to before sunrise. “Hey, I heard there’s a really productive garbage dump on the way to that museum. Mind if we stop?” For some reason, he never bites.
When we bird folks look at maps, we’re looking for spots where we’re likely to find birds. That means buggy wetlands, tick-infested woods, trackless prairies; often places far from civilization, and especially remote from most of the comforts people seek when they travel.
Ordinarily, though, I bird closer to my home on the eastern end of Long Island, New York. Like many birders, I tend to visit a couple of dependable patches that are as well-known to me as my own bedroom. But every once in a while, I get a taste for something new. Something a little different than my usual fare.
So I turn to the same maps that guide my vacation planning, with an eye for the out-of-the-ordinary close to home. With a dash of bird sense and a map—digital or analog—I can plan these adventures without summoning the spirit of John James Audubon to trek into the wilderness with just a compass and a shotgun.
This past weekend, I was in the mood for migrant songbirds—hoping for an advance wave of warblers, vireos, orioles. But quirks of Long Island geography and habitat mean that these colorful travelers don’t fill in my usual patches until much later in the season. The birds tend to hug the coast of the mainland, avoiding the lengthy crossings over the ocean and the Long Island Sound.
I needed to find a park that would appeal to early migrants, something like Central Park in Manhattan without a two-hour drive from my apartment. I needed a spot that was west of home—closer to the mainland, but still close enough to for me to reach between lunch and dinner. This park I imagined would be perched on the south shore, where north-bound migrants would hit first. A spot that was woodsy and brushy, with plenty of cover and food. Maybe on a river, to funnel the migrants deeper into the island. That’s all birder geography, too.
I started with a digital map, and looked for the green patches that indicate parks and preserves. Luckily for me, maps of Long Island are painted liberally with it. I narrowed down my options by searching the internet for information about habitat, trails, and park history; used satellite photos for a birds-eye view; and checked eBird to see how other birders rated each park’s feathered offerings.
The park I picked was everything I was looking for. Still a little shy on songbirds, but I’d call my choice lucky if I hadn’t picked it so methodically.
We’re slowly inching toward the full songbird shebang here on Long Island, and this new-to-me park is almost guaranteed to be popping with the birds I’m craving in another week or so. While I wait for them to get here, I’m thinking about how being a person who seeks birds changes the way I look at the world around me, even when it’s reduced to two dimensions on a map. Tuning in to birds’ habitat and geographical needs not only gets me more time with the birds I want to see, it also tunes me in to the places where they live. Birder geography isn’t just a way to find birds, it’s a way of knowing a place. It’s another lens we look through to learn about and love the world we share with the birds.
How did you find your best patches? From a friend, or did you scout them out yourself? Tell me your stories in the comments!
About the Author
Erin Gettler is a writer, photographer and naturalist living on Long Island, New York. She likes long walks in the woods, but she's too slow for real hiking on account of stopping to look at every little thing. She travels with a sketchbook, and keeps a spare pair of binoculars to share. Learn more about Erin by visiting her website at thefamiliarwilderness.com.