Sunday, April 15, 2012

What School Won't Prepare You For

"Training is useful, but there is no substitute for experience!"
It isn't just a memorable statement by the evil Colonel from one of the few decent Bond films made (From Russia, with Love), it's the most fundamental element to good hawkwatching. With spring raptor migration now in full swing at my watchsite, I'm routinely asked by inquisitive and frustrated visitors alike how they can get better at IDing hawks. They seek information about the “diagnostic” fieldmarks for particular species. They ask for book recommendations. They even ask about the optics I use, as if oversized milspec binoculars and a fancy spotting scope were indeed the secret ingredient in my hawkwatching recipe. (Answer: Good optics minimize visual handicaps, but they won't identify birds for you!) I am always grateful for people's interest in hawkwatching (and raptors, generally), so I make a point to try to helpfully answer any and all questions I receive. Subconsciously, I think I try hard to recreate some of the conditions that enabled me to start watching hawks seriously at my old hawkwatch. It was there a particular counter patiently answered endless questions and made an unflagging effort to drill my fledging skills over the course of my season with him. It's not often nascent enthusiasm is met almost immediately with personal tutelage by a skilled hand, and so I owe him a great debt. He unknowingly started me down an avenue in my life I never anticipated!

But back to the topic at hand, what's most striking about the questions I receive has nothing to with the actual questions. (Because there are no “stupid questions”!) It's that I generally receive them from enthusiastic visitors who'll spend, at most, 40 minutes or an hour on the hill with me maybe twice or thrice a season. I'll take a leap of faith here and assume that I'm not functioning as the main impediment to their learning process or enjoyment on the hill. And, I do understand that Life has a nasty habit of getting in the way of even the best intentions of making recreation for oneself. But within most of the questions I receive, I can almost hear the underlying assumption that one can learn to ID hawks proficiently by simply reading a book (or two) or by getting pointers from a “pro” in the field. There are indeed some excellent books about the field identification of raptors available, and some of them are quite accessible. And, undoubtedly, guidance in the field by a skilled observer is a sure-fire way of improving your skills relatively quickly. But the most neglected component is time: the only way you become naturally good at identifying hawks is by spending an unnatural amount of time in the field watching them! And I think that while most of my visitors understand this cerebrally, it's a different story viscerally when it comes time to pony up and put in your hours on the hill that day scanning for hawks instead of engaging in another more familiar activity.

I offer my views here not to be harsh to my kind visitors, but to be realistic about the effort that will be involved in learning to hawkwatch “like the pros” do. In no way do I wish to deter anyone interested in watching hawks from doing so at their own pace! Frankly, I feel that the only people who really oughta know what they're seeing are the people whose observations become part of the data submitted to HawkCount. For most everyone else, it probably does not matter if they cannot separate a Red-tailed Hawk from a Sharp-shinned Hawk in the field. If this applies to you, I hope you will learn, however, only because I feel it will greatly increase your appreciation of these birds to have seen and identified them for yourself. But upon reflection, if you feel the effort to learn to ID raptors and "become part of the count" requires more effort than you're willing to invest, that's perfectly okay, and I hope you won't let birders pressure you into thinking otherwise. And I hope you won't be dissuaded from coming to your hawkwatch just because you don't feel you know enough! I think this happens more often than anyone cares to admit, and I think this is the biggest travesty of all. Ultimately, hawkwatching needs you, whether you're expert or neophyte. And the majesty of the migration spectacle is there to be enjoyed and protected by all; and this is probably the best “pro” tip you'll ever receive!

Good Hawkwatching,

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for another great essay, Arthur. You have nailed it once again! Susan