Sunday, August 26, 2012

Another Classification of Birdwatcher

Photo Courtesy of Bert Willaert

In the introductory pages to his Field Guide to the Birds of North America, Ken Kaufman draws a distinction between birdwatchers and birders, offering some of the defining characteristics that make birders different than "garden variety" birdwatchers.  I've never been particularly fond of this distinction, largely because I feel it is prone to misinterpretation.  Promoting the birder as a kind of "elite" birdwatcher unnecessarily fractures a community with a common interest (i.e., birds and their conservation), and I do not feel this was Kaufman's intention at all.  But having spent much time afield with birders of all stripes at raptor migration sites both in North America and abroad, I'm inclined to suggest that there might exist another distinction that separates birders and migration counters.  Admittedly, the distinction is rarely clean: while there are birders who do not consider themselves migration counters and migration counters who rarely watch birds at all when not at their favorite migration site, most individuals blur the line and retain a more balanced interest.  But when working with groups of observers at migration sites, I feel the difference in focus between birders and migration counters often comes to the fore, and the distinction may be worth keeping in mind.

Birders who are not migration counters are the easiest to identify.  They are the ones who have a tendency to "filter out" common countable species when plumbing the skies for "special" birds.  For them, the common species are not so important.  While this is understandable given their peculiar focus, this can be frustrating for true migration counters whose defining responsibility is to offer a balanced coverage effort for all countable species, not just ones that should happen to strike the fancy of the legion of birders lining the platform.  More times than I can count, I've watched birders "helping" with the count effort turn their back on large areas of sky for extended periods of time to focus their scopes on a single distant harrier or falcon as one "not-so-special" raptor after another passed by in areas they left without coverage.  This can be frustrating for a true migration counter, who often finds his or her count effort directed by where the 10-15 scopes on the platform are not directed.  At its worst, a migration counter can feel screwed out of some satisfactory views of "good" birds as the birders' attention flit from one small spot in the sky to another without a second thought about what might be transpiring elsewhere.  So despite plentiful talent on the platform, the migration counter can find his or her count effort surprisingly lonely.

I choose this example not to berate birders so much as to help outline what I believe are fundamental "cultural" differences between birders and migration counters, because it is often assumed that everyone volunteering at a hawkwatch has the same objectives in mind.  And it is similarly assumed that good birders are, by implication, good migration counters, and I feel this is not always the case.  If you are a birder helping with a count effort, make a point to give the entire sky balanced coverage, or at least let the counter know before you ignore a large section of sky.  If you are a watchsite coordinator, identifying counters and volunteers who are partial to the objective of balanced count coverage will pay off with higher quality data in the long haul.

Good Hawkwatching,


  1. This morning, at 11:17 a.m., while returning home I observed approximately 125 Broad-winged Hawks resting in two open fields in Williamson County near Florence, Texas. I turned my vehicle around to get photos and many of them had taken to the air circling over the fields riding thermals.