On the trail of the Red-Breasted Sapsucker
By G.D. Maxwell
"Cheer Up. Cheer Up. Cheer Up"
Outside my window, the red, red robin — no doubt the early bird of metaphor — admonished me to a state of mind still hours away. At a big hand’s width past five, my overriding thought was bob, bob, bobbing his head in a bucket of water.
"Sic, Vince," I mumbled.
Vince the Wonder Cat yawned, stretched and gave me a look I’m sure means, "Yeah, right. I’ll start catching my breakfast when you start catching yours. Now get up and feed me before I cough up a hairball on your beard."
It was the morning after the first hot, sunny, summer-like day in Whistler. I’d spent the previous day baking on the banks of Cheakamus Lake and letting the unfamiliar sun etch flaming arcs into my corneas. Sitting along the blue-green water, watching the emergence of wave after wave of mayfiles, so many the air became thick with floating clouds of escaping trout food, it was easy to remember why a semi-rational person is willing to put up with the kind of weather we’ve had since last October. One or two days of this sunshine and the world would be a wonderful place. One or two days of this sunshine would also turn my brain to custard.
When the phone rang later that evening, overwhelmed with this sense of goodwill and reduced capacity, I was unable to think of a good reason not to join Dan Greene for a birding walk at 7 a.m., the next morning.
Dan had just finished leading a two week, Tuesday evening course in Beginning Birdwatching, through the municipality. Nine people, interested in learning more about the fastest growing leisure activity in North America, attended. This Saturday morning sojourn was their organized attempt to put newly acquired knowledge to practical use, to see how many local birds they could spot and recognize, armed only with binoculars and field guide, and to watch a couple of experienced birders lead them through the recognition process.
We met at the bottom of Lorimer Road to walk the Valley Trail to Rainbow Park and back along the train tracks to where we’d started. Arriving at 7:05 — certainly on time and probably early by Whistler standards — my Perfect Partner and I were the last to join the departing group. Early birds indeed.
Birding is an activity easily and often enjoyed by couples and there were three in our crew, ranging in age from probably early 30s to approaching an age it might be indelicate to guess. A couple of women and a lone, vaguely familiar looking man rounded out the assembly. He turned out to be an additional guide, hired by the Muni for the purposes of this field trip. His credentials in birding were extensive, including numerous trips to Mexico, Costa Rica and the States, and the rest of his background read like a Whole Earth Catalogue — rafting and kayak guide, environmental studies teacher, naturalist, home-builder, and political thorn in the side of those who think the only good tree is a felled tree. Since he lives in an uneasy truce with neighbours whose livelihood depends on trees being felled, he asked anonymity. Being an integral part of this experience, let’s call him Al.
As the group set off, Al explained, "It takes about 20 minutes for an area to return to normal after we disturb it by walking through. So what we’ll do is walk a bit, stop, and just be still, look and, more importantly, listen."
Listening, as it turns out, is by far the birder’s leading-edge sense. It seems anybody who birds for long and goes a bit out of the way to meet and talk to other birders will eventually meet the fabled, blind birder. Dan had told me his fabled, blind birder story awhile back on a camping trip. If I recall correctly, his was an older gent in Oregon. Al’s blind birder was an elderly pioneer in Arizona. Watching a couple of ducks fly overhead triggered the story, "This old guy was pretty much blind and could easily identify a couple of hundred birds by their call. He’d listen to a cacophony of calls coming out of the brush and separate out the individual birds. That’s not so unusual. But this guy could identify different ducks by the sound they made flying, by their distinctive wing flap."
"Cheer Up. Cheer Up. Cheer Up."
"What was that," one of the birders-to-be said.
"Robin," Al replied.
"Oh, jeez, this isn’t going to be easy," she sighed.
It is the paradox of birding that enjoyment and entertainment can be great, regardless of where you fall on the continuum of mis-identifying robins or differentiating ducks based on the sound their wings make in flight. And, there is little in the way of equipment and expense required to get started: a reasonable pair of binoculars and a field guide to assist your education and identification.
The world of binoculars, if you don’t already own a pair, is a labyrinth of confusing physics. The most confusing thing you can do is ask a couple of dedicated birders for help and information selecting binoculars; the second most confusing thing you can do is ask the proprietor of an optics store. Buying binoculars is like buying speakers for your stereo: trust your own senses. Do they feel comfortable to your eyes and hands? Are they bright and clear? Can you hold them steady and focus them easily and accurately? Will they stand up to the use you intend for them? Expect to spend between $100 and $200 for reasonably good binoculars.
Field guides present a greater challenge. Fortunately, this is offset by their considerably lesser expense and eventually, most birders buy as many field guides as they have shelf space. For someone just getting started birding, consider a guide that limits its scope to the area you’re likely to spend most of your time in. A guide to all North America is more voluminous and complex than a guide to Western birds.
The principal difference between the major field guides is whether they use paintings of birds, or photographs. A sizeable school of thought favours paintings since artists can pose the birds for maximum learning, and call attention to the distinguishing features that are most important in the field. With the unavoidable vagaries of lighting, photos can only freeze a moment and rarely catch all the important highlights required for accurate identification.
"Thwee, Thwee, Thwee." Al’s sucking the back of his hand and staring into a clump of brush. He’s calling chickadees and, astonishingly, they’re coming. "Thweet, Thweet." Soon the near trees are moving with four or five Black-Capped Chickadees. Al explains, "In learning to identify bird songs, and to a lesser degree in calling birds, you should try to break the sounds down to identifiable human sounds — syllables — until they start to make sense on their own. The language is universal. With very few differences, that chickadee will sound the same here in Whistler as it does in Utah. After awhile, you’ll hear it as a language and identification will come more easily."
The universality of birding — and it is a much bigger activity in the UK and Europe than in North America — was driven home to me a number of years ago. My elderly neighbours in Toronto had relatives from the Ukraine visiting. One of them was drawn to the incessant whirring of the rotisserie on my barbecue, upon which rotated — Caution: birders and vegetarians, skip this part — a duck. He looked puzzled at the contraption. I waved, smiled and said, "Duck." He waved, smiled and continued to look puzzled. After a few more unsuccessful tries at "Duck," I pointed to the spinning bird and said, "Quack."
His eyes lit up, his face became animated and he responded, "Quack, quack," pantomiming bringing a shotgun to his shoulder.
"Yes, quack, quack," I said. A bridge had been formed. I spoke no Russian, he spoke no English, we both spoke duck.
But bird songs are, in most cases, an advanced technique for identifying birds. For those just starting out, the sound a bird makes will be useful in locating it for visual identification. And the identification process is a matter of sifting information about the bird through successively finer screens, discarding what it isn’t until you’re left with just a few birds it might be.
"In making an identification, form follows function," Dan likes to say. "What is the bird doing and where is it doing it? A bird will be on or near water, on land or flying. Where you see it, will eliminate a lot of different possibilities." Around water, for example, birds will be swimming or wading. On land, they’ll tend to be perching, climbing or on the ground. These gross observations will pare down the possible candidates considerably and point you on the right trail.
The next level of identification will be relative size and shape. "Compare the bird to something you know." As Al explained, "When kids, especially, come out on their first bird trip, they think they don’t know anything. But if you stop to think about it you can identify more birds than you imagine: robins, crows, stellar jays, gulls. Start from there and use what you know in making your determination. Is the bird you’re looking at bigger or smaller than, say, a robin."
After size, comes shape. Is it plump or slender? Are its wings round or pointed? What shape is its tail and bill? If it’s flying, what does its flight path look like? The screens get finer and finer until you’re looking for distinctive field markings, colourings on the bird’s body, wing bars, eye-rings, rump patches and others that make your final identification possible and, with growing skill, correct.
Overlaying all these observations is, of course, a sense of what birds actually live or travel through your area. Field guides all contain maps for each bird, outlining their range. The better ones split this information further into breeding ranges, seasonal ranges and year-round resident ranges. In the course, Dan distributed an extensive list of birds spotted in and around Whistler, compiled by local birder, Max Gotz, who co-ordinates the local Christmas bird count. For any birder starting out, it provides an invaluable listing and eliminates the burden of trying to learn about birds you’re unlikely to see locally. It will be available commercially shortly, but if you can’t wait, Max will provide you with a copy if you give him a call.
As the walk progressed — and walks with birders progress very slowly — Al was asked about a number of woodpeckers we could hear but not see. "You can make an identification of woodpeckers by the different pecking sounds if you’ve had an opportunity to hear and watch them enough to distinguish them." Around us were Downy, Hairy and Pileated Woodpeckers.
Pulling off the trail where it overlooks the marsh at the northern end of Alta Lake, we spotted Canada Geese, Greater Scaups, Mallards, and Barrow’s Goldeneye ducks. "To view a marsh like this, an observation tower would be an incredible advantage," Al explained. "Just getting up a few feet lets you see a lot of the smaller birds perching on the grasses and the nesting pairs of waterfowl."
Yellow warblers and nuthatches preceded us down the trail towards Rainbow Park. There, we crossed the bridge and followed the rail line back through the willow marsh lining both sides. After the passenger train passed, wailing its horn in anger at our trespass, the sighting of the day was made. Dawdling at the back with another marginal birder — bird widows we decided, since both of our mates are pretty hard-core — we came upon the group clustered in an excited clump. The source of their excitement was a Red-Breasted Sapsucker, perched and preening in a willow not far away, apparently oblivious to both our presence, and the train, dopplering on toward Pemberton.
"Birding is just another way, and a very good one, to get in touch with your environment," Al expanded at the end of the walk. "It makes you more aware of what’s around you and maybe will make you think a bit harder about your place in the scheme of things. When you look at birds, you can’t help seeing where they live and what they eat. You begin to see patterns of interconnectedness."
The walk we took is a popular and productive one with local birders. In addition to it, Dan suggested good birding areas close by include the Fisherman’s Loop — just off the Valley Trail, along the River of Golden Dreams — A River Runs Through It, the single-track bike trail starting near Rainbow Lake trailhead parking lot, and the Valley Trail around Nicklaus North. Rob Neaga, a local birder with considerable experience, suggested the lower valley lakes, Nita and Alpha, particularly around Alpha Lake Park, and the entire delta area where the River of Golden Dreams enters Green Lake.
A word of caution though. Birding has an insidious way of addicting you. What starts as a casual adjunct to a walk or hike soon becomes the focal point of your outing. You begin to keep a Life List of birds you’ve seen, nail up feeders in the back yard and plan trips around migration patterns. For now, I draw the line at buying recordings of bird songs. Until they learn to play sax, I’ll stick to jazz.
That’s all folks. What follows might be an info box or sidebar if there is room. Otherwise, trash.
A Guide Guide:
The most popular, painted-picture, general-purpose field guides are:
o National Geographic Society: Field Guide to the Birds of North America
o Roger Tory Peterson: Western Birds (and Eastern Birds if you’re planning a trip in the wrong direction)
o Herbert S. Zim, et al: Guide to Field Identification: Birds of North America (published by Golden Books, hence called the "Golden" book)
Each choice has its merits. For example, the Peterson book is easier to carry and use than the NGS book because it only covers this half of North America. However, range maps are all contained at the back of the book instead of opposite the bird’s picture and description. The NGS book and Golden book both present range maps on the same page as descriptions, a great convenience.
The Audubon Society’s guides contain pictures and are valuable tools for people wanting to expand their birding.
Max Gotz’s Whistler Bird List can be obtained by calling Max at 932-7247. It will be available commercially shortly, through outlets to be determined.
A few Websites for the Birds:
Birding in British Columbia. http://www.iceonline.com/home/ianj3/bbc2.html
The Internet Flyway. http://www.netlink.co.uk/users/aw/index.html/
Bird On. http://birdcare.com/birdon/
Bird Links. http://birdcare.com/birdon/
Birds of a Feather. http://www.iceonline.com/home/ianj3/bbclinx.html