Birding vs. Bird Watching

By Margo D. Beller

It’s funny how one can have all the media in the world at your fingertips and still miss important news.

I was looking up information before a recent trip to Cape May and found an off-hand reference to “Pete Dunne’s stroke.”

Pete in his element This was rather surprising because when I met him, around this time of year on the Scherman Hoffman hawk platform, he was hale and hearty and full of energy as he watched for and identified hawks with a large crowd, some of whom bought his most recent book.

From an article in NorthJersey.com, I learned the stroke occurred just before this year’s World Series of Birding, an event which he created 30 years ago. In the article he talked about how he was rehabbing hard so he could help his WSB teammates during the May event.

One comment he made interested me in particular:

I have a heightened appreciation for bird-watching, and how anchoring and affirming it is. I always knew that bird-watching would be an activity that I could do well into my dotage. What I failed to realize is that dotage is something that doesn't necessarily happen gradually. It can actually come on a person overnight.

Then he mentioned that he had 38 types of birds just looking out his window at the rehab center. As he said, emphatically, last year when I asked if he considered himself a birder or a bird watcher, the man is a bird watcher.

There is a difference. Like a lot of words nowadays, bird – a noun – has become a verb, as in “to bird.”

“Birder” has more of an active connotation. These are the people who go “birding.” They get up at dawn and hit their favorite patch as often as possible, then fly to birding hotspots the minute they read an email, get a text or are called about a rarity. In its most extreme form, it is an obsession, such as detailed in the book by Mark Obmascik made into a movie with Steve Martin, “The Big Year.”

A bird watcher, by contrast, is more passive. He or she goes out to watch the birds, whether it’s in a forest or from a hospital window. Dunne told me last year he no longer cares to rush around trying to see everything. He wants to enjoy what he finds along the way.

In my case, some days I am content to sit on the porch and see and hear what’s in the area. Other times, such as my recent Cape May trip, I try to see as much as possible.

People love Cape May, especially during migration. It’s the reason New Jersey Audubon holds festivals there every May and October, including theupcomming  one scheduled for Oct. 25-27. It’s a big deal, with lots of field trips, and big names in the birding world. I hope Pete Dunne can make it.

However, I prefer September, when it is still warm but not as crowded as in high summer.

We only had one full day to spend in Cape May, and so I woke my husband (MH) at 5:30 a.m., got us to Wawa for coffee and then to Higbee beach for the "morning flight". I had heard all about this phenomenon and wanted to experience one myself. Birds flying south find themselves over Delaware Bay at sunrise, decide they don’t want to go any further and so turn and fly north to land and feed. Then, as dawn arrives, they rise en mass to continue migrating. Sometimes those counted are in the hundreds, sometimes in the thousands and on rare occasions hundreds of thousands.

dawn flight

At 6am, with the light coming on and mist rising from the Cape May canal on a cold morning, we were far from the first people there. Those who were already there had managed to walk up a very steep and well-worn trail to the top of the dike, where they set up their scopes and waited with their binoculars and clickers to count the birds.

I tried to get up there, but there comes a certain point where gravity overcomes inexperience. I managed to get only half-way before giving up and, thanks to grabbing some phrags, getting back down without killing myself. Wisely, MH didn’t try. Instead, we walked the steps to the top of the shorter platform across the road and waited.

No hundreds of birds zipping around. I could tell by the guys – and they were all guys, most of them younger than MH and me – who looked in my direction every so often, that they were not seeing much up there. However, I could see quite a lot from our lower perch including common yellow-throats, cedar waxwings, Carolina wrens and at least a half-dozen juvenile blue grosbeaks.

yellow warbler

Looking at these guys up on the dike, I realized I didn’t want to do what they do, and I wasn’t going to try. Instead, after some breakfast, we were going to go to a few areas and see what we could see and not beat the bushes trying to find as many different birds as possible.

In other words, we stopped birding and started bird watching.

Margo - dawn in Cape May

Too often nowadays it seems people, especially my fellow boomers, are pushing themselves to the limit. They are running marathons or power walking with their music on or driving too fast while on the phone or mountain biking up and down steep hillsides, perhaps trying to prove something to themselves.

I think you miss a lot by rushing around. Birds, for instance. When I look at the birds, whether in the forest, at Scherman Hoffman or the feeders in my own backyard, I feel more connected to the world around me and to nature.

I agree with Pete Dunne’s philosophy. I enjoy being a bird watcher. There are times when you just have to slow down.