In 1998, Greg zig-zagged 130,000 miles across the USA, while trying to hold down a full-time job, aspiring to reach at least 700 species of birds in one calendar year. "The Big Year," a novel by Mark Obmascik detailed his travails alongside two competitors. The book was later turned into a movie of the same title that starred Jack Black, Steve Martin and Owen Wilson!
Maine holds a special place in my heart. It is a place where I love to visit. The mountains beckon. The incredible rocky seashores are striking. And the islands off the coast are home to many seafaring birds. Maine has a great concentration of nesting passerines, too. Many of our migrant warblers end their journey in Maine to breed.
The mornings are often cool and crisp, but inviting. Foggy mornings often give me a feeling of mystery. My curiosity is always aroused. What is out there that I cannot see? (In a good way, I mean–not like a horror movie!)
By early June, the forests are carpeted with rocks, moss and lichens. It is absolutely beautiful. Hiking in the forests here is like treading on sacred ground. It gives me such a sense of awe. The stands of trees allow rays of light to gently touch the forest floor. And the sound of a tiny Winter Wren sounds almost other-worldly.
Maine has good food, too. Of course there is seafood. Yes, there is lobster. But you should also try lobster roll while you are there. Or a whoopie pie. Or blueberry anything–like blueberry muffins, blueberry pancakes, blueberry scones, blueberry jam, blueberry ice cream, and blueberry pie for starters.
Off the coast one can find Atlantic Puffins, Razorbills, Black Guillemots, Arctic Terns, and Common Murres. Along the coastline there are Common Eiders and Black Scoters. On land one can find a number of nesting warbler species, flycatchers, and other passerines. And one can hunt for a few boreal species like Bicknell’s Thrush, Canada Jay, Boreal Chickadee, Spruce Grouse, and Black-backed Woodpecker.
Spring is finally here. Well. Early spring. Weather teases us with warmer temperatures and then bashes us with the last blasts of winter’s fury. It’s an up and down time for weather. But the birds know that change is in the air. And birds are looking for favorable winds from the south to help them on their perilous journeys north to their breeding grounds.
If you are like me then you love that family of small cheerful birds called warblers. These are wonderfully colorful gems that grace us with their presence on their way. If you get to see a Blackburnian Warbler (pictured above) you may be seeing a bird that has traveled from as far away as Ecuador! They must have so many stories…
This is a large family of birds in North America with over 50 species. Chances are good that you have seen at least some of them no matter what your level of experience. But even if you get out birding often, you may still have a few holes in your checklist. And you want to fill them. I hope I can help you with that.
Below is a list of warblers (in 2016 taxonomic order). Data is taken from eBird from 2006-2016. Counties are taken from my own list of most-eBirded counties (most eBirded means counties with the most checklists) in the United States for that 10-year period. Peak dates are narrowed down to the week that gives a birder the highest probability of adding this species to their checklist. The %ofChecklists column is the same as eBird’s frequency of checklists. For example, if a county has 1,000 total checklists for a given week and yellow warbler was marked (one or more individuals) as seen on 600 of those checklists then the %ofChecklists would 60%. So that 60% would represent your relative probability of adding it to your checklist.
Below is a list of all the warblers recorded in eBird between 2006 and 2016 (I’ve included Yellow-breasted Chat for us old folks). Note that for rare species, the data I have can easily be skewed by one cooperative bird showing up in an easily accessible public spot. But for most everything else I think you’ll find the results to be quite accurate.
I grew up with many, many ear infections as a child. In my early 30s, I had a surgery on my right ear called a mastoidectomy. It was greatly successful and I recovered 100% of my hearing. But about 20 years later I noticed a mild decline in hearing. I was straining to hear Cedar Waxwings and Brown Creepers. In another five years I was straining to hear Bay-breasted, Blackpoll, and Cape May Warblers. Aargh! I thought I was losing some high range frequency.
But what those around me knew—and much faster than I was willing to admit—was that my degradation in hearing was more than just high frequency. I was losing hearing in all ranges. And my right ear—the ear that had the surgery—was failing faster than my left ear. By age 60 I was having problems occasionally hearing people’s conversation. It was very hard to accept. It was hard to come to grips emotionally. I felt like the hearing that once gave me an advantage as birder was now less than average.
Not too long ago I remember watching a Black-throated Green Warbler open its bill to sing. All I heard was two buzzy notes, zee-zee. I was stunned. The full breeding song for that species in Ohio sounds something like zee-zee-zee-zu-zeeee. I watched that bird sing for what seemed like a long time. I was filled with disbelief and then disappointment.
To complicate matters I have had serious difficulty with colds/allergies from late fall through early spring. If I don’t heal within a couple weeks it seemed like I would develop ear infections and then temporary hearing loss that was very dramatic. Maybe you have seen me at a birding festival wearing headphones just so I can hear human conversation.
I did see a specialist. I got my ears tested. The news? The surgery is starting to degrade in my right ear. And there is no fix. Hearing aids are in my future. But I currently don’t feel like my ears are bad enough yet to deserve going for the expense of hearing aids. But I sometimes still strain at phone calls and human conversation and I’m missing out on lots of birds. What should I do? Well, I found a temporary solution. It is not perfect. But it does help. And it may help some of you, too. I have wanted to write about this for a couple years and have just put it off. Until now.
I tried a handheld parabola. That increased my ability to hear everything. But it required the use of one of my hands. And using binoculars with the other hand was less than pleasurable. It was the best boost for hearing, but I compromised ability to see birds with only one available hand.
I tried a Walkers Ear from Cabelas. It was ok. But it didn’t stay on my ear securely. And the battery compartment was small. And the switch to turn on high frequency was maddeningly difficult for me. High frequency was either on or off. It sounded very tinny and thin. And it magnified annoying sounds to an irritating degree. Sounds like folks walking on gravel or shuffling in dry leaves would test my patience. And even the sound of rain jacket material crinkling bothered me. It did help my hearing. It did help with higher frequency. But the loose fit and the irritating sounds made it less than fantastic for me.
I continued to try new things. I bought a headset with a microphone on top designed for hunters. It was big and clunky. But this was better for me than the Walkers Ear. But they were heavy. In hot weather I could not wear them long as my ears would sweat. In fact, I couldn’t wear them for more than 2-3 hours. The pressure on the ears made them moderately uncomfortable over time. I could change the volume, but I would have to remove the headset entirely every time I wanted to make an adjustment. This offered a greater hearing boost. But I found out just how busy many places I visited were. It seems as if there is always an airplane overhead. And I am always in earshot of traffic. I think I could hear trains half way around the world, too. Ok. I may have exaggerated. A little. Also, wind and rain seemed to be new factors with this setup. But I felt like I was getting closer to a workable solution.
For the last five years or so I have owned a pocket-sized amplifying device called a Pocketalker made by Williams Sound. I still own the old model. There are several newer (and better I suppose) devices now available. I bought my device from amazon.com for about $99. It came with a cheap headset and a little microphone. The headset is one step better than something you’d get on a long flight. And the microphone has no cord. It just plugs directly into the top of the unit. The unit runs on two AAA batteries. Even if you didn’t add anything to this rig it is better, in my opinion, than anything else I had tried.
In using the Pocketalker I tried a couple different placements on the body. The cord for the headset barely reached into my pants pocket. I tried it there first. But as you guessed it, the sound of the mic rubbing against the inside of the pocket was less than desirable. Not to mention that the sound of outside things was slightly muffled. And I wrestled with the cord to my headphones.
I tried clipping onto my belt buckle on my right side. This was better, but I still wrestled a bit with the cord for the headphones. Although I got less material sound than inside the pocket I was surprised how often the mic would brush my shirt where it met the top of my pants.
I often wear nylon fishing shirts when I am out birding. These shirts have two pockets in front. I use my left pocket for my phone. So I tried putting the Pocketalker there. I was able to stuff the excess cords into the pocket without messing things up too badly. This was the best spot. But, the material in my pocket still rubbed against the mic.
The mic was an issue in all three locations for the Pocketalker. After reading a number of reviews, I found that many folks had a good workaround. The Pocketalker has a place to plug in any mic and a place to plug in any headphones (that are wired, of course). So I upgraded my headphones and also purchased a small lavalier mic with a clip and a long enough cord that I could use it anywhere on my body.
I got my lavalier mic made by PowerDeWise on Amazon.com. I just recently bought a replacement. The cord eventually got pinched and shorted out. I got my headphones at Walmart. Simple noise-cancelling headphones by Sony with a cord. Boom. I’ve got my setup.
As a birder, I move around a lot. I found the best place to clip my mic is actually onto my headset, right at the very peak, and pointing in the direction that I am facing. This reduces annoying feedback sounds and is conveniently pointed where I am looking. I like the Pocketalker in my right front shirt pocket. I have less wires to contend with when it is there.
There are two dials on my Pocketalker. On one side I can see the word “off”. To turn the unit on simply turn this dial and it will click on the power. A little red light goes on up on the top of the device. This dial has numbers from 1-10. On a new set of batteries I usually like starting out at about level 3. This is great for conversation as well as just a little more sound than normal for bird songs. When I am walking I sometimes will turn it up to 4 or 5 (if I’m not on leaves or gravel) to listen for more distant sounds. If you turn it too loud you will get feedback.
The dial on the other side is for frequency. This wheel will not change the pitch or frequency. But it will filter out noise. The thinner the line on the dial, the more low frequency is filtered out. This is what I use to magnify higher frequencies of bird songs. Of course, if you use this indoors in a crowded place you’ll want more thickness on the dial. This will filter out the higher frequency sounds and make conversation more pleasant.
This is my go to setup. It serves my purposes well. And with practice with this unit you may find out you can hear more than you thought. Yes, you might feel a little awkward wearing headphones in public. But this, to me, is far less awkward than not being able to hear as well as most everyone else. This will give you more confidence again and make you feel like you are no longer missing out the wonderful experience that we all call “birding”.
I am not an audiologist. I am not a medical professional. I get no money from any of the makers of these products. These are my own personal views and recommendations. If you purchase a setup like mine I hope very much that you will enjoy it as much as I do.
IBG is my creation–Impatient Birder’s Guide. Latest data in my database is from the 299 most-eBirded counties in the United States from 2006-2016. I am highlighting Santa Clara County, California today. Why? January is the “best time to go” to Santa Clara County for the greatest number of anticipated species seen in one week by an average birder. To a local Californian who knows all the nooks and crannies in this birdie county you may end up with a substantially higher number.
Santa Clara County is a fabulous place to bird. This county lies at the south end of San Francisco Bay. In the west are coastal mountains. In the east are the large grasslands of central California. On the northern edge is the southern part of San Francisco Bay with fabulous marshes and mudflats. The birding can be pretty spectacular all year. You can look at a map here.
How many species can you expect to see in a week? Well, according to my data, 128 species. You can see some good birds in the mountains and some in the grasslands. But to me, the marshes and mudflats of the southern Bay Area are some of the finest. The shorebirding here is simply amazing. And there are tons of waterfowl, too. The sheer number of birds can be dazzling.
Some of the best places to bird in the county include: Palo Alto Baylands, Sunnyvale Baylands Park, Shoreline Park, and Los Gatos Creek County Park. There are many other great spots, too. You can check out the best eBird hotspots in the county here.
An illustrated checklist of birds can be found here. And an overview of county birding in eBird can be found here. As of the writing of this blog, 386 species have been reported in the county. A total of 269 species have been recorded in January alone. Check out this bar chart of species reported in Santa Clara County, California in January here.
Back in 2015 I was sitting with Kevin Loughlin, owner of Wildside Nature Tours, in his house near Philadelphia. We were brainstorming about an idea I had to do a few “Big Year” style tours. Together we came up with 11 one-week tours. These 11 tours were crafted around Wildside’s busy birding festival schedule and filling in gaps where the existing Wildside schedule could afford to be stretched. I had my homemade database with eBird data so we could find the most efficient places to go birding in the time slots we had available. And this is how Wildside’s Big Year Birding Tours schedule was born.
Since January of 2016, Wildside Nature Tours has been running Big Year Tours. These tours are designed to get the highest number of *unique* species for each one-week trip so that if a birder took all 11 trips they should end up with over 500 species of birds in the United States. That’s half of all the species in North America in just 11 weeks. These tours will give a birder a little taste of what it’s like to do a Big Year but in an easier-to-handle one-week-at-a-time commitment.
The name of this particular trip is FLORIDA: Central Specialties Birding. But “Central” Florida includes Ocala National Forest in the Northern part of the State, out to Merritt Island NWR on the East Coast and south to Ft. Lauderdale, and west to Ft. Myers and up the West Coast up through Tampa, and back to Orlando. So this really covers a large portion of the State of Florida.
Florida is a wonderful place to start your year. Not only will you get many Florida specialty species, but also a large number of wintering species that spend their summers further north. You can find a list of species we saw on our inaugural tour in 2016 here: 2016 Central Florida species list.
What is IBG? It’s the Impatient Birder’s Guide. It’s my own creation from eBird data at eBird.org. The latest iteration is from data collected from 2006-2016 as of September, 2016. I have data from the 299 most eBirded counties in the United States representing all 50 States. Nearly half of all the checklists for the… Continue Reading
Do you want to know where your favorite warblers are right now? Check out these links to eBird for up-to-date maps of the most recent sightings of 55 species of wood warblers for 2018! Wood Warbler Species (click on species name to view a map): Ovenbird Worm-eating Warbler Louisiana Waterthrush Northern Waterthrush Golden-winged Warbler Blue-winged… Continue Reading
In the first section I discussed with you several strategies for doing a working person’s Big Year using 4 weeks (or 20 days) of vacation. The four strategies are: Four one-week trips for 400+ species without Alaska & Hawaii Four one-week trips for 400+ species with Alaska & Hawaii 10 Long Weekends without Alaska &… Continue Reading
Here is a big list of all 553 “possible” species listed in eBird format. By possible I mean any species that has been submitted to eBird, an online database of checklists, between 2006 and 2016 as of mid September 2016. I have further filtered the data so that what is listed are all at least… Continue Reading
Here is a big list of all 509 “possible” species listed in eBird format. By possible I mean any species that has been submitted to eBird, an online database of checklists, between 2006 and 2016 as of mid September 2016. I have further filtered the data so that what is listed are all at… Continue Reading