Maine's Lovitch Can Make You A Better Birder
When my binoculars focused on a Blackburnian Warbler in the front yard of our Mount Vernon home, I was hooked.
For years we watched our neighbor, Dona Seegars, binoculars plastered to her face, walking our property in the spring. When she finally got Linda and I out there with her, seven years ago, the number of warblers on our property amazed and thrilled us. And my first look at the wondrously colorful Blackburnian made me a bird watcher.
Eventually, I became a birder, a higher level of bird watching that sent me on Audubon trips in Maine and to far away places including Texas and Costa Rica in search of birds. Linda and I just returned from our third Texas birding adventure where we added 34 new species to our life’s list. And thanks to Derek Lovitch, I was much more effective in identifying the birds this trip.
Just before leaving Maine, I read Lovitch’s How to Be a Better Birder, a 200-page paperback published this year by Princeton University Press. Lovitch has worked on avian research and education projects throughout the country, been a columnist for Birding magazine, and owns a Freeport store, Wild Bird Supply.
Picking up the book, I was a bit intimidated at first. I’m far from the professional level of birding where Lovitch resides, and the book was advertised as a “must-read for all serious birders.”
I wasn’t sure I’d even grasp what were billed as the “best practices of field identification.” I don’t pay much attention to the triggers that the professionals watch including weather patterns, night migrations, and geography.
The first paragraph of his introduction stopped me short. Lovitch was sitting in a coffee shop writing the book on his laptop, with screen windows showing weather forecasts, email messages, listserve archives, and more, plus his cell phone at the ready. He was getting ready for “Rarity Roundup,” held in November to scour the southern Maine coast for rarities.
There’s no way I’ll ever get to that level of birding. For one thing, my Novembers are dedicated to deer hunting! But the writing was compelling and Lovitch reassured me with this: “No matter what level of birder you are, or think you are, there is always more to learn – and more challenges to confront.” So I continued reading.
The first chapter was a revelation to me. Titled “Advanced Field Identification,” the chapter presented the “whole bird and more” approach, a new concept for me. This concept was the most important thing I got out of the entire book, something that immediately improved my skill at identifying birds.
I’ve been focused on seeing the key identifying marks on each bird. Lovitch recommends looking at the whole bird first, from its shape to its flying pattern to its habitat. “I think we’re spending too much time looking too hard at birds when a more holistic approach will identify a greater percentage of our observations in much less time,” he writes.
“Don’t just identify birds, watch them. Look at them. I firmly believe that we need to put the watching back in birdwatching,” he says. “How does the bird move? What is it shaped like? What is it doing? What is it feeding on? Where is it feeding? Size? Shape?”
Stepping outside with my binoculars after finishing the first chapter, bird watching became a brand new occupation for me. Now there is so much more to this activity as I answer Lovitch’s questions about each bird. And I took the concept to Texas, where I found myself identifying some birds as they flew past us, something I’ve never been able to do.
Back home, I am applying the whole bird approach to help me identify hawks, birds that have totally defeated me in the past. “Too many of us rely on the field mark system and don’t look at the whole bird and more. Hawk watching forces us to take a different approach,.” Lovitch says. He is so right!
In other chapters, Lovitch covers birding at night, vagrants, and much more. Some of it was too technical for me. But three chapters were particularly useful to this less-than-professional birder. Birding by Habitat, Birding with Geography, and Birding and the Weather, offered information I am now using.
In Texas, I focused on the weather, understanding that when the wind shifted from southeast to northeast, and a thunderstorm blew through, more migrating birds would settle down for a rest at our location on South Padre Island. And sure enough, after seeing no warblers our first three days in Texas, the trees were suddenly full of them!
This is a book I will keep handy and review every so often to advance my bird watching skills. I’ll never get to Derek Lovitch’s level, but I’m grateful to him for this book that has already made me a much more effective birder, and made birding even more enjoyable.
I have to say something about the great drawings of Luke Seitz in the book. Linda and I spent a day birding with Luke last May on a Maine Audubon trip to Monhegan Island. Luke is an amazing and talented young man who has already traveled the world in search of birds.
Soon after we disembarked from the boat and were milling about the landing waiting to start our birding adventure, Luke disappeared behind a nearby shed and returned with a rare sparrow in his hand, stunned by a collision with the shed’s window. He carried it around for about 20 minutes until it was able to fly away. Astonishing!
A couple of hours into the bird walk, Luke spied a Blackburnian Warbler on the ground. While the rest of the group moved on, I sat on a rock for 20 minutes, watching Luke photograph the Blackburnian, which was no more than 6 feet from me at times. It was good to see the bird that made me a bird watcher at such close range. And this year, when we again take that Audubon trip to Monhegan, I’ll be a lot better birder thanks to Derek Lovitch. But I’ll still be focused on those amazing colors on those Blackburnians!