Hemispherical Birding

For going on two decades now, from shortly after the vernal equinox into early June, groups of people have assembled an hour before dawn in a meadow abruptly fronted by a living wall of three-hundred-foot redwoods. It is an untrammeled corner of the world, usually heavy with frost or dew, silent with primeval hush. The rank grass underfoot is peppered here and there with “elk duds,” untidy piles of Roosevelt elk exhaust. The meadow lies shortly east of the campground at Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park, a couple of miles inland from the northern California coast. Each spring since 1993, it has been my job to challenge these new acquaintances across four days of training to use their eyes, ears, and wits to become Marbled Murrelet surveyors.

Because of loss of habitat to logging, the murrelet is Federally listed as Threatened in Washington and Oregon and State-listed as Endangered in California. As with other Endangered, Threatened, or Sensitive species protected by the Endangered Species Act, known or potential habitat for these birds must be surveyed before timber harvest or any other potentially modifying activity takes place at sites where they may occur. The training concludes with a seventy- or eighty-minute survey during which their skills are matched against those of an experienced evaluator.

The students in this training course, which is offered by Mad River Biologists of Eureka, California, come from varying walks of life. Many arrive bleary-eyed at the “oh-dark-stupid” hour on Monday morning with no training in the life sciences. Most have never seen or heard a Marbled Murrelet. Indeed, some have never before raised binoculars at a wild bird, nor cupped a hand to their ear to strain the aural “wheat” from the “chaff” of American Robin or White-crowned Sparrow song or the intermittent tree frog chorus. Aiming to raise all ships on a steadily flooding tide of understanding and awareness, I tell them about murrelets as animals, as appealing beings that can neither complain nor vote; as ancient creatures, at home both on cold North Pacific swells and in the remnant stands of old-growth scattered across the Pacific Northwest.

Photo of Marbled Murrelet survey group at the elk meadow, Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park, Humboldt County, California, by Ron LeValley, copyright 2008, used by permission.

Laying forth the essential rudiments of biological field survey, I show them how to box-in the red end of a compass needle, decipher the visual spaghetti of a topo map, pick out a good murrelet survey station, and spot the birds. Recalling how bewildering such a blizzard of new information can be, I strive to try to put myself in their boots. In so doing, I, too, enjoy learning all over again how to listen for the birds, how to pick them out as tiny dark specks speeding past in wavering flight against the fog layer, and how to begin to interpret the marvelous behaviors we so often see but fleetingly in the rosy blush of false dawn.

Because many of the students in the Marbled Murrelet survey training have little background in birding, it’s necessary to teach birding basics each week. Over the years I’ve done this job, I’ve come to understand that our shared time in the field is short and precious. What they need to know—must know—in order to find employment looking for murrelets gets taught. What is unnecessary is avoided. The lichen-encrusted and mostly self-serving tales of Uncle Fix getting flipped out of a boat while counting murrelets on the ocean back in ’97 or nearly being gored by a feral steer while stumbling in to a survey station at four in the morning up the Klamath River in 2006 are related less often every year. The bare bone ins-and-outs of how to simply see and hear birds are stressed more frequently.

The resulting curriculum stresses just three elements: knowledge, preparation, and awareness. The pointers I pass on integrate these concepts. To be sure, they find application not only in murrelet survey, but in almost every kind of birding one might imagine pursuing. Shortly after each week’s covey of survey trainees has nodded a dutiful Howdy toward each other in the gloom and is standing at easy attention in the meadow, I begin their week’s training by outlining these elements, of which awareness is key, and which together comprise what I’ve come to think of as the “hemispherical birding” approach. It’s really too simple. Here’s what it’s about.

Starting out, I ask the group how often they look at the sky—as in actually, pointedly look at it. To be sure, I’m not as interested in getting responses as in getting each trainee to consider the curious question. The point is made that, going about our daily lives, we see the sky above and around us merely as simple vista; as pastels, the cloud that sort of looks like a llama, a jet contrail, the half-noticed position of the sun. A vital opposing thought is then brought into play--that, as observers being paid to do a specialized job, we occupy and must scout a bubble of space which is essentially hemispherical. An arm’s sweep of one hundred eighty degrees from bottom to top to bottom, three hundred sixty degrees around and about: here’s this region of earth, trees, and open sky that has to be scanned and must be heard in order to look and listen for murrelets.

Focus your eyes out, I urge them, and you’ll still see what’s nearby. Keep your feet moving, and you’ll remember to look all around you more often. If your neck begins to complain, you’re glancing overhead often enough. Keep in mind a preconceived “search image” for flying murrelets—or whatever species is sought. See the species’ wing shape, its bulk, and the cadence of its wingbeats in your mind’s eye, and anticipate that experience every moment you’re on the job. These suggestions not only increase the chances of detecting Marbled Murrelets, they can be used in ones’ general birding as well, in Council Bluffs or at Key West as well as in forested Pacific Slope environs.

If there are clouds, scan against them, thankful for the pale gray or white three-dimensional background they afford. If you’re scanning into a depthless blue sky, pre-focus your binoculars on a treetop a quarter-mile away so that you’re prepared to get a sharper look at a bird when it happens to fly past. And don’t be distracted by the “floaters” and “worms” that dance before your eyes! Glimpse them, acknowledge them, be with them, know them, and then simply work past and through them. The zen tang of this particular suggestion never fails to generate nervous chuckles of kinship, and an odd relief, shared by the group.

It happens nearly every morning, in that meadow: when all is still, and it seems as if no birds are going to appear in the empty hemispherical bubble of sky, a Great Blue Heron, pair of Canada Geese, raptor, or yellowlegs passes hundreds of feet, perhaps a thousand feet, above us. Suddenly, the sky is again given life. I remind the group that, for probably millions of years, birds have commuted through that very space and, at some point, one will again, whether in the next thirty seconds or six days. At those moments I’m reminded of a book with a sun-faded dust jacket that lived on a high shelf in a hallway of my growing-up house, one that I never read, but whose title I found endlessly evocative: The Crowded Sky, a novel of World War II by Ernest K. Gann. The sky is crowded, I tell the surveyor trainees, and it’s up to you to report on the action.

Having presented the idea of the Big Bubble Of Space and having demonstrated how to use binoculars the right way, we move on to using your ears. The point is made that, during our mostly urban lives, sound comes crashing in upon us almost continually. Only a very small amount of that sound makes any real difference to us: the hailing of a companion, voice media, the opening of a door, the beeping of the microwave, a car horn. In the outback where Marbled Murrelets live, sound becomes more interesting. “Do we have to learn all these bird voices?” is a question plaintively asked. Heads nod, and hesitant eye contact is made among the trainees. No, I assure them, you don’t have to learn them to know them…but you must know what is, and is not, a murrelet. To this end, a CD of various species’ voices is offered, heavy on the murrelets, and we do spend time identifying the routine forest singers. I do urge them to try to recognize from Day One the most frequent sounds they hear.

To put them at ease about the issue of using their ears in an unaccustomed way, I talk about sound by presenting a scenario familiar to everyone. I think of it as the idea of the Third Table Over.

Say you’re in a restaurant, any restaurant. You backfold the sports section and sip tepid coffee. At the table next to you, someone drawls on over their Denver omelette about blowing in some R-4 insulation in their attic. Do you pay attention? Nope.

At the second table over, someone talks about how their ex-husband’s Uncle Hank just got his hernia repaired. Interesting? Don’t think so.

But then…at the third table over…it’s Sex! or Drugs! or Rock ’n Roll! The box scores before your eyes dissolve as your hearing takes over. You are Tuned In. You’re no longer hearing—you’re Listening. It’s not robins or White-crowns any longer, it’s the sought-for Keer calls of a Marbled Murrelet! This concept—mindful listening, hearing as an actual act of effort—is, of course, old news to those of us who bird every weekend, but for many who are new to the pursuit, it’s an idea worth talking about.

Finally, with the bounds and metes of the Big Bubble Of Space accounted for, we talk about the why and wherefore of Letting Go. What if you glimpse a bird you think could have been a murrelet? Or heard what possibly were three distant Keer calls? I smile, shake my head, and tell them that if you’re not positive, you’re not positive, and it’s likely that no amount of excited mental reconstruction of the event will convince you. In the next breath, I assure them that, contrary to what they might imagine, coming back to the office with the news that you might have seen or heard a Marbled Murrelet won’t cause you to lose face. You’ll probably gain your coworkers’ respect for deciding that, after all, you simply remain uncertain. As we stroll from the meadow toward the parking lot, raising our bins to the singing White-crown whose territory is centered on the lone blackberry clump, I leave off the morning’s field session with the old-time bird collectors’ lament:

What’s hit is history; what’s missed is mystery.


“A really good piece about the art of birding…..and I especially like the concept of a hemispherical bubble…..I hadn’t thought much about identification of birds on the wing, and have always looked primarily for stationary birds, but of course when they are on the wing they present themselves to the observer usually without clutter of background, if only briefly……..and some, like the belted kingfisher and goldfinch and woodcock, have very distinctive flight patterns……I just need to expand that part of my birding vocabulary and skills……


Walking in the presence of giants here. Cool thiknnig all around!


christian louboutin women’s designer shoes BirdFellow – Birding services, social networking, and habitat conservation
christian louboutin booties http://blog.pbergman.com/images/christian-louboutin-boot.asp

Post a Comment

Name Valid Error
Email Valid Error