Squint. Harder. Until all of the muscles around your eyes are so tense that they could almost carve your eyeballs out their sockets. Relax, and do twenty reps.
This is what my shorebird surveys are like.
For three weeks now I’ve been venturing out on the same Bay, stopping at the same places, and meticulously scanning the mud flats, reaching my eyes for distant rocks and opposite shorelines in a desperate search for shorebirds. So far, only seven of those suckers have dared to make the trek to the Yaquina Bay: a whimbrel, four yellowlegs, and two killdeers. The first one I saw was two weeks ago. I remember sighing as I popped out of the car, slightly relieved to be out of the office, yet restless. Science is not always about delivering results; trials with no findings are just as valuable as studies with unimaginable, ground-breaking Nobel-Prize earning conclusions. Dubious, but I’d mutter this under my breath, as if repeating this reminder would work some kind of judo-meditation-magic and put my nerves at ease. As I struggled to set up my scope, quietly cursing under my breath at the stiff legs of the tripod, a little “squ-ee-ee-ee-ee” prompted me to look up. Lo and behold, creeping onto the sand right in front me there was: the whimbrel. In one instant, all the frustrations from my lost battles with my optical equipment, muscle strains from clumsy falls resulting from rushed descents onto the mud flats, and painful brawls with the sideways rain were absolved. I saw a whimbrel. My life as a surveyer was suddenly complete.
Ornithology is a funny thing.
First of all, I am by no means an ornithologist; the more I learn about birds the more I realize how immensely limited my knowledge about birds is, let alone the natural world. Despite being donned the go-to-expert on birds at Yaquina Head, I often find myself nervously searching for vague answers that could somehow satisfy the curiosity of park visitors on what the park’s feathered friends eat. Though a simple “invertebrates” seems to cover all bases, a part of me can’t help but feel inadequate. Ask me about how climatic changes have impacted the dietary palette of the Common murre and you’ll make my head spin–what was that study? Was it a guy from Canada who researched that? What do Common murres eat again? Suddenly, all the facts I thought I knew about these “flying penguins” get confuddled into an exasperated “I don’t know.” Perhaps this is what makes birds such an interesting focus of study: they’re highly charismatic, easy to observe, and obvious in their behavior. One change, an observation on their interaction with the environment, or a dietary choice could tell us much about the world around us, while also shedding light on how much is left to be understood. No wonder why NSF always has a field-day at funding projects about birds.
Anyways, I should be more concise in my musings about ornithology: the practice of “birding” is a funny thing.
You put on your trucker cap and cargo pants. You’re dressed head to toe in a range of beiges and light greens; there’s no way a bird will be able to spot you out from the dense shrubbery of the mud flat (or so you convince yourself). You secure your hiking shoes by tightly yanking at the laces (traversing mudflats, mountains, and bays will be a piece of cake), strap on your binoculars and lunge the tripod of your scope over your shoulder (no bird will be left unseen), and prepare your bag by deliberately shoving field guides, a canteen, waterproof notebooks, and a pencil inside it: you’re ready for battle. Who’s the enemy? Uncounted birds, of course.
I always have to take a moment to laugh at myself as I step out of the US Fish & Wildlife vehicle for my first pit-stop on the bayfront that I survey: such a hardcore get-up for such a passive task. It’s humorous to see how passerbys react, the government plates of the car, paired with the impressive amount of optics I carry makes folks uneasy. Oftentimes I thank God that despite my attempts to look official with my cargo pants and Columbia jacket, my size and stature makes me as threatening as a gawky 14 year-old. Last summer I used to tag songbirds in DC neighborhoods, a job where male field techs with scruffy beards would always get harassed by well-intentioned and aware Neighorhood Watchers, and I would get accused of being a Russian Spy. Here, I see the curious looks, but no one seems bold enough to ask. Or maybe they don’t care. The mystery of their perceptions still makes me giggle; it at least helps me pass the time while I wait for the shorebirds to come.