Bird Observer - The New England Birding Journal

Bird Observer

The Birding Journal for New England

June 2015

Vol. 43, No. 3

Musings from the Blind Birder: Birding Vocabulary

Martha Steele

During my years of birding, I have learned new words and new meanings of familiar words. Birders, of course, have their own vocabulary that is not always understandable to nonbirders. Below are a few words in a birder’s vocabulary, with some liberties taken to poke a little fun at ourselves.

Acronyms: abbreviations meaning one thing to birders but quite another to nonbirders. Examples include: TV—Turkey Vulture, not television; MASH—Manx Shearwater, not the legendary movie and TV show featuring Hawkeye Pierce; and SOSA—Solitary Sandpiper, not the Major League Baseball player.

Birder’s Walk: synonymous with “glacial walking pace.” A birder’s walk has a pace of about 10 yards per 15 minutes, with a range of 1 to 120 minutes, depending on the bird activity in that distance. Although birders often boast of how much “bird walking” they did in a day, they often may only walk yards rather than miles due to the glacial pace of bird walking.

CBC: an acronym that stands for Christmas Bird Count, an exercise in self- flagellation as birders rise early to freeze in search of Herring, Ring-billed, and Great Black-backed gulls, European Starlings, Rock Pigeons, American Crows, House Sparrows, and single individuals of other species. I happily stay home and cook for the countdown.

Click: the sound that a birder’s digital camera makes when taking a picture. When many birders congregate around a cooperating and unusual bird, the rapid fire clicks suggest we are in the presence of a movie star.

Deflate: a phenomenon experienced by many birders who publicly misidentify a bird and in turn are publicly corrected. The opposite of deflate is inflate, a phenomenon experienced by only a small number of birders who correctly identify a rare visitor to the region.

Fallout: an ominous word usually associated with atmospheric deposition of radioactive material from nuclear accidents or bombs. However, to birders a fallout is a joyous word describing spring migrants dropping from the sky and singing up a storm.

(Fill in the Blank) Tree: fondly remembered by birders everywhere, these "fill in the blank" trees represent specific trees in specific locations where a specific rare bird was seen sometime in the last century. For example, the “Townsend’s Warbler Tree” in Mount Auburn Cemetery is visited every spring by scores of birders hoping to see another Townsend’s Warbler because this bird was seen in that tree in 1978.

Kettle: a thing of beauty to a subspecies of birders called hawkwatchers. A kettle generally refers to a group of raptors circling 5000 feet or more overhead. Hawkwatchers use their unique code to identify raptors in a distant kettle, such as “WING!” for Broad-winged Hawk. For those not members of this birder subspecies, kettles are best described as the traditional containers used for an afternoon tea, rather than something containing moving specks in the sky.

Lifer: a term that draws blank stares from nonbirders, it can refer to any item of any sort that has never before been experienced or seen by the individual. Beyond seeing a “life” bird, the term can also relate to life person, life road, life diner, life airline, life lip gloss, or anything else.

Massachusetts Birder’s Hall of Fame (MBHF): yet to be established on Cooperstown Road in Tyringham, the MBHF will enshrine individuals who have achieved birding excellence. Minimal eligibility requirements for the MBHF include the following: (1) at least 30 years of birding excellence; (2) a career on-bird- percentage (OBP) of at least 0.750 representing having seen at least 75 percent of all bird species recorded in Massachusetts; and (3) no more than five errors in the field of misidentified birds, thereby earning the birder at least one Gold Bird Award. Nominations anyone?

Optics: instruments used to see birds, such as binoculars and spotting scopes. Optics can be so good that they create optical illusions of a rare bird located half a mile away on a choppy ocean surface.

Out in the Open: a phrase that is among the most aggravating to birders trying to locate a bird “out in the open” among hundreds of openings. Synonyms include “on that branch,” “on top of that tree,” “on that rock on the reef out there,” or “in the sky.”

Parula Warbler: a species of warbler that no two birders pronounce alike. Is it pear’-you-lah, par’-you-la, pah-rule’-la, or something else?

Peep: usually thought of as a high-pitched sound uttered by young children, peeps are actually a group of small shorebird species posing identification challenges to even the most experienced birders. Just like parents who enjoy the peace of not hearing a peep out of their sleeping child, some birders may enjoy not seeing a peep either when awake or in their dreams.

Pelagic Trips: offshore trips in search of seabirds that can be exhilarating or miserable. Exhilaration reigns when large numbers or unusual birds fill the ocean air with sight and sound. Misery reigns when neither occurs, the seas are rough, and six or more hours of boredom are endured on the return to shore.

Peregrinate: wander. Peregrinate generally entails traveling at least ten times the actual "as the bird flies" distance between points A and B. Birder peregrinations are often misunderstood to be aimless and boring rather than targeted and fulfilling, unless, of course, the birding is poor, in which case it is aimless and boring.

Road Kill: a bird or other animal carcass lying in sight of passing motorists. Road kills can elicit strange behaviors in birders, who abruptly do U-turns to identify the species. Sometimes this entails exiting the vehicle and bending over to examine the carcass, which can attract state troopers concerned that said individuals are throwing up and need medical assistance.

Spishing: considered an art form honed over many years, spishing is the act of contorting one’s mouth, tongue, teeth, and trachea to utter sounds that apparently mean something to birds, who often mob the perpetrator. It is an act performed only in the presence of other birders, to be immediately squelched and replaced with a pleasant smile upon the approach of any nonbirder.

Tick: an annoying and sometimes disease-carrying arachnid. To birders, tick also means the mark on a checklist indicating they “got” the bird. A “mega-tick” means they got a rare or vagrant bird.

So, go ahead, have some fun when thinking of our unique vocabulary and quirky language and habits. And don’t forget to report that LBJ—little brown job—that just flew by while you were looking into your optical-illusion-creating scope. It is probably a female Cassin’s Sparrow.


Martha Steele, a former editor of Bird Observer, has been progressively losing vision due to retinitis pigmentosa and is legally blind. Thanks to a cochlear implant, she is now learning to identify birds from their songs and calls. Martha lives with her husband, Bob Stymeist, in Arlington.

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