Moving slowly along a quiet road in the Hill Country of Texas, my husband Bob and I heard an unfamiliar song coming from a tree adjacent to the road. We stopped to try to find the bird and identify the source of the song. The bird was singing nonstop a song I had never heard, but not moving and not responding to Bob's spishes. Bob was rummaging through his considerable memory forged over decades of birding in North America and beyond, trying to think what the bird might be. The bird teased and challenged us to identify him without revealing himself from behind foliage. Bob said, "Let's try Bell's Vireo." While Bob continued to search visually, I pulled out my iPhone, double-tapped on the Sibley eGuide to North American Birds app, and entered Bell's Vireo in the search menu. I played the first song, to which we both exclaimed "That's it!" As if to share in our excitement, the bird flew across the road and sat in plain view, continuing its song to ward off the intruder that had just come from my cell phone. "Bell's Vireo, indeed," said Bob, very pleased with himself, as well he should have been.
Later that day, we checked into our lodging in Concan to continue our Texas Hill Country exploration. At the same time, the leader of an organized birding tour was also checking in on behalf of his clients. Over the next several days, we would cross paths with the tour group while we birded on our own. Invariably, of course, we never saw as many species as the tour group did, nor were we always visiting the same places. But the juxtaposition of our birding more casually against the more intense organized birding tour highlighted differences between finding or identifying birds on your own while traveling versus participating as a member of a group led by experienced and locally knowledgeable guides.
For example, we will never forget that Bell's Vireo on a rural Hill Country road because, without any visual information, Bob was able to figure out what species the bird was. Had we been with a leader of an organized birding tour, at the bird's song the leader would have immediately called out Bell's Vireo. We would have stopped, we would have tried to see the bird, and then we would have moved on. I doubt it would have been a memorable bird, especially since Bell's Vireo is common in that part of the world. It would in the end be one of several Bell's Vireos that we would hear on that trip. But that first one? I will not forget Bob's joy at getting it right, and then the bird reacting to the tape by finally showing itself for Bob to enjoy.
We would go on and have similar success at key birds in the region, finding them on our own, and listening and observing at our own pace. The satisfaction at identifying a mystery bird and taking the time to enjoy it may perhaps be a reason to prefer birding on one's own while traveling versus following a leader calling out the birds. On the other hand, birding tours offer many benefits, not the least of which is the likely opportunities to see more bird species than one would see on one's own, especially when visiting a region completely new to the birder. Experienced guides know where to find target species and can quickly identify what just sang. Importantly, tours often result in shared memories with like-minded participants, some of whom may become lifelong friends and future traveling partners. It is also nice not to have to concern yourself with logistics or decision-making while on organized tours.
Still, it is hard to dismiss the deep gratification and contentment that results from finding and identifying a bird on your own, particularly when you travel to areas with unfamiliar species. Like any skill, identifying birds takes practice and lots of time in the field. The more you are in the field, and the more you work on identifying birds on your own, the more skilled a birder you will become. Bob's guess of what we were listening to in Texas was based on years of field experience. When faced with a song that he had heard only at limited times in his birding life and a recalcitrant bird unwilling to show itself, he could have considered the habitat; the vertical position in the tree stand the bird appeared to be in; the quality of the song (certainly not a flycatcher, for example); the tempo and duration of the singing; the geographic location; or even the time of day. I was by far the less experienced birder, and Bell's Vireo was nowhere near the tip of my tongue.
Over the past several years, I have been working hard at learning bird songs and other vocalizations to improve my birding skills even if I can no longer see any birds. In the process, I have felt great satisfaction, even pride, at being able to identify the singing bird on my own. It is just so wonderful to walk down a road or trail, hear a bird sing, and immediately identify what it is, thereby connecting with the individual bird, visualizing what it looks like, where it is in its surroundings, and what it might be doing.
We all can take pride in whatever we do well, and for those of you reading this publication, identifying and learning about birds is something you strive to do well. Birding with other more experienced birders is often crucial to improving your skills but ultimately, applying what you learn and working to identify birds on your own will likely provide the most satisfying experience. I very much enjoy going on birding tours for all the reasons I stated earlier and more, but fundamentally, the majority of my most memorable birds are those I experienced either alone or with my husband or other birding friends rather than in larger, leader-led groups. There is just no substitute for the sense of accomplishment you feel when you work hard to identify a mystery bird all on your own.
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. Martha can be reached at email@example.com.