Q & A with George L. Armistead & Brian L. Sullivan

An interview with George L. Armistead & Brian L. Sullivan, coauthors of Better Birding Tips, Tools, and Concepts for the Field

How is that someone ends up becoming a birder? How is it that you both ended up as bird-watchers, or “birders”, if you prefer.
GA(George L. Armistead): I come by it honestly. My father is a lifelong birder, and though he never met either of his grandfathers, both of them had a keen interest in nature and birds. Seems hard-wired in our family. I think most birders have a natural inclination to being outside, and are curious people with a thirst to know more. Often it seems through a hunger to discover more about the world around you, you stumble across someone else that mentors you, catapulting you forward in your quest to learn, and it’s a positive feedback loop. It’s kind of addictive. The more you know, the more you want to know. It’s fun, thrilling, yet relaxing too.

BS (Brian L. Sullivan): I had a passion for birds as a child, and my parents really nurtured that by taking me to places such as Hawk Mountain and Cape May, where I fell in love with hawk migration. Being outside at these places really opened my eyes to the world around me. Once I realized what was possible, I was hooked. The idea of all these birds moving across the landscape twice a year fascinated me, and all I wanted to do was get outside and see what had arrived each day. For a kid, it was like living in a perpetual Christmas morning. I still feel that way every time I go birding.

What exactly is Better Birding? How is this book meant to help readers get more out of their time spent looking at birds? And why is that important?
GA & BS: More than anything, birding is supposed to be fun. Why it’s important to anyone in particular is personal, as there are so many different ways to enjoy observing birds. We’d refer readers to the section in the introduction titled “Why Birding is Cool” to try and understand what birders get out of the experience. We’ve taken a good hard look at the practices and the techniques involved in active birding in this book, and we’ve tried to distill those processes into digestible bits wrapped around the fun aspects of learning how to identify certain groups of birds. While that may sound “serious”, what we really hope to do is provide folks a deeper understanding of what they are seeing when they are in the field, and hopefully provide avenues for exploration. Most of us start out trying to snag sightings of life birds (birds we’ve never seen before), and as we discuss listing as a deeply ingrained part of birding. But after a while most of us find a desire cropping up to understand not just what birds looks like, but also how they evolved, how they are related, and why they do what they do. And the cool thing is that as you learn these things, suddenly bird identification becomes a lot easier.

In Better Birding you discuss a “wide angle approach” to birding. Explain to us what you mean by that?
GA & BS: Routinely, new birders are presented with a single bird that intrigues or puzzles them. What usually happens next is that they focus in on what the bird looks like. Naturally, they zoom in as far as possible to try and see as much of the bird as they can, in excruciating detail, and so often we are drawn to color and plumage. And this approach makes sense—it underpins the oldest approaches to bird identification going back to the original Peterson Guide. But often if we zoom out just a little bit we see a lot more. We see the bird’s surroundings, and the habitat it has chosen. We see how it moves and feeds. We see that its lurking in the shadows, or prominently perched in the sun, or always in the air, and this is useful information. If we can see and understand what a bird is doing, that can often be more instructive than how it appears. Zooming out further, we look at the date and the season, which are also really helpful things to consider when trying to determine the likelihood of a particular species’ occurrence in a place. A bird’s appearance is the starting point, but many times it’s other factors that solidify an identification. Mostly due to space constraints, typical field guides don’t provide this context.

Do either of you have a favorite bird?
GA: Yes, this is the question that all birders are asked. Some folks have a ready answer, but I’ve never been able to settle upon one. It’s like picking a favorite song, or a favorite beer; there are so many great ones to choose from! Like Brian, I’m very fond of seabirds. They are so dynamic in the air, with sharp, streamlined shapes. I remember being stranded at a dock in Mexico once for several hours and I was never bored watching the Magnificent Frigatebirds kiting around. Birds like Black-capped Petrel, Fork-tailed Storm-Petrel, Northern Fulmar and Light-mantled Sooty Albatross are extremely gratifying to watch. Seabirds aside, one of the most beautiful moments I have ever witnessed was watching a male Spruce Grouse courting a female outside of Churchill, Manitoba. It was simply incredible, deeply moving, and affected me in an almost spiritual way. And this from the bird often known as the “fool hen”; arguably the dumbest bird in North America.

BS: For me it’s always been raptors, with seabirds a close second. My fascination with both groups stems from a love of bird migration. Watching raptors move south down a windswept ridge in fall for me is a ‘religious experience’—it’s what I do to get recharged, to become filled with a sense of wonder and appreciation for the natural world that can somehow get lost with too many days spent behind a computer. It’s a primal connection that I can’t quite describe. In terms of particular species, I’ve come to appreciate most the Red-tailed Hawk. Although widespread and common, it has a bewildering array of plumages, a fascinating range of geographic variation, and an unbending wildness about it. I like that anyone can go out and see one on any given day just about anywhere around North America, and if they so choose, they can ask themselves more questions about it. What age is it? What subspecies is it? What color morph is it? Asking oneself questions like this is a perfect example of the process of thinking about birds at a higher level–and Red-tailed Hawk is a perfect subject for it.

What qualities make for a good birder?
BS: I think in a nutshell, the single best thing that a good birder learns is the process of extracting what they are actually seeing from what they’d like to see. The power of suggestion is high in birding, and emotions can run deep around the idea of seeing new birds. The best birders not only rapidly assess what they are seeing and put it into a broader context (the tools you’ll learn in this book), but they also take an extra moment to step back, extract themselves from the emotional side of the moment, and then objectively evaluate what they are actually seeing (the process we hope you learn from this book!). Taking this extra step often reveals that what was originally suspected of being a rare bird, is actually just a common bird in an unusual pose, behavior, or plumage.

GA: Patience, dedication and the ability to embrace uncertainty. One of the fun things about birding is that it is a puzzle. Identification is gratifying in that we get to look at something confusing or uncertain, makes sense of it, and give it a name. The more you are able to do this, the more fun it becomes. People do get overzealous about it at times, and knowing how and when to say, “I’m not sure”, is important. Good birders know when to let stuff go. They understand the limits imposed on them by their surroundings (such as light, visibility, wind, etc.) and also understand the limits of their field skills. Really, it’s all about awareness which is why good birders tend to be pretty interesting people. They are alert and attuned to what’s going.