Yep, as if I’m not geeky enough, I’m also a birder.
For some reason, someone decades ago decided that it was not cool to be a ‘bird-watcher’, so they came up with the term ‘birder’. This is how we distinguish people new to the hobby from those of us who have a good 100 species or so under our belts. If someone comes to a birding event and says “I’m a bird-watcher”, we birders look around at each other, nod our heads sagely, and think ‘N00b!’ Then we help them learn how to use their binoculars properly (hint–find the bird with the naked eye, and bring your binoculars up quickly. Don’t try to spot it through the binoculars), where to look (sides of trunks, on branches, hiding in the leaves, paddling on the lakes, etc.), birding etiquette (never disturb nests, no matter how badly you want to squash the starling eggs, and don’t ‘pish’ frequently and upset the birds, and for God’s sake please throw your water bottle away in the trash can!), and how to find things quickly in field guides. We might chuckle at newbies, but good birders are always helpful to them just the same.
I discovered, however, that binoculars are ‘way cool’ with middle schoolers, and I a. lost Geek Points ™ and b. gained Cool Points ™ because I brought not one, not two, but four sets of binoculars on my son’s field trip to a YMCA park last month. I passed them out to eager students who proceeded to look through the wrong end of them. After reassuring them that no, they weren’t complete idiots for doing that, we checked out the edges of the lake for sparrows, red-winged blackbirds, and swallows, and saw lots of wonderful species. This was Cool for about 3 minutes for most of the students, but I was pleased that some of the students took to it for a little longer. I learned later from the teacher that “Patrick’s Mom was Really Cool ™ because she brought binoculars!” I was just crazy enough to trust them with something that’s just as expensive as a Nintendo DS.
Now, the camp leaders/middle-school herders had the day-trip ‘experience’ down to a science, which meant capturing lake bugs and assorted other fresh-water creatures that are Truly Gross But Fun, followed by lunch, followed by a looooooooong hike to a place where they could learn to build a shelter in case they survived a plane crash in the wilderness. We adults think loooooooooong hikes are brilliant because it tires out middle-schoolers enough to change the speech volume level from ‘ear-splitting shrieks’ to ‘mere loud screaming’. Anyway, I learned that the most important thing for survival in the wilderness following an imaginary plane crash is not food, not shelter, not even water (which was number 2) but “a positive attitude”. If I ever am so lucky as to experience survival of a plane crash, my initial thought will be to a. call 911 on my cell phone and b. go wherever the hell the pilot goes because he’s probably got the GPS. Fortunately, the middle-schooler herders were bright enough not to discuss how to start a campfire, or my binoculars would have seen use besides sighting birds. 10×50 binoculars can do a pretty good job of heating things up if you allow the sun to focus through them.
Nevertheless, I did get some decent birding in that day, in spite of being forced to trek a mile into the camp’s forest to a little shelter where we proceeded to make tree-branch teepees. I let the kids run around like maniacs collecting wood lying on the ground while I cheerfully watched the birds fly around. Apparently the birds are used to loud middle-schoolers, because I didn’t have too much trouble seeing them. I did manage to earn back Geek Points ™ by using Cornell University’s online bird guide and then entering the data into their eBird site. If you fellow birders haven’t discovered eBird yet, click the link and check it out–it’s extremely easy to use, and you can even enter those old life-lists you have sitting around.