Saturday, February 8, 2014

Feb 8 (Day 39) - Birding Wilmington, to tape or not to tape?

The weather forecast for today was terrible: cold, wind, rain. When I saw this forecast a few days ago, I decided that making any major moves today would be a bad idea. Wilmington is a great birding area, so I decided to just kick around here for the day since I had host willing to house me for 2 nights. This would set me up well for the 80-mile ride to Myrtle Beach, South Carolina tomorrow. I did try to venture out to Wrightsville Beach in Wilmington. This was a huge mistake. It was very unpleasant and I quickly returned to the house after a brief visit to the beach. I spent the next 3 hours holed up in the house waiting for the rain to abate. I did add semipalmated plover (#150) at the beach. Here is the view at the beach.

The view at the beach - ugh

Department of Redundancy Department

I actually had my second flat tire on my bike this morning. Luckily, it must have happened so late in the day yesterday that I was able to make it to the house without noticing it. I was able to change the flat in the garage when I discovered it this morning. Once the rain stopped, I swung by a local bike shop, the Two Wheel Dealer, to purchase a new tube (I always carry 2 spare tubes). They also suggested that I switch my front and back tires since my back tire is wearing down faster. This always happens since most of the weight sits over the rear tire. I thought it was a very good suggestion, and I will work on this in the next day or so. They could have tried to sell me a new rear tire, but instead they gave me an equally good solution that would not cost me anything. It was very nice of them (hence they get a link).

After I left the bike store I met some of my new local birding friends at a neighborhood pond where we were able to find a Virginia rail (#151). Rails are very beautiful but very secretive birds. They normally live in marshes and other wet areas that are generally difficult to explore. There are many seasoned birders who have only had glimpses of the various rail species that lurk in marshes around the country. One technique that birders often use to aid in rail viewing is playback. This entails playing a prerecorded rail call to draw the rail into a proximity in which it can be viewed. Rails are generally very territorial, and when one rail hears what he thinks is another rail in his territory, he come out to investigate who is in his territory. In an attempt to be as transparent as possible, I will say that this is the technique that we used today (lots more on this below). Here a few photos of Virginia rails that I captured when very high floods pushed them out of the marshes at one of my local Massachusetts spots (Great Meadows NWR in Concord). All of these were captured without a tape. That day last June was really a once in a lifetime morning!

***click for bigger images***

I will now spend a few minute discussing my thoughts on using taped calls to aid in bird viewing. This is a VERY controversial topic in the bird community, so I will try to touch on the key issues as I see them. First, using taped calls works very well which is why birders do it. Generally, the more territorial a species is, the better it responds to taped calls. However, taped calls agitate birds, and if the same birds are repeatedly taped, it can cause them a great deal of unnatural stress. The ultimate effects of this stress is still under debate.

The general rule of thumb is to avoid taping birds that are actively nesting. Raising young takes lots of energy, and if a bird is busy defending his territory against calls played by birders, he isn't dealing with his familial obligations. There is a ton of debate as to how disruptive taped calls actually are, but ask 100 birders and you'll likely get that many different answers. There is no debating that the biggest problems arise when the same bird is repeated taped by many different birders. This often occurs when a bird wanders and/or nests outside its normal range and birders in that area want to see it. It is possible to tape birds that aren't nesting, but during nesting it works particularly well.

So, is there a way that we as birders can balance our desire to see birds with the health and sanity of those same birds? First, I think that we need to find a medium between "never tape" and "tape anything". The worst thing is to draw hard and firm lines that discourage discussion. Like it or not, taping is going to be a part of birding; I think we need to discuss how to we can manage it effectively. My solution is to encourage cooperation and coordination between birders. For example, it would be much better for 20 birders together to tape a bird 1 time that 20 individuals to tape it 20 times. We need to work together to minimize the disturbance on birds, and in some instances taping can actually do just this. For instance, without a tape, those 20 people could spend all day tromping around a bird's territory looking for it when the tape would reveal it in 30 seconds. They could get in and out faster with the tape than without it. This is a similar strategy that Anahuac National Wildlife Refuge uses with its rail walks. The refuge schedules rail walks several times a year when birders can walk through the marsh to see yellow and black rails. However, the rest of the time this behavior is prohibited. People actually plan their Texas birding trips around these walks! With this strategy the birds are disturbed a minimum number of times and a maximum number of birders get to see them. This is the type of management that balances the health of species with the interests of birders. I realize that eliminating taping (or rail walks) altogether would mean even less disturbance for birds, but I am really looking for balance in this discussion.

The rails we taped today we not nesting and in my judgement would not suffer greatly by being taped. I know I am going to get all sorts comments on this post, but I am just trying to be honest with everyone. I am also trying to use my experience today as a talking point to highlight both the benefits and drawbacks of using taped calls. I generally reserve taping for special occasions. A bicycle big year is, in my opinion, a special occasion.


  1. Are you allowed to count birds that you've only heard? In Sweden, and I think most of Europe, it is allowed. Then you also minimize the need for taping (even though it is used sometimes) since most birds sing or calls some part of the year.
    BR Kris

    1. It is generally up to the birder to make that decision. Most of the time heard only birds are accepted nowadays, with the exception of mega rarities. In some cases, like empidonax flycatchers, identifying by song is essential.

      Where I live (North Bay, Ontario), I have no problem with taping, although I have used it only a few times. I would like to use it on a Virginia Rail this spring as I have never seen one before, though I have heard it lots.

  2. Dorian,
    I do a lot of touring and have found Schwalbe Marathon Plus to be great tires. Hard to get a flat and they last forever. Consider them when it's time for new tires.
    Keep on cruising man. I'm a huge fan and love following your blog.
    Let's go Pens!