Interview with the Afternoon Birder

Beloved Birders!

You may already be a fan of The Afternoon Birder through Laura’s stunning photographs and also through her recent decision make 2018 her Big Year of Birding Reading. I’ve been following Laura since she started her fantastic blog a year and a half ago and have loved living vicariously through her (intrepid) birding travels. A self-proclaimed Bohemian Waxwing whisperer, I’ve become fascinated by her uncanny ability to attract hundreds of my favorite nemesis birds wherever she goes. What can I say – she’s just that cool. Laura joined me for this conversation via email from her current home in Fernie, BC. All photos in the interview by Laura. Please visit her blog to see more of her work.

I’ll be honest with you. Bohemian Waxwings are my nemesis bird. I saw a flock about six years ago, but that was before I really started birding seriously and I had no idea what I was looking at. Now that I am desperate to see one, they’re nowhere to be found. Every time I get on Twitter, I seem to see another one of your awesome photos or videos of you surrounded by Bohemian Waxwings! How do you do it?

No whispering skills required in Fernie. I see large flocks of 100-500 individuals almost every day here. They are abundant at the moment! In Ottawa (where I’m from), they are more difficult to see. I use eBird to search for recent sightings and I get out in the field as much as I can. The more you head out birding, the higher your chances will be (if they are in your area).

How did you become interested in birds?

My Mum is an avid bird-watcher so I grew up with it. Our family would often take walks in nature and my Mum would point out the birds she saw. Over time I was able to identify birds myself. Birding was always a big part of my childhood, I can’t really remember a time without it!

What do you love most about birds?

I love the variety of species, behaviors and habits and that you are never done learning. Birding is always a challenge and, even for experts, there are always new things to discover.

About birding?

I also like that birding gets you outside and exploring places you normally wouldn’t go. It also keeps you in the moment and in tune with the natural world.

You speak openly about the challenges of living with a chronic medical condition on your blog. How has birding helped you cope with life changes?

Birding has been a godsend for me since being diagnosed with a dizziness condition. I don’t know what I would be doing without it! It’s the perfect activity because you can do as little or as much as you want. If I’m having a bad day, I can enjoy watching birds on my feeder or I can edit my photographs. On a better day I can get outdoors and have a purpose. It keeps me occupied, challenged and gets me out into nature.

I also enjoy the social aspect of birding. Having a chronic medical condition can be isolating, but I’ve met so many great people from birding. Everyone I’ve met has been very understanding of my limitations and it’s great to get out in the field with people for a couple of hours to break up my day.

Osprey, photographed on Sanibel Island, Florida
“I like this photograph because it represents the beauty of Florida wildlife photography. The sun is always shining and many bird species allow you get much closer than in other places.This particular individual was hanging around a fishing pier, no doubt looking for a handout. It was perched up on a post so I took the shot from below as it gave me a curious glance. I love that you can see the details in its eyes.”

You’re a birder and a photographer. How does one influence/enhance the other?

I consider myself a birder first and a photographer second, but it’s a tough balance between the two. I only took up photography three and a half years ago when I was diagnosed with a dizziness condition and had to give up my career. I saw my Mum’s superzoom camera on a shelf, I picked it up and started taking photographs of the birds in the backyard. I was amazed by the quality this little camera could achieve. Since then, photography has become a passion of mine, but I never forget my birding roots.

When I head out in the field, I tend to focus on either photography or birding. It can be difficult to focus on both at the same time. If I’m with a group or birders and the goal is to see as many species as possible, there isn’t time to frame the perfect shot. I still enjoy the rush of trying to get a photograph under pressure, but it is a different style of photography. I also think that being a good birder helps make you a better photographer. Knowing the species and how to find them is half the battle with photography!

When I want to focus purely on photography, I tend to go out on my own or with one other person. If you find a cooperative bird to photograph, you stay in one spot (sometimes for ages) to get as many great photos as possible. I think a positive thing that photography brings to the table is it forces you to slow down and enjoy the bird in front of you. You notice these small details that often get lost when you’re birding.

I have a somewhat personal question for you. My partner isn’t a birder; actually a bird guide in Arizona affectionately labeled him a S.O.B. (spouse of a birder), and sometimes it’s a challenge to convince him that birds are worth waking up at 5am. Or rather, I’ve had to perfect my creative, covert manipulation tactics. Have you been able to convert your partner to birding?

I haven’t fully converted him to birding and I don’t think I ever will! We met before I became dizzy and in those days I wasn’t very interested in birding. Nowadays birding is my favourite activity so it’s a been a big transition for us. Luckily my partner is very understanding and he doesn’t hate birding so I will take that as a win! He will come out with me in the field and he likes certain species, like birds of prey and jays. He also takes pride in trying to spot a bird before me! One time when I was away, he borrowed my camera and got a great photograph of a Fox Sparrow that I had been trying (and failing) to photograph. I had to hear about how great a photographer he was for weeks after.

I can totally relate. My husband still won’t let me live down the time he spotted a Snowy Owl before I did! Every time he sees movement in a tree and I don’t, he assures me it was probably a rare bird sighting that I missed because I wasn’t paying attention! How do you manage making travel fun & inspiring for you, birdwise, while also leaving room for other activities that might be more his-cup-of-tea?

Trips are a challenge, but we try to find a balance. Last year we did a ski trip to Whistler and we agreed to do 3 days of birding in Vancouver beforehand. I knew by the end of the 3 days he would have had enough, but in Whistler I didn’t expect him to do any birding. It was a great compromise.  

Who are some of the birding mentors/influences in your life?

First and foremost my Mum is the biggest birding mentor and influence in my life. Without her, I probably would never have started birding. She bought me my first field guide and taught me the vast majority of what I know about birds.

A second birding mentor in my life is friend and professional guide Jon Ruddy of Eastern Ontario Birding. Jon goes miles above and beyond what is expected of a bird guide. When I wanted to work on my shorebird ID skills last fall, he sent me literature to read, shorebird ID quizzes and helped me identify individuals I was struggling with. His knowledge, expertise and willingness to help made it so much easier to raise my birding skills to the next level.

Young Hooded Merganser photographed at Mud Lake in Ottawa
“Both Hooded Mergansers and Wood Ducks breed in this location and on this particular day I was lucky enough to catch a brand new batch of ducklings come to shore. These species are cavity nesters so the ducklings seem to appear from nowhere! What is even more interesting is this Hooded Merganser was being raised by a Wood Duck mother. Hoodies will lay their eggs in Wood Duck’s nest cavities, leaving the Wood Ducks to raise their young. It’s fascinating to watch the group together because Hoodies are diving ducks and Wood Ducks are dabblers. The Hooded Merganser babies are still able to learn to dive, even though they are being raised by a dabbling Wood Duck.”

How do you go about improving your birding skills?

My mom often sends me texts saying “you have 10 seconds to identify the species in this photograph”. Seriously!

I love it! Now that’s true birdy nerdiness!

In 2017, I set myself a goal of improving my shorebird ID skills. This post goes into the details https://theafternoonbirder.com/north-american-shorebird-id/, but basically I decided to focus my efforts on shorebirds. I studied field guides, I got help from an expert and I went out in the field as much as possible. The strategy worked and I feel much more confident about this group now.

Do you use apps? Take classes? 

I’ve never taken a course – my skills are self-taught and learned from my Mum and professional guides. I use field guides and apps to help – I like Merlin and The Warbler Guide. I also monitor eBird closely for recent sightings and if I see something interesting, then I will do a specific trip to that location to try and find it. Otherwise, I will just head out and see what I see. After you’ve been birding for awhile, you figure out where the birding “hotspots” are in your area. I normally start with these!

Eastern Bluebird in a snow squall photographed in Ottawa 
“This is one of my favourite photographs! A unique combination of events came together to make this moment happen. Eastern Bluebirds don’t usually show up in Ottawa until later in the spring, but a pair was reported at the beginning of March. I set off to the location with low expectations of seeing them. It was quite a large area and I wandered around for over an hour without seeing them. It then started snowing and I figured I had no chance, but then some movement caught my eye up ahead on the trail. Even with my naked eye I could see the brilliant blue of what could only be an Eastern Bluebird! It was an amazing sight on an otherwise colourless winter’s day.”

What was the idea behind your decision to start a Big Year of Bird Reading? I’m so excited that it’s getting lots of press on social media and a lot of people seem to be reading along! You’ve started a trend!

I read Noah Stryker’s Birding Without Borders at the end of 2017. It was the first non field guide book about birding that I’ve read and I loved it! At the start of 2018 I decided to read Ken Kaufman’s Kingbird Highway and part-way through it I had the idea to set myself a challenge of reading 12 books about birding during the year. I wrote a blog post about it and it has been so well received by people! I’m thrilled that so many are joining in on the challenge. People have started commenting on the post after they’ve read a book with their thoughts. I love the idea that the post will become a great resource for anyone looking to discover books about birding.

I’ve now finished Kingbird Highway and I really enjoyed it. I’ve been to a few of the places that Kenn visits on his big year so it was really great being able to picture exactly where he was. I also found it was easier to connect with this book than Birding Without Borders because I am much more familiar with North American birds. I think reading this type of book is great for learning – you pick up tips about birding by following along on other people’s adventures. Kenn is so descriptive about the species and places he visits – I learned so much!

OK I have to ask, since you’ve been reading Kaufmann and Stryker, whose epic trips revolve around listing: to list or not to list? Where on the spectrum do you fall?

I’m not a lister, but I do record my sightings on eBird. I like to bird for the pleasure of birding rather than to do so competitively. I also don’t have the energy to chase every rare bird that shows up.  Saying that, someone recently told me that I’m in the top 5 for the East Kootenay region for number of species seen in 2018. I might have to up my game!

What’s next for you?

I plan to continue blogging and building up my readership. I also recently moved to Fernie, British Columbia, from Ottawa, which means a whole different set of birds to learn and see. In terms of upcoming travel plans, I’m going to the UK in May and getting the opportunity to bird with Dominic Couzens (author of numerous bird books and professional bird guide). I’m also going to Newfoundland in the spring where I hope to see Puffins and other nesting seabirds.

Good luck Laura! Can’t wait to hear about your travels and….see your photos!

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