No, it isn’t a typo and this isn’t about the American Birding Association (ABA). It’s about the mindset of “Always Be Birding”. Anyone that has seen James Foley and David Mamet’s “Glengarry Glen Ross” probably recalls the pivotal scene in the movie where one of the lead characters delivers one of the most memorable diatribes in recent cinematic history about “Always be closing!”. Well, sometime after seeing that movie for the umpteenth time years ago, Marie and I started jokingly saying “ABB” to remind each other to be ever vigilant and looking for birds.
Just in the last month, the ABB mindset has paid off in spades. A few weeks ago in June, we were taking a back way to lunch in Arlington and passed behind the Home Depot. We casually both checked the powerlines as we passed by and noticed the silhouette of the single bird there wasn’t quite right for the usual Mourning Doves and Northern Mockingbirds. Our first inclination was Loggerhead Shrike, but that didn’t quite fit either. We pulled over near the loading dock and got the bins on it – Gray Kingbird! Not a mega-rarity or anything, but it was a nice year bird and a rather out of place one at that.
A few weeks later on July 5th, we were taking the circuitous route home after running some errands – a route intended to take us through M&M Dairy, when a bird flew across the road and over our car at the usually “dead” end of the road (Dead as in not active, not as in a true dead end street!). Due to our honed ABB skills, we both hunched forward in our seats and looked up through the windshield as the bird passed by from left to right across our radio dials (anyone who’s listened to a football game on the radio will get that). This was one of those moments where you see something out of place and start going through the reasonability check to make sense of what you’re seeing; some call this birding by Gizz, or taking a Gestalt approach to birding.
I first had the impression that this bird had a nice buoyant flight, that it was lightish in color, that there was a hint of “rust” along the flanks, and that is was trailing its legs or feet behind it (Marie likened the same projecting length to carrying of nesting material). I first eliminated Cattle Egret and then briefly considered Black-necked Stilt as I started to see some black in conjunction with that weird set of legs and feet; both of these species are expected at this location at this time of year. As the bird approached the treeline and came to a graceful landing in the set of pines, it was evident neither “wader” would light in such a location so they were both eliminated. This all took place in about 3-5 seconds when it occurred to me that we had just seen a Scissor-tailed Flycatcher!
Marie (safely) slammed on the brakes (we were doing about 40mph) and pulled over. We stayed around for 2 hours through a lightning storm and heavy rains but could not relocate the bird. The next morning when we returned, the bird was showing itself well to the delight of several local birders. This was the first record of the species in about 18 years in the county, so it was quite a treat – not to mention it was a gorgeous adult male with a magnificently plumaged tail.
To me, ABB is really two-fold; first, you must literally “always be birding”, taking stock of your surroundings and looking at every bird. Second, take a purposeful back road when you can to pass by that retention pond behind the movie theater or behind that Home Depot; you’ll increase your chances of seeing something good there versus flying down an interstate at 70 miles per hour! It’ll also help you slow down and enjoy life perhaps a little bit more.
Note – After writing this, I did an internet search for Always Be Birding and found another blog from several years ago where someone out west has a very similar mantra. I know most birders already behave like this (that’s why you smiled to yourself when you read about hunching forward over the steering wheel to look at a bird while driving, admit it!), and maybe one day this ABB will continue to spread organically throughout the nation.