CormoRANT: 04-28-2017: Gone Pishing…

What does it mean to be a “birder” or a “bird watcher”? Some of us pursue birds in the field as academic or scientific pursuits. We tend to shade those activities over into “ornithology” which is (perhaps too) simply the scientific study of birds. The rest of us have this passion to find these winged beauties for a million different and personal reasons. But it all boils down to the love of a challenge and the persistence to see things through. Whether it’s to finally conquer your “nemesis bird”, get your 400th state species, or figure out what the heck is making that weird “cheepy-urp!” call in your backyard, it takes dedication and love of the challenge to continue birding.

To that end, we have long employed optics and field guides. Some of us march out with camera lenses that almost make astronomical observatories feel inadequate. Audio recordings are nothing new to the study of birds, but with the relatively recent advent of smartphones and birding apps, almost anyone can walk into a yard, park, or forest and play a high-fidelity bird call or song. Be it alarm or predator calls, we are increasingly using these methods to at least get birds to come closer to look, or to pop out of that darn bush for half a second, PLEEEASE?! There’s much debate over the effects these recordings have on birds, and that’s a debate well worth having.

But one other audio aid birders have used far longer than iBird or Sibley or even YouTube streams is the simple “pish.”

Pishing is both a tool and an art form. Combining percussive “puh” and harsh “shushing” noises in quick succession, the sound is thought to create an alarm response in birds, especially the smaller passerines (though I’ve had crows come investigate on occasion). Sometimes I think they just come to laugh at someone in a big hat and cargo shorts spraying spittle all over his t-shirt. Some birders seem to get almost immediate responses to their pishes. Others’ attempts can grate on your nerves and you wonder what the big deal is, as you consider another reason to carry an umbrella along.

Sadly, I feel my pishes fall into the latter, soggy category. And I rarely have any success with my pishes, no matter how I alter the sound. Besides the aforementioned crows, I think I may have called up 2 Pine Warblers and one tired flock of late-winter Yellow-rumped Warblers since I started pishing 3 years ago. Before then, I was always embarrassed to try it. If I was out by myself, it was almost like talking to myself. I guess when I finally realized I was often talking to myself, pishing didn’t seem such a long reach.

I suppose just like any other birding tool, and particularly audio recordings, pishing isn’t too invasive or troublesome when used judiciously. Pestering birds during critical times, like nesting or rearing young might be a bit much, but in general any amount of action you’re likely to raise isn’t much above the noise level for a bird that may have traversed 3500 kilometers, 10 interstates, a wind farm, a sports stadium, and predators – natural and unnatural – to get to your favorite patch of woods. But it’s probably best to be safe. Maybe your pish will be the proverbial (and salivary) straw that breaks the camel’s back. And in popular spots or during birding festivals, it might just about wear the birds out to hear hundreds of hiking boots, dozens of pishes and the actual and virtual shutter-clicks of a hundred cameras for a week straight.

In short, pish wisely my friend, and if you’re on the low end of the pishing mojo scale, like I am, maybe leave it alone. Your fellow birders will be happier – and drier – for it.

SCBWF January 25, 2014: Red-cockaded Woodpeckers & More

Saturday morning was the earliest start to field trips for the entire festival, for me. We had to be sure to be ready to catch the endangered Red-cockaded woodpeckers as they woke up for the day.

Last year, we attempted to catch this species at the Three Lakes Wildlife Management Area for the Central Florida Specialties trip, but were largely unsuccessful. For this particular trip this year, we were led by Maria Zondervan and Duff Swan, who are part of the ongoing management of this species in the Hal Scott Regional Preserve and Park. They had a game plan for maximizing our ability to see these birds, and proved to be excellent trip guides for us (our third leader had other issues).

The downside of stalking (or in this case, staking out) a bird that can be as shy as a Red-cockaded Woodpecker (or “RCW” as our guides refer to them) is that you have to stay a certain distance back. This meant no photographs for my camera, tough my 8×42 Carson bins were certainly up to the task.

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Typical pine flatwoods habitat. You can see some evidence for understory burning at the base of the trunks.

Red-cockaded woodpeckers live in family groups and are cooperative breeders. Younger birds will help their parents raise successive broods until they get their own mates and territories. As the birds wake up in their individual roosts, they’ll call out to each other to make sure everyone’s awake before they start the day.

Maria had us split into 3 groups, each staking out a different nest tree. This kept the number of people near each tree low so the birds wouldn’t feel intimidated. It was a chilly and cloudy day, and our bird, a second year female, was very reluctant to get up. Her parents called out and even flew over toward her nest hole to get her going, but like a stereotypical teenager, she was having none of it. Finally, after more woodpeckers called out and an incursion from a neighboring family group got her up and out of the nest.

We watched the birds start their day as other residents became more active. The Eastern Bluebirds were more cooperative and photogenic. We even watched a mated pair harass and chase away a Red-bellied Woodpecker that tried to commandeer their nest hole.

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This Eastern Bluebird’s mood was as cloudy as the weather after having his home invaded.

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“Take a picture, it’ll last longer!” Umm… ok then…

We saw a lot of evidence of feral pigs (which are a real problem across most of the southeastern USA, not just Florida). They tear up sections of ground, ripping up roots and soil. It can take years for some areas to recover.

After the “RCWs” dispersed a bit for their daily foraging and inter-family bickering, we successfully stalked a Bachman’s Sparrow (it flew right past my head, so I got a very decent look at it), and had many opportunities to see other various woodpecker species, and the adorable Brown-headed Nuthatches.

My species list for this trip (15):

  • Red-cockaded Woodpecker
  • Eastern Bluebird
  • American Robin
  • Bachman’s Sparrow
  • Savannah Sparrow
  • Red-bellied Woodpecker
  • Yellow-bellied Sapsucker
  • Downy Woodpecker
  • Brown-headed Nuthatch
  • Prairie Warbler
  • Palm Warbler
  • Yellow-rumped Warbler
  • Northern Mockingbird
  • Red-winged Blackbird
  • Great Blue Heron

We ended the morning with a quick walk by part of the Little Big Econlockhatchee River, but bird activity was essentially nil. My personal belief is that one of our trip leaders was trying to rely too much on “pishing” and playing a Screech Owl call as the group walked along. Pishing and the use of calls can be effective, if used judiciously. I don’t know what was going through this man’s mind to think that a continuous play of a Screech Owl and incessant pishing would in any way enhance our ability to see the birds.