Birdist Rule #63: Go Someplace Weird

Sometimes the best birding happens in the place you least expect it.

The most popular place to bird in Washington, D.C., isn’t a park, or a river trail, or a wetlands boardwalk. It’s a storage yard behind a maintenance building. To reach it, birders follow an unmarked path off the parking lot and creep along a chain-link fence. It feels slightly illicit. In the back, birds flit among piles of unused stone and discarded signage, and there's a big pile of dirt you can climb up to get a better look into the treetops. It’s a weird place, but birders feel right at home.

In fact, going to weird places is one of the things I love most about birding. Birds don’t use maps, and they don’t necessarily know that they're supposed to be in the places we think they should be, like national parks, conservation areas, or refuges. If the habitat is right, the birds will find it, whether it’s in a protected forest or behind a maintenance building.

And birders will follow them.

Birders are probably the only people begging to get access to wastewater treatment ponds, known hotspots for shorebirds and waterfowl. We go to so many landfills that I am going to need a whole other column to talk about them. I’ve birded graveyards. I’ve birded backyards. I’ve birded military bases. I’ve driven behind industrial buildings and had to stand on a flatbed truck to get a better look onto a marsh. I’ve stood on working wharfs in Maine looking for gulls, visited catfish farms in Mississippi looking for sandpipers, and driven cattle ranch roads in Wyoming looking for longspurs. I got my lifer Black-bellied Whistling-duck in a tiny pond stuck between a movie theater and a highway, my lifer Eurasian Wigeon on a golf course, and my lifer Snowy Owl from atop a parking garage at Dulles Airport.

As you begin on your life as a birder, I encourage you to start going to some weird places. First I’ll tell you why. Then I’ll tell you how.

The “whys” are numerous. As I explained earlier, birders go to weird places because, sometimes, that’s where the birds are. But there's also the fact that going to weird places is just plain fun. Anyone can drive up to a park and walk on a trail that’s been paved for you, reading the signs telling you what you should find interesting. But I find it exhilarating not to have to go to the green spots on the map. Birding is the outdoors for those who like to color outside the lines. Lots of folks have stood at the most popular vista at the closest park, but how many have found wild birds nesting behind a casino in Tunica, Mississippi? Not many.

There is also a more philosophical reason to bird in weird places: to learn that there are fewer distinctions between the human world and the natural world than there may seem. Lots of us think of the two realms as separate; our paved cities and crowded areas are one thing, and our parks and woods and wild areas are another. Birds challenge that notion by regularly winging their way into places we think nature shouldn’t be. Humans are the dominant force on the landscape in most of the weird places I’ve birded, from sewage treatment plants to fishing wharfs. But birds show up anyway. Humans and birds continue to share the landscape, not matter how much we alter it.

The other way to look at it—albeit a more sobering way—is to understand just how far humans have intruded into all places that birds used to have free reign. Birds show up at catfish ponds along the Mississippi because the levees keep out the floods that used to refresh natural ponds. They’re at graveyards and golf courses because there aren’t many other open green spaces left near urban centers. Birds show up in weird places because they’ve got nowhere else to go. That understanding is part of the experience.

So how do you find these places? They don’t show up on a lot of maps. The best thing to do is just ask a birder who's familiar with the area. They’ll know the out-of-the-way places, and are usually happy to pass on inside knowledge. Local listservs (check out the American Birding Association's website to find the one near you) and eBird also help, of course.

Still stuck? Go find a weird place for yourself! There are birds everywhere, so try birding that patch of woods behind the Burger King, or that little pond in the housing development. You never know what you’ll find, but you’ll have a weird time looking.