This is a big weekend for North Carolina birding. For the 14th consecutive year the Outer Banks, the string of barrier islands that jut out into the Atlantic Ocean, hosts Wings Over Water, one of the largest nature festivals in the Southeast and an opportunity to celebrate the islands and nearby inshore areas that are such an amazing and underrated wildlife experience. And for the 5th consecutive year, I get to bemoan that fact that I wasn’t able to make it out there, a situation I’ve long intended to rectify. This is especially painful this year as the keynote speaker is none other than Bill Thompson III, editor of Bird Watcher’s Digest, blogger, and fellow 10,000 Birds beat writer. No doubt we could commiserate on the untoward way in which Mike, Corey, and Charlie shanghaied us all into this situation (I, for one, was promised candy), but that’s neither here nor there. The bottom line is that as an active Carolina birder I have no real excuse for leaving this gathering off my life list for so long. One of these days…
But I digress. The celebration of this part of the state, and country, is entirely appropriate. Eastern Carolina offers one of the largest concentrations of wintering waterfowl on the east coast, and the opportunities for birders to enjoy them are many at the half dozen National Wildlife Refuges that dot the region. If you want clouds of Snow Geese and Tundra Swans, we’ve got them. Redheads so thick they look like Starlings? You know it. Short-eared Owls on silent wings? Yup. Sparrows, Shorebirds and Rails to test the dedicated? Check, check, check. Not to mention the non-avian highlights, things like Black Bear, Red Wolf, and the potential for migrating whales from shore. I probably don’t need to go on. Birders in the Southeast should definitely do as I say and not as I haven’t done and check it out. At the very least, I hope I’ve made a case for eastern North Carolina as a real deal birding destination as it’s one of my favorite places in the world.
But I want to broaden the discussion to incorporate a part of Wings over Water that has long been a contentious issue among the Carolina birding community. As with any gathering of birders, often regardless of skill level, some good birds are seen (for the purposed of this essay I’m going to assume that we all understand that the term “good” is used colloquially to refer to rare or unusual species, not a judgment as to the inherent value of a given species, savvy?), birds that are of interest to those who may not have been able to, or chose not to, attend WOW that year, but birds that aren’t out of the realm of possibility for someone interested in a long twitch, for instance. In the past, the trip leaders for WOW have tried to keep some of the better finds under wraps for the duration of the festival, a decision that is inevitably criticized on local listservs by birders who clearly didn’t attend the festival.
I sort of understand this. After all, being able to see those kind of birds is a perk of attending and I never felt as though I was missing a whole lot by festival organizers waiting until the Monday after to post the official list no matter how cool a North Carolina Shiny Cowbird is, except when I was running my state Big Year back in 2008 (and I was probably unhealthily on edge most of that year anyway).
On the other hand, attending a festival can be an expensive proposition, and by refusing to publicize a vagrant a low-fund birder who otherwise might really like to see a given species runs the risk of missing a bird that may be well on its way by the time the word gets out. The bird is in an otherwise publicly accessible location after all (in most cases), and you could make a strong argument that the attendees are paying for expert leaders and experience rather than the birds themselves. By sitting on reports, you’re potentially engendering unnecessary animosity in the general birding community without gaining much in the way of protecting the advantages of the festival itself.
There’s clearly a line to walk there. I’d be curious to know how other festival organizers, trip leaders, and attendees feel about the issue, so go to town in the comments.
All that being said however, it may be all for naught. With the advance of social technology there’s really no way to keep the records under wraps anyway. For instance, some of the attendees of WOW this week are eBirders, so a simple look at the google gadget for North Carolina shows some goodies already turning up. A Rough-legged Hawk at Alligator River, a Saw-whet Owl on Boddie Island, a Hudsonian Godwit at Pea Island. If you’re a state lister around here, those are some seriously good pick-ups, and you could go get them without needing to be a part of the festival itself. And I’m sitting here reading on my twitter feed that folks attending the Rio Grande Valley Birding Festival in Texas had a Ruddy Ground-Dove at Estero Llano Grande yesterday morning. The birds are there, and people can’t help sharing their excitement with the greater birding community.
That’s what the festival is selling anyway, excitement about the birds and birders of a certain part of the country. Wings over Water offers that in spades. Now if I could just find the time to get out there…
Update: In fairness to the fine folks who run Wings Over Water, I should point out in the main body of the post that the impression that WOW officially sits on interesting sightings is, to the best of my knowledge, an unfortunate rumor (per Kent Fiala in the comments). It certainly isn’t my intention to propagate such a rumor if it isn’t true.
That said, the decision as whether to actively promote unusual sightings as they occur during a festival to non-attendees is one that different festivals may choose to handle in different ways. The complicated advantages and disadvantages of that practice still stand to be discussed.
That sounds like a lot of fun- wish I could go! Nothing like experiencing big concentrations of birds with a bunch of like-minded people. As for not reporting rare birds straight away at a birding festival, that is just bad, shameful behavior as far as I am concerned.
I’ve never heard of such a thing–strikes me as mean-spirited and petty. Of course, there’s no positive burden on anyone to report any bird to anyone else, but the people who volunteer to lead at these events are usually well-integrated members of the birding community, and you’d expect better from them.
Interested to hear more about the other side of this question.
I don’t really understand it, though I know that some birders abide by the blackout. It must be said, however, that the organization Friends of Alligator River and Pea Island NWRs is posting good birds on their Facebook page and many other birders make it a point to report interesting WOW sightings so if it is a policy, it’s not universally applied.
Don’t get it much either, but how about crowd control? Not that there are many birds that would attract huge crowds and I seem to remember most of the sites being plenty big, but if it’s a circus already, I can see trying to limit outside attendance.
Coincidentally, I had started to plan a long weekend down that way for this weekend a while back. The festival had me reconsidering a bit, but having other commitments was a bigger issue. First weekend in December is looking good though right now.
WOW is not a huge festival, certainly not on par with something like Space Coast or RGV. I’ve never been birding during WOW, so I can’t speak to the atmosphere, but my impression is that it’s pretty low key, and certainly spread out. That said, it often overlaps with a significant surf-fishing tournament which tends to bring in quite a few people from out of town.
If you find your way down here, and if there are specific birds you’re looking for, drop me a line. For numbers and diversity of wintering waterfowl, early December is generally better than WOW weekend anyway.
The candy is in the mail, I promise!
And, yeah, that (attempted) blackout seems odd. Do they think that by not telling people about good birds they find this year that people will then attend next year in the hope that more rarities will show up and be found by festival trip leaders? That is the only possible reason I can come up with and it seems like a huge stretch.
I have been a field trip leader at Wings Over Water for each of its 14 years and I can affirm that there has never been a policy not to report sightings. That is just an unfortunate rumor that got started because someone complained on carolinabirds that reports were not being posted quickly enough–not taking into account that we were actually out birding instead of sitting at keyboards, and that at the time many people didn’t have the technology to post until they got home.
@Kent- That’s generally the impression that I got because it seemed so weird to me that any sort of blackout would be the case. I’m glad to hear it doesn’t have any basis and the idea that people are birding instead of posting certainly resonates.
That said, as technology proliferates I think we’ll see ongoing reports in real time from festivals like this and that’s a good thing, not only as a salve to those who want that sort of stuff as quickly as possible, but also as a means to advertise the festival itself to those who didn’t go. I know I was salivating at some of the birds they saw this year.
I have attended WOW for three consecutive years, 2008-2010. The best part of WOW for me is the meeting of fine folk, both the leaders and the attendees. I’m glad the rumor has been put to rest regarding keeping wraps on reports. But what those who don’t pay the fees miss out on is the camaraderie of sharing experiences with the like-spirited. In addition to the joy of sighting a pair of (beloved by Nate) piping plovers oceanside at Oregon Inlet, we enjoyed a dining experience in front of the BIG TANK at the Aquarium. As a diver, it was just too cool for school to be able to dine with birding buddies with cruising sharks as a backdrop. And Bill Thompson had me laughing from start to finish of the keynote address. Kudos to the planning committee for making all that happen.
@Dee- I absolutely agree. The cost paid for a festival like WOW is for the camaraderie and expert leadership. WOW has always done a fine job to that and I definitely feel that my experience as a Carolina birder suffers for my lack of attendance every year. Next year!
I was really disappointed to miss Bill too.