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GUEST COLUMN: Bad weather birding

Stanley Tate

Rome native Stanley Tate sits on the Berry College Board of Visitors and is a former Chieftains Museum board member. He retired as executive vice president and chief environmental officer of Southwire and now writes a nature column that appears in several Georgia newspapers.

Tough winter, isn’t it? Seems to me they are all tough nowadays, but it may be that I’m just getting tender. Anyway, most of the things I like to do aren’t done in the winter.

My grandfather used to reckon that one man’s weather is another man’s poison.

“The only way to handle weather,” he once said, “is to know what you want to do with it and use it accordingly — quit complaining about it and put up with it for what it’s worth and be prepared for it.

“You get a big unseasonable snow, and a man who owns a pair of long-handles wears them and enjoys it. The fellow that’s wearing short pants whimpers and wails. There ain’t no such thing as bad weather. Some days are just better than others.”

People ask me, “When is the best time to go birding?” My standard answer is, “Whenever you can.” So take advantage of bad weather. Bad weather is good bird weather: feeders get more action, migrants go to ground or water to ride out storms, and rare birds show up in unusual places. If you wait until the storm clears, it may be too late — don’t miss a great bird just because you don’t want to get a little snow down your collar.

Bad-weather birders face perils that their fair-weather friends don’t, including aching toes, numb fingers, frost-nipped ears and drippy noses. So start off warm and dress warm from the inside out. Start with a good breakfast and then surround that breakfast with long underwear and a good sweater and a couple of flannel shirts and two pairs of socks. Put a pair of woolly britches over that, also good boots to keep water off your feet, a waterproof coat, a big-brimmed hat, and ear-muffs. Once that inside furnace starts working, you can sweat in a blizzard.

Bad weather birding also requires fully sealed, nitrogen-purged binoculars and spotting scopes. But no matter how dry the innards of your optics are, water on the lens surfaces will soon make them useless. Your big-brimmed hat doesn’t just keep your head warm and dry; it also keeps water off your binoculars. A hood pulled way forward will do the same. Keep a few dry, clean lens cloths squirreled away in your pocket — a shirttail isn’t good for expensive lenses. In a pinch, even licking snow, rain, or salt spray off your eyepieces can save the day.

I know it sounds kind of wimpy, but certain creature comforts can make a big difference when the weather gets really rough. Sometimes you may want to use your vehicle as a blind and warming hut. Try to park so the wind is blowing from you toward the birds. A window mount with the same quick release as your tripod head is nice to have at such times.

In addition to accepting the weather, my grandfather gave me another truism that keeps me going. If you can’t work the weather to your will, don’t fight it. In December we got that big unseasonable snow. The gray sky was as sad as a Monday funeral and it snowed enough to make the South Koreans want to move the Winter Olympics to Rome. The yard was covered with birds looking for something to eat and a dry perch. I put out birdseed and then stayed in the house. There is nothing better than a roaring blaze inside a snug house when things are impossible outside. Let it rain, let it pour, let it snow, let it roar; a good fire and a noggin of something to half-sole your spirit is not a bad way to spend the day. Birds at the feeder are a bonus.

Rome native Stanley Tate sits on the Berry College Board of Visitors. He retired as executive vice president and chief environmental officer of Southwire and now writes a nature column that appears in several Georgia newspapers. Readers may write him athenryt@bellsouth.net.