Brian Henderson, May eBirder of the Month

By Team eBird June 26, 2016

Brian participating in the Wilmington Christmas Bird Count

Please join us in congratulating Brian Henderson of Norristown, PA, winner of the May 2016 eBird Challenge, sponsored by Carl Zeiss Sports Optics. Our May winner was drawn from among those who submitted 5 or more complete no-X checklists on May 14th—the Global Big Day. Brian’s name was drawn randomly from the 2,842 eBirders who achieved the May challenge threshold. Brian will receive new ZEISS Conquest HD 8×42 binoculars for his eBirding efforts. We asked Brian to tell us a little more about himself, his use of eBird, and his love of birds – read on for more!

Hello, folks. Learning that I’d won the May eBirder of the month challenge was a real shock. My track record with contests has been dismal, frankly, for a very long time. In the golden days of the early 1990’s, I won a free spaghetti dinner with a fire prevention poster, and then a small tree thanks to a national tragedy of a poem. The wins dried up shortly thereafter. It may have taken decades for another contest to go my way, but the awesome Zeiss binocular prize pack more than makes up for it. Thanks, Zeiss and Cornell!

I hail from the Philadelphia ‘burbs: Chester county (mostly) born and bred, eventually relocating to Montgomery county, chasing ephemeral employment. I am an eBird data reviewer for Montgomery, a member of Pennsylvania’s hotspot review team and a county compiler for the Pennsylvania Society for Ornithology.

Despite spending my formative years as a weird nature-kid, I didn’t actually discover birding until adulthood.  The potential for bird-obsessive behavior was always there but, for a long time, nothing beyond casual interest ever manifested itself.  I made no attempt to see or seriously learn about the birds around me. I’d always thought of most, like warblers, as being creatures of deep wilderness only. That a suburbanite could step out the door and encounter a host of avian species without leaving the yard was unfathomable to me before I was infected with birdbrain. (To date, I’ve managed to encounter 150 bird species in/over my yard, including more than thirty flavors of warbler. Yard-listing is, of course, one of the telltale symptoms of birdbrain. There is no cure.)

Orchard Oriole at one of Brian’s local patches, Norristown Farm Park

My descent into feathered madness began with a visit to the doctor. Critical of the way my loathsome human form was growing moss and starting to fuse into my sofa, he demanded that I get more exercise. Reluctantly, I agreed. Near-daily walks commenced in the Norristown Farm Park, which, although located practically across the street from me, was a place I’d barely set foot in prior to that point. I began to encounter birds. Lots of birds. Some of them I knew already, or could figure out with relative ease. Others required more effort.

Somehow, fumbling for IDs on the internet led me to eBird. Having the full field guide filtered down to a more manageable checklist of expected species was a game-changer. I could concentrate my clumsy efforts on what was most likely for the area and date. Once I was familiar with the regulars, it was a lot easier to pick out the unexpected. Everything began to click. Patterns began to emerge. Questions were answered. Answers begat questions. It was like I was unraveling a big cable-knit sweater that someone kept knitting and knitting and knitting… I was hooked.

Many people talk about their “spark bird.” For me, it was more of a “spark system.” As odd as it is to say, it was really eBird that converted me into a bonafide birder. Sure, I may have found the calling through some other manner, but eBird gave me the structure, the information, the contacts/guidance and the inspiration that I needed to better myself as birder much more quickly than would have ever been possible without it.

Brian enjoying some “birdwhatching” in the Ecuadorian Andes (while demonstrating how overrated functional elastic is in a binocular harness).

After years as a sedentary lump, barely ever leaving southeastern Pennsylvania, birding pushed me to travel/explore the world more, with eBird becoming an invaluable data source for trip-planning in unfamiliar territory. I’ve been fortunate enough to be able to bird several Latin American countries and to take a number of seabirding trips into the Atlantic Ocean. In the process of trying to achieve the frivolous personal goal of seeing at least 50 species in each of the 50 United States by the time I hit age 50, I’ve birded across half the country, and have grand plans for the other half. (I’m coming for you, mountain west.) It’s thanks to eBird that I am able to keep track of what I have observed, and where, in this quest. That the data we collect goes to further scientific endeavors and bird conservation makes this pursuit all the more rewarding.

The Global Big Day coincides with the Pennsylvania Annual Migration Count (PAMC) in the Keystone State. The PAMC’s data collection goals are the same, albeit turned state/county-specific, and virtually all Montgomery County PAMC participants used eBird to log their sightings. I spent the day bird-hunting in my assigned turf in the Norristown Farm Park, my yard and Evansburg State Park.

Forced to leave my camera at home on the Global Big Day due to a boneheaded decision a few days earlier – taking it out in the rain with only a plastic grocery bag as protection, an act that turned the drying camera into a frustrating brick for the week that followed – I had to resort to using a smartphone voice recorder app to capture audio recordings. Some of those clips can be heard in the checklists linked above. This phone strategy actually works rather well. I (and your friendly neighborhood data reviewer) heartily recommend it as a backup/alternate method for documenting interesting birds.

Thanks to all, and happy eBirding!