Monday, January 17, 2011

The secret to my birding success

Red-breasted NuthatchRed-breasted Nuthatch, Hagg Lake, Washington Co., Oregon on 17 December, 2010 by Greg Gillson.


The photos in my blog postings in recent weeks were all from one 10-minute photo session in mid-December.

The Ruby-crowned Kinglets and Hutton's Vireo in ID: Little green bird: Kinglet or Vireo? and Wing-flicking: Ruby-crowned Kinglet, the Hermit Thrush in Hermit Thrush in Winter and The old hermit that lives in the woods, and the Red-breasted Nuthatch above were all photographed together at the same time.

Would it surprise you that these were just the tip of the iceberg as to the birds present? Would it surprise you that they appeared at my bidding--that I didn't just luck into this active flock? In fact, I was unaware that these birds were there at all. I'll tell you about it in a moment.

What is the secret to my birding success? It is more important than having the best birding optics. It doesn't matter what you wear or even where or when you go birding. It is simply the most-effective birding fieldcraft technique for seeing birds at close range--by getting them to come to you:


Pishing is the art of making of hissing, squeaking, kissing, whistling, and chattering sounds to attract birds. In many ways pishing appears to mimic the scold notes of a flock of chickadees, causing other birds to investigate.

Pishing may be a funny word, but it has its own Wiki page. If you think the word itself is funny, think how you'll feel getting "caught" doing this in your local birding patch!

After too many posts on this subject on the Oregon bird discussion list, OBOL, in early December, Mike Patterson wrote a nice blog post on pishing. It included a recording of some of his repertoire of sounds.

Birding author Pete Dunne actually wrote a book called "The Art of Pishing."

On December 11, 2010 David Fix posted interesting comments on pishing to the OBOL (Oregon Birders OnLine) list. He calls it "spishing" so it sounds less like a certain vulgar word.

Some of his observations:

Spish LOUDLY. This teensy, soft, underbreath stuff some birders do isn't even worth it. Make a real racket, a huge fuss. The point is to make a bizarre sonic scene that no small bird will want to miss out on.

VARY the sounds: make all sorts of creative, squeaky, kissy, upslurred and downslurred sounds.

Intersperse half-minute bouts of Pygmy-Owl tooting.

Birds have one of three reactions to pishing: they come close, they do nothing, or they flee. Usually they come excitedly to investigate.

I've noted, too, that various sounds have different effects on different birds. While most sparrows are highly attracted to pishing, high-pitched "seee" hisses will scare them away (it sounds like the alarm call of Song Sparrow, I think). However, the same loud-as-possible hiss will pull Golden-crowned Kinglets out of the crown of the tree right down into your face.

And the same pishing that works in winter may scare some birds during the nesting season.

Next lower in pitch is a gentle "shhh..." sound similar to chickadee calls. A lower harsh chatter may be like some notes of wrens. Imitating the "tchut" of Common Yellowthroat or the husky "chep" of Fox Sparrow will bring them out when "normal" pishing seems ineffective.

The pygmy-owl whistles are especially effective on forest birds. A pygmy-owl imitation will stop a flock of Red Crossbills in their tracks as they fly over the forest, though they usually remain in the tree tops. I actually tend to use a similar Gray Jay whistle imitation, which is about like the pygmy-owl but more quickly-paced and downslurred. Often a real owl or jay comes in to liven up the party.

And keep it up. Sometimes the most interesting birds are the last to respond. Five to 10 minutes is not too long to pish if new birds are still arriving.

Now for my story of the photo above and the past few posts...

This was at Hagg Lake on the foothills of the Coast Range in NW Oregon. I was at a location along the shore with some openings at the edge of the Douglas-fir and big leaf maple forest. There didn't appear to be many birds about on this cold winter day, but I saw a couple of silhouettes of Varied Thrushes moving in the trees and wanted to get a better look at them. So I started pishing.

Soon I was surrounded by about 15 each of Black-capped and Chestnut-backed Chickadees. A dozen Ruby-crowned (photo) and 20 Golden-crowned Kinglets mobbed me. A pair of Bewick's Wrens worked their way over to me. A Pacific Wren or two snuck up to me through the ferns. Several Red-breasted Nuthatches (photo) called from deep in the forest and flew close. A Hermit Thrush (photo) left the safety of the deep shadows and came out in the open to see me. And the Hutton's Vireo (photo) investigated me at close range for several minutes. A Yellow-rumped Warbler flitted about. A Sooty Fox Sparrow (photo) and a Spotted Towhee called from the blackberries, along with a pair of Song Sparrows and a dozen Dark-eyed Juncos flitted about on the ground.

All told, over 100 individual birds of 14 species responded to my pishing! They came very close, and stayed close, out in the open where I could photograph them.

Remember, this isn't a weird one-time event. This is how birding is every day for birders who know how to pish. This is the secret to my birding success.

Oh, and the Varied Thrushes that started it all? I never saw them again.