Wednesday, July 27, 2011
Pishing in a Marsh
When I was a young lad I was really interested in birds. While the fascination never totally waned, other interests, like music and curry, shoved ornithology onto a distant backburner as I grew older. Since moving to Vancouver Island, however, my interest has been resurrected, simply because of the extraordinary winged life in this part of the world. For example, without any effort on my part I see Anna's Hummingbirds every single day and Bald Eagles most weeks. While these particular birds are dramatic and emblematic examples of birdlife here, when taking a really close look at what else there is, the range of species around these parts is absolutely dazzling.
It's odd, but during the last decade or so I've become friends with several mad-keen birders, perhaps more than one would expect (or, depending on your viewpoint, hope) to encounter in a lifetime. But I'm glad I have because, first and foremost, they are splendid people and, secondly, I've learned a ton about birds from them. Take Charlie Peverett, for example. There is much I could say about dear Charlie, including that he was best man at my wedding, but let's stick to his birding prowess so I can point you to his excellent blog. Then just a year or so ago, Susan and I became chums with Jon Carter and his lovely wife, Jenny, who had relocated here from Lancaster in Lancashire. Jon is a guy who takes birding to a level of intensity I'd not previously encountered, even in Charlie, but from him I've learned so much about what exactly populates our local skies. A link to his fascinating and often highly amusing blog, A British Birder in British Columbia, can be found in the column on the right. Also found there is a link to Northern Rustic, the wonderful and highly photographic blog from Mark Pearson.
I first learned of and met Mark through his music. When I was promoting gigs in Brighton, UK (firstly with Charlie, then Shaun - his cool Gilded Palace of Sin blog can also be accessed to the right), we'd receive CDs from bands and artists far and wide, the senders hoping for a slot at one of our nights. One such was from Mark's great band, Morning Bride. We were smitten with the band's trippy, mildly Gothic, Lee 'n' Nancy-esque folk-rock on the first listen and put them on at our first opportunity. Anyway, Mark and his gorgeous new wife, Amity - Morning Bride's powerhouse vocalist - paid a whirlwind visit to Nanaimo to see us a few weeks ago, as part of their round-the-world backpacking honeymoon. As his blog alone attests, Mark is also a bird-obsessive, and from him I learned something I'd never before heard of, a brilliant but simple technique that anyone, birder or not, can use to coax hidden birds into view.
Susan and I love to visit Pipers Lagoon, a gorgeous coastal Nanaimo beauty spot, so we are always happy to show it off to visitors. When there with Mark and Amity, the former started to make a sound, "Psshh, psshh, psshh, pssh," which he explained birds cannot resist. Birders use it, I'm told, when they can hear a bird, but not see it clearly or at all, in order to get it to show it's lovely little beaky face. And by Christ, does it work! We watched, fascinated, as a Spotted Towhee popped out to take a look at what was making the sound. Mark successfully did this several more times at Piper Lagoon, and many other times elsewhere during the weekend, and it worked most every time. It's called "Pishing," and is a sound proven to be irresistible to most birds (with variations on the theme), largely because it sounds so bird-like.
A couple of days later we took Mark and Amity to Buttertubs Marsh, a bird sanctuary close to our home. Mark took a full two hours to complete the 2km circuit, but more exciting than his noting over fifty species during that time is that I conducted my first successful pish! As Mark ducked into bushes and stared at trees, photographing like a madman with his bazooka-like zoom lens, I scuttled off ahead on my own quest. Upon hearing an avian commotion in a bush, I thought I'd try pishing for the first time. Funnily enough, I checked the track both ways to see if anyone was coming, feeling a little self-conscious that should I be discovered staring into a bush, making a noise like a snake with a lisp, I might be considered a mental case. No one was around, so I pished away like a good 'un. Lo and behold, after just twenty seconds or so, out came a Marsh Wren, like the beauty above, to see what was disturbing his day.
At first so nervy about pishing in public, I now do it whenever the opportunity arises, also passing on my newfound knowledge to anyone who'll listen. Mark, Jon, Charlie and the Birders of the World will be proud of me. Shackles cast aside, I pished my own Spotted Towhee at Pipers Lagoon at the weekend, pishing impressively enough that a curious jogger stopped to ask what I was doing. "Pishing!" I said enthusiastically, going on to explain why, and giving a demonstration. "Ooh, I must try that!" she replied, before running away.
Try it for yourself. You'll be surprised how great it feels to have a good old pish now and again.