By Gayle Gresham –
Confession … I am not a bird-watcher or a birder. There is a difference, you ask? Think about the difference between watching a football game on television and playing in the Super Bowl. Bird-watching and birding run the gamut, including watching birds for pleasure at backyard bird feeders, or jetting back and forth across the USA to count the most bird species in a year, a Big Year.
While I am not a bird-watcher or a birder, I am fascinated by this hobby that is rising in popularity in the United States and the world. Anyone can do it, whether you live in the city, the suburbs or the country. Do you love feeding the birds and watching your favorites? Set up your feeders and keep a list of the species that visit. Love to travel? Visit wilderness refuges, travel to bird festivals, take a guided tour. Do you love adventure and competition? Plan on doing a Big Day or a Big Year event. Young or old, couch potato or adventurer, techie or old-school, bird-watching or birding might be for you.
The easiest way to start bird-watching is to look out your window and see the birds. Is that a bluebird? What type of bluebird? An eastern, western or mountain bluebird?
You can go old school by checking a field guide like Peterson’s or Sibley’s or you can look up bluebirds on allaboutbirds.org (Cornell Lab of Ornithology). Check the range map and see which is common in your region. Look at the markings and distinctive features. Many birds show enough variation to identify a bird with ease. The All About Birds website also contains recordings of each bird’s song so identification can also be made by the bird song.
If you want to go more high tech, download the Merlin Bird ID app (Cornell Lab of Ornithology) to your cell phone. The app asks five questions: Where did you see the bird? When did you see the bird? What size was the bird? What were the main colors? Was the bird eating at a feeder, swimming or wading, on the ground, in trees or bushes, on a fence or wire, soaring or flying? It then pulls up bird photos matching the description that have been taken in your region. Or take a photo of the bird, upload it to Merlin and it will identify the bird for you.
By setting up bird feeders, you can draw even more birds to your personal bird-watching domain. Different birds like various types of food and types of feeders. Experiment with thistle for finches; black oil sunflower seeds for grosbeaks and woodpeckers; corn and millet for sparrows and juncos; and orange halves for tanagers. A simple Google search on bird-feeding tips can make you an expert in no time. And don’t forget the hummingbird feeders.
Those who catch bird-watching fever often keep a list of the birds they have seen or heard. A life list consists of all of the bird species seen in your life, while a yearly list ticks off every bird species seen in a year. A list can be kept in a simple notebook or in a special birding notebook, or it can be a simple notation of date and place beside the picture in a guide book. Computer list options include Birder’s Diary software, which also allows photos; or the eBird mobile app for cell phones, which uses global positioning system coordinates for bird species sightings.
As you become familiar with the birds in your backyard, you will recognize when a bird not common to your area appears. Several years ago, Colorado birder Cherie Wyatt heard an unfamiliar bird song as she was getting ready for her day in Burlington. She looked outside and saw a northern cardinal sitting in the tree near her window. She reported it to a birding group in Denver, which sent out a rare bird sighting alert, and soon people from the Front Range of Colorado were driving a couple of hours to Burlington to see the cardinal in order to add the bird to their lists. The cardinal stayed in the area several months over the winter.
Bird-watching captured your attention and your curiosity has grown beyond the birds showing up in your backyard. Now what? It’s time for birding excursions.
First, call someone you know who is a bird-watcher. Don’t know anyone? Start asking around. You might be surprised by which of your friends are birders. Ask at your library about bird-watching clubs or search the internet for local and state birding clubs and chapters of the National Audubon Society and review their programs, events and field trips. You can go out on your own, but it’s helpful to have someone teach you how to locate and identify the birds. Grab your binoculars, camera and cell phone and head to the wilderness or city park.
One way to learn from an experienced watcher is to join the Audubon Society’s annual Christmas Bird Count, which allows beginner birders to take part. Participants count every bird seen or heard in a 15-mile diameter designated circle over a 24-hour period of time between December 14 and January 5. The count acts as an annual census of birds across the world.
Your interest in birds has piqued and now you want to see species of birds that are not common in your area. It’s time to travel.
You can either travel to see birds in a certain locale or go on vacation and see what interesting birds are in your scheduled location. Once again, the internet can help you identify places to see birds. There are more than 562 National Wildlife Refuges and 38 wetland management districts in the United States. Visit the fws.gov/refuges website for locations and information. There are also 10,234 state parks and 58 national parks, giving you plenty of opportunity to travel and find birds.
At least 38 states have American Birding Association birding trails. A designated birding trail system links wildlife refuges, state parks and national parks in a state, along with noted bird habitats found along the route. The trails may be hiking trails or highways to drive. Information on state birding trails can be found on the internet.
The World Birding Center in the lower Rio Grande Valley in Texas features nine locations with more than 500 species of birds at the convergence of two major migration flyways. Bird festivals, such as Lamar’s High Plains Snow Goose Festival, the Mesa Verde Birding Festival or the Yampa Valley Crane Festival, are great ways to see specific birds and take part in workshops and tours. Many festivals coincide with migration to see the greatest number of species in a set place.
If you learned to identify birds and enjoy the challenge, maybe you’re ready to dive into competitive birding. Once again, there are various events for all ages sponsored by bird organizations.
Join The Big Sit! hosted by Bird Watcher’s Digest. It is 24 hours of sitting in a 17-foot diameter circle with a team counting every bird species you see. If a team member sees the day’s “Golden Bird,” which is a randomly selected species, the team is in the running for a $500 donation to a nonprofit of the team’s choice.
Big Day events, or “birdathons,” are sponsored by bird associations and often raise pledges for their societies and conservation by counting how many species of birds can be seen in 24 hours. These events can be done individually or in teams. The Global Big Day is sponsored by eBird. A year ago, on May 13, 2017, almost 20,000 birders from 150 countries turned in 50,000 checklists with 6,564 species of birds spotted in one day. That is more than 60 percent of all of the species of birds in the world. (The Global Big Day will be May 12 this year.)
The Big Year is the ultimate challenge in birding. It is a competition to see who can see the most birds in one year in a specific geographical area and can give you, as a birder, another goal to reach as you add to your life list.
If your interest in birding takes flight, it can give you a greater awareness of the birds around you, but it can also take you in any one of several directions. It could take you on a trip to see new birds in another locale or it might take you into photographing beautiful birds, capturing them in paints or watercolors on canvas, quilting their likenesses with fabric or copying their songs on an instrument. Whatever it is, it will be totally for the birds.
Gayle Gresham writes from her electric-co-op powered home in Elbert. She now has Merlin Bird ID on her phone and is ready to go watch some birds.