Here we are at the end of another year- and I thought I’d give out some tips on birding. Now you expert birders don’t get too excited! 🙂 This is mainly things I wish I knew when I started out birding. If you learn a thing or two, then I have succeeded in my goal.
Birding, or bird-watching, is a popular hobby done by millions of people. It has been made even easier via the internet, through popular sites such as All About Birds and eBird. Local bird organizations abound, as do bird alert websites on such platforms as Facebook.
Now, onto some tips I’ve learned over the years.
The very basics.
Morning and late afternoon are usually the best times for birding, as birds are typically more active then. Dress for the weather. A hat with a brim is mandatory in my book, you need to shade your eyes from the sun while looking up. A ‘boonie hat’ with a wide brim all the way around helps keep the sun off your face and neck. Unless you stay on paved or gravel paths, be aware that ticks can be an issue. I tuck a shirt in my jeans and tuck my jeans in my socks to keep them off of my skin as much as possible (a good tick repellent can be placed upon your jeans up to your knees). Binoculars are very handy, and a camera if you are so inclined- many a time I would take a picture of a bird and identify it later at home by examining the picture.
Stop a while, remain motionless, look and listen.
Walking a lot while birding is natural. You’re getting to where you are going that way. But you tend to see more birds if you just stand (or sit) in one place a while.
I learned this years ago when I sat on a park bench along a wooded trail. The longer I sat there, the more the birds seemed to come out. They either ignored me as harmless or didn’t notice me and went about their business. I probably wouldn’t have seen as many birds if I was just watching while I walked.
Even if you don’t have a park bench to sit on, stop every so often and just stand there, seeing what you can see. Hopefully you’ll be surprised at how many more birds show themselves.
Edge habitats are best for birding.
Many times I’ve seen a meadow next to a patch of woods. The meadow has its own birds to watch out for. So does the woods. But the place where one will see the most birds are where the meadow and the woods meet- at the edge of both habitats.
The number of bird species that can be seen deep in the woods or out in a meadow are less than the birds that are in between. Edge habitats are places where lots of species meet. This is the best of both worlds. I’m not discouraging you from going into the woods, there are birds to be seen there. Nor would I say don’t go through the middle of fields. But your best bet in seeing a lot of birds will be between them both. Walk along treelines or the edges of woods more often.
Watch out for Chickadees.
Chickadees here in Ohio are common to see. If you don’t see them, you notice, since they are a steady regular widespread species.
Chickadees by themselves are interesting to watch. But the reason I say watch out for them is for another reason. Chickadees are often seen in the company of other birds. They are a common ingredient in what are known as ‘mixed feeding flocks.’
What is a mixed feeding flock? It is a group of different bird species that travel together foraging for food. It is possible traveling together gives them greater safety (more eyes to spot trouble with) and may even improve feeding efficiency (insects fleeing one bird may be caught by another).
Here in Ohio, a typical mixed feeding flock will consist of Chickadees, Tufted Titmice, White-Breasted Nuthatches and Downy Woodpeckers, even a Brown Creeper. Even better- during migration times, migrant birds may attach themselves to a mixed feeding flock. Migrant Warblers or Sparrows can be found with the usual birds.
So, when you hear the ‘dee-dee-dee’ of a Chickadee, be on the alert for other bird species around them. There usually are! (and of course this goes for the other common mixed feeding flock species as well)
Look to where the light is good.
There’s an old joke that goes like this- somebody happens upon an inebriated gentleman looking under a street light. When asked what he was doing, he says he is looking for his lost car keys. When told that his car is nowhere near the streetlight, he says ‘I know. But the light over here is so much better.’
OK, slightly funny. But there is a point to this joke for us birders.
When you are birding, look to where the light is best. Having the sun behind your back illuminates the birds you can see much better. Looking into the sun often results in birds being ‘backlit’, which means you see the dark silhouette of the bird with few to no details. So, the percentages are better for you to look to where the sun gives you the best chances of seeing a bird’s details. This is especially true if you are a bird photographer.
Looking at a black bird-shaped blob often results in frustration, so it’s better not to do it if you can avoid it!
Not phishing mind you, but pishing! Check out this link if you are intrigued.
Birding by ear- the big secret of birding.
We all want to see birds and identify them. But you hear more birds than you see, which means being able to identify birds by their calls and songs is a valuable skill. Advanced birders use their hearing as much as their sight. One can ID birds calling faintly in the distance that are never seen. The big secret of birding is that birders identify many more birds than what they see!
At first, you can be overwhelmed by all of the bird sounds out there. Birds have songs AND calls, which are different sounds altogether. Songs typically advertise for mates or warn off other birds of the same species from a bird’s territory. Calls are the more common sounds birds make while going about their daily business. Calls can mean various things including ‘here I am’, ‘danger!’, ‘all is well.’ To make it even more difficult, a bird may have various calls that sound different from each other.
The longer you bird, just like the more birds you recognize by sight, the more songs and calls you pick up. I would be especially challenged by spring migrant Warbler songs because I’d only hear them for a few weeks a year and then have to relearn many of them again next year. But bird sounds eventually seep in. You can reinforce this by playing bird songs and calls online, for instance at the popular All About Birds website courtesy of the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology. The popular Merlin app for your phone is also handy.
The natural world is more than birds.
I focus on birds when I am out in nature, but there are other things to notice. Wildflowers, trees, grasses, animals, clouds, landscapes…the list goes on and on.
Find your level of birding, and enjoy.
There are many different types of birders. Some people like to look out their window and see what birds are at their bird feeder. Others ‘chase’ rare birds all over the state, or even the country, to build impressive life lists of birds. Some people like to know what bird they see on a walk in the park, others build lists of birds they see and challenge themselves to see (for example) 300 bird species a year in their area.
The point is, don’t be intimidated- find your level of enjoyment within birding. Many birders are welcoming and enjoy meeting others in birding groups at local parks. Other birders pursue a solitary hobby. Some birders try to get good photographs of the birds they see. There are all sorts of niches for you to fit in.
And in this age of COVID-19, birding can be a hobby away from the crowds. It is soothing to me to practice (mostly) solitary enjoyment of nature.