Thursday, July 11, 2013

Advice for Aspiring Birdwatchers

Whenever I talk about hiking or camping, I often find myself describing the birds— from sighting a summer tanager for the first time, listening to whip-poor-wills, figuring out what kind of owl was hooting “Who cooks for you?”, or simply discovering a swift trapped in my laundry room. Birds are second only to insects as the most common animals you’ll see out in nature. They are captivating, delicate, and fleeting. I love to watch them fly and forage, seeing how each bird, from the Canada goose to the black-and-white warbler, behaves in a unique but distinctly bird-like way. 

People have asked me more than once how I know so much about birds. The first answer to that question is that I’ve always loved them, and I always wanted to know what kind of birds were alighting on my parents’ feeders. A field guide soon answered my questions: black-capped chickadee, tufted titmouse, white-breasted nuthatch, Carolina wren, grackle, starling, northern cardinal. The more I studied, and the more I familiarized myself with the different groups of birds, the more excited I was when I’d see a bird I hadn’t seen before.

As a kid, I used a photo guide that sorted the birds by basic shape, and then by color. This helped me learn about the different groups. As a grown-up, I love the more precise guide that my grandma-in-law got me for Christmas: The Sibley Field Guide to Birds. These entries are sorted by family, so it’s helpful to know if what you saw was in the crow, finch, or swallow family. Its illustrations are superb, and the text points out “field marks” (distinctive features that help you identify the bird) and describes each bird’s song.
So, if you’re interested in learning more about birds, try these three things:

1. Buy a field guide (or check one out from the library), making sure it’s specific to your region. Spend some time looking through it and identifying the most common birds you’ve seen.

2. Find a good place to watch birds. (If you live in the St. Louis area, I highly suggest Powder Valley Nature Center, which has a huge indoor bird-watching area. For a more natural setting, Buford Mountain Conservation Area is full of birds.) Most state park websites have a note of good places to bird-watch.

3. Take notes, draw pictures, look through binoculars, and enjoy these marvelous works of creation!


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