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A Quick-Start Guide to Birdwatching

September 22, 2017

My wife and I have several running jokes that are cute in our eyes, and “mad stupid” in the eyes of our tween sons. One joke we share is the sweeping misidentification of birds. My position in this roleplay is that all birds are types of wrens, and my wife’s is that they’re types of finches. We have conducted many hilarious, acid-tongued improvs on the subject of wren vs. finch, all while pointing at a goose or a gull or even a large bee.

The reason I mention the wrens/finches thing is that I don’t know anything about birds. To me, most birds might be wrens, or finches, or sparrows, and I wouldn’t know the difference. I have long planned to address this deficiency in my knowledge because I believe I reside in a bit of a birding hotspot. I live in a beach town on Long Island’s South Shore and there are always out-of-towners walking around with giant binoculars and multi-pocketed khaki vests.

In the spirit of developing a working knowledge of local fowl, I decided to develop a little self-guided crash course in basic birding. My strategy, as detailed here, is necessarily abbreviated. For a more comprehensive guide including the four fundamentals of bird identification: size and shape, color pattern, behavior, and habitat, check out The Cornell Ornithology Lab’s guide.

Colorful bee-eater birds @albonica via Twenty20

Colorful bee-eater birds @albonica via Twenty20

Step One: Get A Guide

Birding can involve extensive gadgetry and gear, or you can build your own low-key kit; one thing you will need, however, is a field guide to the birds of the area where you’re touring. The Peterson Field Guides to Eastern and Western birds are great books that can pave the way for more advanced study. (The website also features podcasts, tutorials, and numerous location-specific guides.) The Sibley Guide to Birds and the National Geographic Field Guide to the Birds of North America are also fine options, as are the Kaufman and Stokes field guides. Birding resources specific to families are widely available and electronic birding apps are quickly making the hobby more accessible; applications like Thayer Birding and others bring thousands of photos, videos and birdsongs right to one of the many pockets of your sweet vest.

Step Two: Learn the Basic Birds of your Area

Birding takes practice. It’s enjoyable at every level, but you will get more out of it if you put more into it. The second prerequisite for ornithological literacy is studying the common birds of your area. Birders use appearance, birdsong, behavior, habitat, and other identifiers to make split-second IDs and to distinguish year-round residents from seasonal migrants. An easy way to do this is to build a feeder or water feature in your yard or simply visit a local park to see what’s out there in your community and learn to recognize them. (Here’s an alphabetical list of birding trails across the country.) Earlier this year a rare black-billed oriole, up from Mexico, was spotted at a bird feeder in Berks County, PA., creating a frenzy and drawing hundreds of spectators, so you never know when you’ll spot a truly unique species in your area.


Bird watching in Morikami Japanese Gardens, Tampa, Florida

Step Three: Get Involved

Joining a group is the last step to basic birding competence. (Here’s a list of bird club resources.) Just in talking to two birders I encountered on a walk, I learned a lot about the conspicuous residents of my local skies. Apparently, my town’s highest-profile stars are our harlequin ducks — small, colorful sea ducks — as well as American oystercatchers, with their long, orange bills and legs. I also learned that there is no bird called a “seagull.” The term is actually a colloquialism for a variety of similarly-colored fowl that congregate at the waterfront to mug children for goldfish crackers and ice cream cones.

I have consistently found that bird enthusiasts are happy to share their knowledge with the un-indoctrinated. Hobbyists post to sites like birdweb, the American Birding Association, the Bird Education Network, and many more about rare sightings and other breaking bird news. I simply entered “introduction to birding Long Island” into a search engine and found photo-specific tours, library tours, and about a hundred other resources and opportunities to go birding. Once you locate a group, try to find a guided tour in your area. Many birding groups host excursions introducing local inhabitants, and these are a perfect way to meet other birders and start filling out your life list!

Congratulations! You’re now on your way to becoming a real birder. Here’s one last tip: Don’t miss the 2011 film Big Year, starring Steve Martin, Jack Black, and Owen Wilson trying to outdo one another over 365 days of exhaustive birding. It’s not the greatest film ever made, but it is to birding movies what Over The Top was to arm-wrestling.

Have you spotted any exciting bird species in your area? Be sure to let us know in the comments!

Related Links:

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