Birdwatching, or birding, emerged as a popular activity during the COVID-19 pandemic. It’s suitable for physical distancing, connects us with the outdoors and requires no more to get started than an observant eye.
Monte Neate-Clegg, a doctoral student in the School of Biological Sciences studying ornithology, began birding around age 8 with an old pair of binoculars from his grandfather that he soon lost by leaving them on a park bench. “Luckily,” he says, “my irresponsibility did not dim my interest.” Now, with more than 1,600 bird species—around 15% of all known species—on his “life list,” Neate-Clegg shares his tips for discovering the world of birds around you, wherever you find yourself spending the winter.
Begin in the backyard
Birds are so diverse in form and function, from a diminutive kinglet picking its way through spruce fronds, to a mighty golden eagle soaring above a rugged ridgeline. They are also a colorful collection of animals including pure white egrets, electric bluebirds, polychromatic toucans, and iridescent hummingbirds. And the diversity in appearance is matched by the diversity of behavior. From an osprey plucking a trout from an Alpine lake, to an acorn woodpecker carefully stashing nuts in a tree trunk, to an avocet sifting the shallows for tiny invertebrates, birds are always fascinating to observe.
Birding begins in the backyard. The first birds you will want to get to grips with are the ones around you every day, ones that you probably don’t even notice most of the time. A few things will come in handy in this endeavor. First, a bird feeder. Any yard, no matter how small, can support a bird feeder. Even a hummingbird feeder on an apartment balcony will attract those hungry little gems on their migration. Bird feeders will bring the yard birds in close, but binoculars will bring them closer! Binoculars start pretty cheap and a starter pair can dramatically improve your birding opportunity and ability. Check out the Audubon Society’s binocular guide with different price brackets.
Identifying the birds you see
Next, you’ll probably want some help with identification. The best bird guide out there is the Sibley North American Bird Guide. It is a very visual guide with hundreds of beautiful illustrations. This book also comes in two smaller volumes, one for western North America and one for the east. Beginner birders may find it useful to use the Merlin Bird ID app, which takes you through a series of steps to suggest possible birds that you are seeing. There are several other great online resources including the Audubon Society’s Guide to North American Birds, All About Birds, and many more. Finally, you’ll want a way to record the birds you see, and for that I recommend eBird. Not only does it store your observations, but you can see other people’s, search for local bird “hotspots”, and look at targets you are yet to see. Once you have these few items, the world truly is your oyster.
After you are familiar with your yard birds, go to your local park. What birds are new there? Which are familiar? Then head to the hills, then a local lake, then a forest, and so on, and so on. Each habitat will bring some familiar birds and some new ones. It’s wintertime now, so the woods might be a little quiet as many migrants will be enjoying the equatorial sun in Central America. Water tends to be the best place to check out in winter, with many species of waterfowl filling the lakes and wetlands. But come spring, like clockwork, the migrant birds will arrive back, and you’ll have a whole feast of birds to enjoy.
Top birding tip
One of the things I notice a lot in beginner birds is they get caught up on color. They might see a yellow bird in a tree and wonder, is it an American goldfinch, or perhaps a yellow warbler? The most useful advice I can give is to ignore color, for now at least, and look at the bird itself. What size is it? What shape is its bill? Does it have long wings or tail? Where is it? What is it doing? What habitat is it in? These questions are much more useful in bird identification because they narrow your search to the family or even genus level. At that point, there are very few options it can be. Color does enable you to differentiate closely-related species, but you won’t be confusing a warbler for a finch.
Birding is a truly accessible hobby and can be done by anyone. It is also a great activity in these strange times; it gets you outside, away from people, doing exercise, getting fresh air. Although I have a long history of birding, I have friends who are recent converts and my girlfriend, who is relatively new to birds, is already pointing them out as we drive along. They tell me it’s the excitement of going to new places and finding new things, like an ongoing scavenger hunt. For me, the possibilities are endless, changing with the seasons and every new place I go. So why not try it yourself? You might just get hooked!