Hobby Profile: Birdwatching
It all started on an October afternoon in 2013. Out for a walk in the park, an enormous bird landed on the path right in front of me. It had a long bill and reminded me of pictures of storks bringing babies. This bird was giant and just hanging out a few feet in front of me. I was transfixed. I got out my phone and took a quick, blurry picture. "Do we have storks in Boston?" I asked Facebook. A friend identified the bird as a Great Blue Heron. I realized there was so little I knew about my own surroundings. I wanted to be that friend who could identify wildlife for people.
Looking out my window that winter, I realized that, though I saw them all the time, I had no idea what those little black birds were. I had no idea how to look it up, either. Googling "black birds boston" led me to the Audubon Society's list of Common Birds of Massachusetts, a list the right length to be interesting (I had no idea we had so many common types of birds!) yet short enough to be manageable. How many of the birds had I seen? I knew I'd seen robins, cardinals, blue jays, pigeons, and sparrows--hey, there were actually several types of sparrows, which I never knew before. Suddenly, the ordinary birds that I passed on the street each day became interesting and notable.
Soon I could identify every urban bird that I saw on a daily basis--not hard as there are only about eight--but spring brought new opportunities. Now that I was looking, I frequently saw birds I couldn't identify in parks and cemeteries. Even a short woodsy bike path in the middle of a mixed residential/commercial neighborhood was home to mockingbirds, chickadees, and the occasional Tufted Titmouse. It turned out that, even though I live in the city, there were numerous places that I could go to see plenty of interesting birds!
Out of the 35 bird or bird types on the Audubon Society's list, there are now only three types of bird I've not seen in Massachusetts since I started looking. (Some of the tiles are groups, like "Gulls," and I'm counting them if I've seen at least one type.) I still have yet to see a Carolina Wren, an osprey, or any owl (I've never gone night birding). Since I started paying attention and keeping track two years ago, I've seen 79 species.
These days, it's much rarer for me to see a new bird when I go to my usual haunts, but I still love going out. Birdwatching has a Pokemon-like "gotta catch 'em all" appeal, but it's also very zenlike. A friend put this into words when I took her out one time. We normally talked about work while we walked the riverside path behind the building where we both worked, and got to the end having barely noticed our surroundings. But one day I had my binoculars with me and pointed out a heron to her. Later, she spotted a Belted Kingfisher, the first either of us had ever seen, and we took turns watching it with the binoculars, fascinated with its goofy giant head. After that, we walked slowly, quietly, watching for movement and listening for calls. "It makes you very aware of things," she told me. "It keeps you in the moment."
I'd never thought of it in those terms, but that's exactly what I like about it. Often when I'm walking in nature I might as well be anywhere else, since I'm wrapped up in my own head, worrying or planning. Birdwatching is so calming because it's totally absorbing, you can't get lost in your head, and you are totally focused on the world around you. It's a gamelike activity that actively keeps you in the present moment, totally focused on your surroundings. The thrill of the chase gets me out of bed and into nature, and the joys and calm of nature keep me focused and happy when I'm out there, even if I'm not seeing anything new.
It was also my first completely nonstressful hobby. Unlike writing, where I had to make certain deadlines, or gardening, where if I messed up my plants died, there was no repercussion if I "fell down on the job" and didn't do it for awhile. The birds don't care if I get out there and see them. It was so rare and refreshing to have a totally voluntary, joyful activity that I did only because I wanted to, and that never began to feel like work.
Last spring my neighbor posted on Facebook, "Is this a hawk or eagle?" with a blurry picture. Confidently I replied, "Red-tailed Hawk!"
Nuts and Bolts of Birding
All you really need is a pair of binoculars. I've definitely seen some interesting birds with the naked eye, but it's much, much easier to get a good look with a clear pair of binoculars. And they're necessary to see many types of birds, especially those that favor high treetops, or water birds that refuse to come close to land!
Binoculars don't have to be an expensive up-front investment. I borrowed my first pair from family friends--they were nice enough to let me hang onto it for a year. It turns out that one of the parks I live near also rents out "birding kits" containing binoculars and mini-field guides for a couple of bucks a day.
Once I'd firmly established that my zeal for birding wasn't going away, I splurged on a $300 pair of binoculars, but as it turns out I really didn't need to spend that much. I later got a $40 pair of compact binoculars on sale, and, to be honest, this is the pair I reach for most often. The $300 pair is super crisp and clear--they actually seem to make things seem brighter, as if a light has been shown on the bird--but the $40 pair gets the job done surprisingly well, and the compact size make it easy to bring along on a trip where I'm not sure if I'll be birding or not, or the larger pair would get in the way. Hiking a steep trail is a lot easier when you're not worried about clunky, expensive optical equipment around your neck.
Old-school birders recommend bringing a physical book into the field so you can look up the birds you see, but I've never used a field guide in the actual field. They're too heavy and it takes too long to find what you're looking for. I do have a copy of the Sibley guide to Eastern birds at home, but I don't consult it so much as I lovingly peruse it and admire the gorgeous illustrations.
When I'm in the actual field, I use a smartphone app called Merlin created by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. It's really easy. You put in the date and your location--it actually auto-fills those things for you based on your calendar and GPS so you can skip quickly through the screen--and answer a few simple questions like "How big is the bird?" and "What color is it?" It suggests a list of birds that fit the bill (BIRD PUN). I have learned many, many new birds this way. It's crowdsourced (you checking "Yes, this is my bird" actually helps it learn), and it's super accurate.
The Cornell Lab also maintains a great bird website called All About Birds, which is sort of an online field guide. It's better than a paper field guide in some ways because you can listen to audio clips and watch videos.
Small Notebook & Pencil
One thing I do suggest having in paper form is a tiny notebook. You can use this to write down birds you identify, and, more importantly, to take notes about birds you can't identify yet. It's especially helpful to make sketches. You don't need to be a great artist; my field sketches are horrible, but I label them with notes like "short bill," "black wing tips," or "YELLOW --->" Anything that will help me keep track of a key feature that I could use to identify it later.
I keep temporary field checklists in my tiny notebook, but I also wanted a long-term record so I could track my "life list." I started this in Excel, but I moved quickly to eBird.org. This is a website where you can enter in your sightings by date and location. I find this invaluable to keep track of my own personal record, and the best part is that the data all becomes part of this giant crowdsourced database of bird sightings which ornithologists and enviromental scientists can use to track migration patterns and bird populations over time. For Science!
I don't actually have any of this. Some people love taking bird photos, and I totally understand this. It was my temptation at first to try to snap each bird with my phone. But it was really hard, and the photos never came out at all. I realized that I'd need a lot of high-end equipment to hope to get good shots. I also realized that turning my birding hobby into a photography hobby would not only make it expensive, but it would also lose what was most important to me. I like that I have no "product" to show for my birdwatching walks. I like that it's just this ephemeral experience of seeing a bird and enjoying it.
I got a great introduction to birding technique from the series of Inside Birding videos from the Cornell Lab. They give you specific features to look for and vocabulary to help you think about them. Their video on binocular use is also worth a watch.
In addition to the training you'll get in those great videos, here are some technique tips I've learned in the field:
- When you see a bird, keep your eyes trained on that spot and bring your binoculars up to meet your eyes. If you look down to find your binoculars, you'll lose the spot you were looking at, and it's much harder to find through the binoculars.
- Birds are more spooked by sudden movements than by sound. You can talk at a normal volume, but try to resist the urge to suddenly point, and bring your binoculars up in a fluid, nonjerky motion.
- Your ears can be your most useful bird-finding tool. Not mine, because I have poor hearing, but my wife has this amazing ability to hear a birdcall and zero in on where it's coming from. She can just blindly point the binoculars at the spot she thinks the sound is coming from and, usually, there's a bird there! Identifying sound source is a special skill for primates--that's why our ears are shaped like that--so take advantage of it!
- If you hear hoofbeats, it's probably a horse, not a zebra. That is, most of the birds you see will probably be common birds for your area, not exotic species.
- Stay curious. Sure, most birds are common, but some aren't. You can get jaded to the point where you're not even looking at a bird because it's "probably a robin." A "probably robin" that I once almost passed over turned out to be an Orchard Oriole, a species I've only seen a couple of times. Even if it was a robin, robins are still fun to look at! Don't lose your curiosity. Every bird is worth a look.
- When you get a good view, just watch! Don't go thumbing through your field guide or look it up on the app until the bird leaves. Most birds move quickly and will only be visible for brief moments, so make the most of them.
- Reach for your notebook first. When the bird leaves, the first thing you should do is take notes. Once you start looking it up in the field guide, you'll get confused. It's like identifying a witness: you have to get the details down right away, while they're fresh in your mind and not clouded by new information.
If you live in the U.S., April and May are absolutely the best months to begin your birdwatching journey. Summer birds are returning and spring birds are migrating through. There's a ton to see!
When it comes down to it, birding is a simple hobby: all you have to do is look at birds. Have fun!