Fall 2008 Forward to a Friend

by Kate Tufts

Photo: Robert Royse

IN THE UNITED STATES, MORE THAN 47 MILLION PEOPLE CONSIDER BIRDING OR BIRD-WATCHING THEIR HOBBY OR AVOCATION. BIRD-WATCHERS FALL INTO ALL DEMOGRAPHIC CATEGORIES AND SEGMENTS OF THE SOCIO-ECONOMIC SPECTRUM. ACCORDING TO THE U.S. FISH AND WILDLIFE SERVICE, BIRDS HAVE THE LARGEST FOLLOWING OF ALL WILDLIFE IN THE UNITED STATES.


According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, birds have the largest following of all wildlife in the United States.

A distinction may in be order. Not all bird-watchers are birders. The main difference is in the level of dedication or intensity.

Bird-watching is considered a more sedate pastime. It’s usually practiced around backyard feeders or in local parks, and it’s a wonderful way to enjoy birds without getting sunburn or frostbite.

Birders seek out and study birds. Our ardent devotion may lead to poison ivy rashes, sunburn, frozen fingers, chigger bites, and ticks. But do we have fun!

WHAT BIRDERS SEEK

A birder’s interest in birds often becomes a lifelong pastime, passion, and even an obsession. The reasons are varied. Naturally, a love of birds, nature, and the out-of-doors draws many individuals to birding.

Consider the pure beauty of our avian subjects. The primary colors were never better represented than on the feathers of the northern cardinal, American goldfinch, or eastern bluebird. Good views of a vermillion flycatcher or western tanager are jaw-dropping.

Photo: Robert Royse

Bird vocalizations are beautiful. The forlorn call of a common loon on a chilly morning over a fog-shrouded lake can send shivers down one’s spine. The clear, high notes of the wood thrush are enough to thrill the most enthusiastic of symphony attendees. The high-pitched whooping of a formation of tundra swans will turn heads skyward.

Birding and bird-watching are grand excuses to just get outside. Even when birds are scarce, nature has surprises around every bend. Early morning birders may discover the joys of watching the sun at a low angle glimmer off dew-covered spider webs, turning them into miniature crystal chandeliers. A bright orange sunrise may remind us of temperatures to expect in the day to come. Fields bereft of birds may be aflutter with butterflies or dragonflies. A quiet woodland may produce animal tracks, amphibians, interesting lichen, and mushrooms – just a few of nature’s wonders. Families with young children find that a walk in the woods will keep kids occupied for hours with new discoveries everywhere.

Photo: Robert Royse


In addition, birding might take us anywhere. When starting, birding lures us to trails and parks near our homes where previously we have never ventured. After a while, these treks may become too familiar, and we find ourselves driving to new parks, the shore, or the mountains. Then we might hear that there are dazzling birds in southeastern Arizona; rarities around the Salton Sea in southern California; spectacular shore birds in Chincoteague, Virginia; an almost extinct warbler in Michigan; or an unusually heavy hawk flight at Hawk Mountain, Pennsylvania. These call for road trips! Then, beyond North America, international travel promises even more.

Birding Resources

Online resources are countless. One, available to all levels of bird-watchers, is the Cornell Lab of Ornithology at www.birds.cornell.edu. The lab’s mission is “... to interpret and conserve the earth’s biological diversity through research, education, and citizen science focused on birds.” Some of its surveys, in which anyone may participate, are Pigeon Watch, House Finch Disease Survey, Project Feeder Watch, and the Great Backyard Bird Count.
The North American Bluebird Society, www.nabluebirdsociety.org promotes the recovery of bluebirds and other cavity-nesting birds.
Those interested in raptors might check out www.hawkmountain.org. Pennsylvania’s Hawk Mountain maintains a seasonal hawk count database and is currently involved in Turkey Vulture migration studies.

ALONE OR WITH OTHERS

Certainly, birding may be practiced solo, and with a great deal of pleasure. But birding is also for those looking for companionship and camaraderie. Most states have local bird clubs. Two good resources are the American Birding Association, www.aba.org and the National Audubon Society, www.audubon.org. Both list chapters and bird clubs by state.

There are numerous advantages to joining a bird club. Naturally, when birding in a group, many sets of eyes try to spot birds, which provides higher odds of success. Additionally, members of a group are likely to have a wealth of experience to consult to help identify the subjects.

Group dynamics being what they are, disputes or “lively discussions” (as we prefer to think of them) can take place. One person says the bird is an Alder flycatcher while another says it’s a willow flycatcher. In fall, both birds are just little brown jobs (LBJs), and neither is singing. That discussion could go on for hours.

Birders tend to be very generous with their knowledge and gladly help novices. Also, while many beginners may not have invested in spotting scopes, scope owners are usually glad to share.

Finally, a good reason to bird with a group is simply that there is safety in numbers.

LIST YOUR PREFERENCE

Something strange happens to birders once they’ve been in the field for a while. They start keeping lists – all sorts of lists.

The degree of this affliction varies from birder to birder, but it is fairly widespread. Watching birds, chasing after birds, and determining how many can be seen applies to birding just as it does to any other collection. Birders just don’t have specimens to put on a shelf!

So birders and bird-watchers keep lists. Birds seen in the backyard, in the county, state, North America, lifetime, and current year are just a few possible types of lists. One woman keeps a list of female birds seen, and another keeps a list of birds seen from her office window. One keeps a list of birds heard while lying in bed in the morning. The possibilities are endless.

Photo: Garth McElroy


THE CONSERVATION OF BIRDS

Keeping lists often leads to an interest in the science and conservation of birds. Are the birds healthy? Is there a noticeable decline or increase in their populations? Are they migrating at the same time of year?

More chemicals are used on farms, lawns, and parks as well as by industry, affecting our environment. Habitat is lost to development, and global warming is influencing the seasons. What is the effect?

These issues and others often interest birders and bird-watchers. Many bird clubs take stands on these issues and get involved in the processes of local, state, and federal policy making. Opportunities for involvement in conservation and wildlife advocacy abound.

BIRDING FOR ALL, AND FOR ALL SEASONS

It’s easy to see why so many people from all walks of life fall in love with bird-watching and birding. They provide many opportunities for involvement, whether watching a backyard feeder or traveling to Kazakhstan to add more birds to a personal list. Birding opens the prospect for observation and beauty, camaraderie and discussion, travel and exploration, and participation in conservation and scientific issues.

Every season has its highlights. Spring brings the northward migration when most birds don their breeding plumage to dazzle prospective mates and bird-watchers as well. Summer provides an excuse to head for the beach and wetland areas and even local parks to find shorebirds. Fall conveys many birds southward again. Lovers of waterfowl delight in the winter season with a whole new assortment of birds to find.

Birding and bird-watching have something for everyone. It’s no wonder birds have the largest following of wildlife observers in the United States.

Kate Tufts is a freelance writer and State Director of the Maryland Ornithological Society.


Online Exclusive

Internet Resources for Armchair Bird-watchers – Kate Tufts

Want to watch birds without leaving the comfort of home? Tired of those heavy binoculars around your neck or lugging a spotting scope? The Internet provides a comfortable alternative. (Some of these sites might be seasonal.)

  • www.birds.cornell.edu – The Cornell Lab of Ornithology offers a plethora of birding information, as well as several photographs and bird cams with day-by-day updates.
  • www.briloon.org – The BioDiversity Research Institute in Gorham, Maine, makes available science and research information on numerous related topics. It features nest cams on loons, eagles, ospreys, and house finches.
  • www.projectpuffin.org – Also of interest in the Maine area is Project Puffin and the Seabird Restoration Program. Check out this site for puffin cams and an introduction to the puffin.
  • www.swt.org.uk – The Scottish Wildlife Trust cam features osprey nesting.
  • www.birdcinema.com – Bird Cinema offers videos of almost any bird you can name. Among the many categories are continents, species, habitat, nocturnal.
  • www.bsc-eoc.org – Bird Studies Canada contains a wealth of information. It hosts Avibase (http://www.bsc-eoc.org/avibase), the world bird database. Avibase provides checklists of the world and links to birding hot spots around the world.
  • www.birdcare.com – To learn everything you need to know about attracting and feeding birds, visit Bird On! and click on The Encyclopaedia of Birdcare.

More Birding Resources – Diana Hierlmeier

Quick List of Bird and Birding Guides

The following guides are available through online book stores, where a search for "bird guides" lists more than 4,000 items.

Alderfer, Jonathan, National Geographic Complete Birds of North America, November 2005

Clark, William S., Field Guide to Hawks of North America, Peterson Field Guide Series, November 2001

Elliott, Lang, Common Birds and Their Songs (book and CD), October 1998

Field Guide to Birds, National Wildlife Federation, May 2007

A Field Guide to Birds of Eastern and Central North America, Peterson Field Guide Series, April 2002

Field Guide to North America Birds, Eastern Region, National Audubon Society, October 2000

Field Guide to North American Birds, Western Region, National Audubon Society, September 1994

Kaufman, Kenn, Kaufmann Field Guide to Birds of North America, April 2005

Mahnken, Jan; Wiberg, Hugh; Laubach, Rene; Laubach, Christyna; The Bird Lover’s Backyard Handbook: Attracting, Nesting and Feeding, April 2003

National Geographic Field Guide to the Birds of North America, November 2006

Peterson, Roger Tory, A Field Guide to Feeder Birds: Eastern and Central North America, April 2002

Peterson, Roger Tory, A Field Guide to Western Birds (a guide to field marks of all species found in North America west of the 100th Meridian and north of Mexico), April 2001

Peterson, Roger Tory, Peterson’s First Guide to Birds of North America, February 1998

Santella, Chris, Fifty Places to go Birding Before You Die: Birding Experts Share the World’s Greatest Destinations, November 2007

Sibley, David Allen, The Sibley Guide to Birds of Eastern North America, April 2003

The Sibley Guide to Birds, National Audubon Society, October 2000

Stokes, Donald and Lillian, Stokes Beginner’s Guide to Birds: Eastern Region, October 1996

Stokes, Donald and Lillian, Stokes Field Guide to Bird Songs: Eastern Region (three-CD set), April 1997

Stokes, Donald and Lillian, Stokes Field Guide to Birds: Eastern Region, October 1996

Bird-Related Periodicals

Audubon, National Audubon Society, www.audubon.org

The Auk, The American Ornithologists Union, www.aou.org/auk

Bird Watcher’s Digest, www.birdwatchersdigest.com

Birder’s World, www.birdersworld.com

Birding, American Birding Association, www.americanbirding.org

Birds & Blooms, www.birdsandblooms.com

Living Bird, Cornell Lab of Ornithology, www.livingbird.org

WildBird, www.wildbirdmagazine.com

The Wilson Journal of Ornithology, the Wilson Ornithological Society, www.wilsonsociety.org

States with Birding Trails – Diana Hierlmeier

ALABAMA
Alabama Coastal Birding Trail

ARIZONA
Southeastern Arizona Birding Trail

CALIFORNIA
Central Coast Birding Trail
Eastern Sierra Birding Trail

COLORADO
Great Pikes Peak Birding Trail

CONNECTICUT
Connecticut Coastal Birding Trail
Connecticut River Birding Trail

FLORIDA
Great Florida Birding Trail

GEORGIA
Georgia’s Colonial Coast Birding Trail

KANSAS
Kansas Birding and Prairie Flora Trails
www.kansasaudubon.org

KENTUCKY
John James Audubon Birding Trail

LOUISIANA
Grand Isle Birding Trail
www.birdlouisiana.com

MINNESOTA
Pine to Prairie Birding Trail
Minnesota River Valley Birding Trail

MINNESOTA, IOWA, and WISCONSIN
Great River Birding Trail

MONTANA
Great Montana Birding and Wildlife Trail
www.fermatainc.com/montana/index.html

NEW HAMPSHIRE and VERMONT
Connecticut River Birding Trail

NEW JERSEY
New Jersey Birding & Wildlife Trails

NEW MEXICO
Southwest New Mexico Birding Trail

NEW YORK
Audubon Niagara Birding Trails

NORTH CAROLINA
North Carolina Birding Trail

NORTH DAKOTA
Steele Birding Trail
Bismarck-Mandan Birding Drive
Central Dakota Birding Drive

OHIO
Southern Ohio Birding and Heritage Trail

OREGON
Oregon Cascade Birding Trail
www.oregonbirdingtrails.org

PENNSYLVANIA
Susquehanna River Birding and Wildlife Trail
www.pa.audubon.org

TEXAS
The Great Texas Coastal Birding Trail

UTAH
Great Salt Lake Birding Trails

VERMONT
Lake Champlain Birding Trail

VIRGINIA
Virginia Birding and Wildlife Trail

WASHINGTON
The Great Washington Birding Trail
Coulee Corridor Scenic Byway
Cascade Loop

WISCONSIN
The Great Wisconsin Birding Trail
www.fermatainc.com/wisc

Birds/Birding Festivals

Visit www.americanbirding.org/resources.

Banded Birds – Diana Hierlmeier

If you find a banded bird:

  • Log on to www.pwrc.usgs.gov/bbl (Patuxent Wildlife Research Center Bird Banding Laboratory – The North American Bird Banding Program)
  • Click on “Report a Bird Band” or “Report a Color Marked Bird”
  • Enter the requested information

Contributor Diana Hierlmeier is an ardent birder. She has volunteered as a field researcher and bird bander for the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service and as a naturalist for the Nature Conservancy of Washington and the Washington State Department of Natural Resources.