As North America begins to freeze and we enter the chilling grips of winter, we sit at home and wonder, “What can we do to stay sane?”. The air is getting colder, and the sun sets at practically 3pm now. Many people are going through the most social season of the year while not safely being able to be social. But what if I told you that there’s a cheap, entertaining, exploratory, friendly, and social distance approved hobby that doesn’t involve making another loaf of bread.
I know what you’re thinking, “Sean, you’re just obsessed with birds and want more people to share that obsession with.” And you’re not wrong. But there are a lot of amazing things that come from a flexible hobby like birdwatching. Since the pandemic has had a positive impact on how many people call themselves Birdwatchers (usnews.com), I think it’s my job as an environmental educator to not only welcome you with open wings to the best group you’ll ever join but also let you know about what could be the best parts of birding.
You might be wondering, “What makes birdwatching interesting? They’re just birds? There’s not much interesting about them.” While you may be innately wrong in so many ways for speaking such blasphemy, I understand that this is a common thought from many people. It’s not that they aren’t interesting, but more so you have yet to find the birdwatching style that suits you best. Contrary to popular belief, birdwatching isn’t just sitting on the porch looking at a feeder if you don’t want it to be.
As with any hobby or community, there are a lot of expectations of what it takes to be a part of it and what the next steps are beyond looking outside of your window. Through this two-part series, I hope to show just how awesome, accessible, and easy birdwatching can be! Hopefully I can shed a bit of light on this hobby and what it means to people.
Part one will cover the basics of birding and the common questions about what the hobby is, while part two will talk about getting started in being a birder and the amazing reasons why people do it.
What is BirdWatching?
Strictly speaking, birdwatching (also called birding to be a more inclusive term) is simply the act of observing wild birds in their natural environment as a hobby. There’s not a lot to it, except a bit of curiosity to find out what species are in your area.
Most birders keep what’s called a life list, which is a list of all the species they’ve seen. This can be a physical list, digital (what I recommend if you choose to do one), or none at all. While it can be daunting to do when you first start, know that if you want to do one later on the hobby you’ll have a much bigger backlog to put down when you start. I didn’t keep a life list for the first 6 years of birdwatching because I hadn’t heard of them until I started college in 2017. Making my life list was one of my quarantine projects during the pandemic and I wish I had started it sooner so I wasn’t up at 2am wondering if I had seen this species 5 years ago or not.
Another term that will be tossed around often is lifer. Lifers are just birds you’ve never seen before that you can finally add to your life list. Some people add that it has to be a species they can clearly identify. This added stipulation ensures that you’re actually learning to identify species, not just going with people who know how to identify them for you.
What is a Birder?
The answer to this question is as variable as the personality they have. I’ve gone birdwatching with many different types of people and that influences how they move and search for species in the hobby. Some chose to do competitions to see as many birds in a specific timeframe as possible. On the other side of the spectrum, there are those that take to one species or group and absolutely enjoy identifying and observing them. There are destination, backyard, sight, sound, artistic, and many more different types of birders.
Your type depends on the things you enjoy most and the ways you enjoy them. Let’s say you really like biking around your city. Birding and Biking is a really fun way to see species, get exercise, and enjoy the ability to see more of an area than you would on foot. Some people are really interested in learning to identify birds solely from recordings of their songs and calls. These are all optional layers you can add to your experience depending on how you want to enjoy the outdoors.
While popular media tends to portray birding as a hobby done by someone taking a glance at the feeders from their kitchen window, the truth is that the hobby takes many different forms. Because the definition is so loose, it leaves a lot of space for interpretation and style. This flexibility in interpretation adds so much to how inclusive the hobby can be.
(Because of just how many types of birders there are, I’ll hold off in this section and go more in-depth about the different routes in the hobby in part 2.)
When to go out?
Time of Day
With terms like “early bird” out in the world, it’s no surprise that many people assume that birdwatching can only take place in the early morning. This assumption keeps a good number of people from ever trying birding because they aren’t morning people. I can’t blame you for not wanting to get up at 4am to go out into the cold and maybe find a bird. I’m human too and I love the comfort of my bed in the mornings.
But, I’m here to tell you that early mornings are not always the case. The time of day you go birding depends on what you’re looking for and what habitat you’re going to. These timeframes may be different depending on weather too. (If you’d like me to go more in depth on this, let me know in the comments)
Generally, the goal for getting to an area really early is to listen for what’s called Morning Chorus. It’s the most known time for birding because it’s when many birds begin singing, foraging, and moving around for the day, which makes it the easiest time to find birds.
But that doesn’t mean that it’s the only time to find birds.
Late morning and afternoon are great for soaring birds like hawks, vultures, eagles, and falcons. This is because around 9-10am, the ground has warmed enough to create the thermals they need to soar across the sky.
Sunset is stunning for a few opposing reasons. During migration you’ll get the chance to see take-off for a lot of species. Keeping your eyes and ears toward the night sky can reveal huge flocks of birds moving with the stars. It’s also great in other seasons to go to bodies of water to watch fly-in. This is the opposite, where water-birds like ducks, geese, cranes, herons, and cormorants will gather to roost. Beware, this is a truly stunning thing to watch as a lake completely disappears under hundreds or even thousands of birds beneath a setting sun. You will be trapped watching it if you weren’t planning on leaving soon.
The night may seem like an odd time to go birding, but there’s still so much to find in the dark. Listen for the shrills owls or the obnoxiously loud songs of the nightjars. Birding at night generally requires the understanding that you aren’t in your natural element, and they are in theirs. These birds have MANY adaptations to not be found in the first place, so in most cases, you’ll only get a fleeting call to identify them from. The very lucky can catch clear a glimpse of nocturnal birds without the use of spotlights that can disturb the dark adapted birds.
Time of Year
In my opinion, the best time to get into birdwatching is in the winter because there aren’t nearly as many leaves to block your view of a bird you’re trying to learn to Identify. While that may seem a trivial thing to call a perk, that simple hurdle out of the way can be the difference in how much you’re able to notice about a bird and that impacts how you see birding as a whole. Another benefit of starting in the winter is that the cast list is normally much shorter.
I mean this in two different ways. On one hand, parks and trails are going to be emptier as many people don’t go out as much in the winter. This makes the trails a bit quieter allowing you to hear and see more since there’s less disturbance. On the other hand there are generally fewer birds (in temperate climates) in the winter that you would have the chance to learn and most are in adult plumage. Making identification much easier than starting at the peak of migration when bird biodiversity skyrockets or in the summer when you’re challenged with differentiating between adults and juveniles of the same species that can look nothing alike.
The last reason I recommend winter as the starting point of your journey, is because of the satisfaction it will bring. By learning the winter resident birds, in a quiet and clearer space you can become comfortable with identification. You can learn slowly how to spot birds and what details to look for when making a positive ID. As the weather warms up and spring migration begins, you can use the tools and tricks you made and perfected in the winter on new birds confidently. Using references (apps, books, or people), you can adapt your tools to spot new types of birds and add them to your list.
As summer rolls around, you get to use your new and improved ID toolkit on all the summer birds and their variants. Before long, you get the chance to try again with the return migration in the fall to see how much you’ve grown in knowledge. Putting everything you’ve learned to the test with a chance to find many new Lifers to add to your list that you can confidently identify. Ending the year back at winter, with all new tools to see old and welcome friends in new ways and even spot some new ones with the things you may have learned.
By starting in the winter you really maximize your enjoyment of the hobby. Creating your own unending learning arc by starting slow, repeating the cycle, and finding new things each time around.
The best time in your life to go is whenever you want. No age is too late to exercise the mind and learn more about wildlife and share that knowledge.
I am a firm believer that children should be engaged in an outdoor hobby or two that they enjoy, especially those that focus on learning new information. We’ll cover more in the second post the full reasoning I think kids should be introduced to hobbies like birdwatching, but in short it teaches them more about the natural world than many schools have the ability to teach one on one. This allows kids to really hone in on what their interests are earlier while having the support of friends and family.
There is another audience that is slowly growing in volume. While popular media used to focus the perception of a birder as older, the median age for the people portrayed by major organizations (like Audubon Society and American Birding Association) has been dropping significantly in recent years. They’re reaching out to people in their teens, twenties and thirties to pick up the torch of operating these amazing organizations when they retire. The world of birding may have had the image of being a hobby of older generations, it’s quickly and wonderfully catching on with a younger and younger crowd. Expanding the reach of the hobby to feature anyone who wants in.
Where can you do it?
I believe the biggest draw for birding is that it can be done from anywhere. On your way to work you may spot a flock of doves flying overhead or hear the silky song of a cardinal while sitting at your desk.
Birds live on every continent on earth and can be seen in nearly every habitat. Even living in a city isn’t an excuse because even in the world’s largest cities, there are pretty amazing birds to be seen. There are hawks that hunt in McDonald’s parking lots and swans that nest in company ponds.
Search in the programs of community, city, and state parks, ask staff if they know of local places either they or other guests have enjoyed birding. Or do the most fun thing in the world for the staff (from someone that works at a city nature park) ask them if they can show you around or tell you more about birding. In many cases, they’d love to share the outdoors with you and if they can’t, they’ll offer other suggestions for people to contact, groups to join or even other times/days it would be better to do so if they’re busy.
Other great options are National Wildlife Refuges. They are parks that are either free or charge up to $5 and protect large swaths of land. many of which are specially created for the protection of certain species or habitats. These are wonderful places to go on day trips to see wildlife. The are very well kept and absolutely gorgeous.
I hope this has helped answer a few questions about what birding is, and what ways you can get involved in the hobby. In the second part of this post, I’ll dive into what you’ll need to get into birding, how to do it, and reasons why people love the hobby.
If you have any other questions please drop them in the comments or send me a message!
See you soon and happy New Year!