I began birdwatching as a young child in the urban parks of Los Angeles and Orange County. My earliest bird encounters took place close to home at the El Dorado Park Nature Center in Long Beach, California. Back in those days I barely knew the difference between a duck and a goose. As a pre-teen, another bird caught my eye on a Saturday visit to Tucker Wildlife Sanctuary in Irvine. It was there that I fell in love with the hobby. My parents led my kid brother and I up a wooded trail to a bird blind. There we sat quietly for what seemed like hours. We enjoyed hundreds of active hummingbirds flying with precision as they glittered like gems in the full sun. They zipped and buzzed back and forth to the numerous feeders directly in front of us. Some flashed us with their brilliant iridescent red throats. I was hooked. I wanted more.
I’ve been an avid birder as long as I can remember. In 1989 I was deployed to Prince William Sound, Alaska, where I participated in the Exxon Valdez oil spill response effort. Part of the HAZMAT/HAZWOPPER crew, I helped recover, document, clean, treat, and release thousands of affected seabirds. Although I haven’t participated in oil spill response since 1997, I continue to make my way around the globe in search of birds.
More than just a hobby, birding connects me with the great outdoors in a fun, inexpensive and academic way. I think of birding as a sort of game. It’s a good cross between a treasure hunt and hide-and-seek.
How to play
For ages 4 and older. The game of birding can have one or more players and the objective is to look for hidden treasure (birds). The players (birders) follow a series of clues such as habitat, sound, and environment to help locate the little gems. A bit like hide-and-seek, the feathered friends conceal themselves in the environment and are found by the seekers. The game of birding can be played anywhere in the world and there are few rules.
With nearly 10,000 bird species on our planet, it can be intimidating to get started. Unlike many hobbies, birding requires minimal equipment. A good pair of binoculars and a thorough field guide may be the only gear casual birders need to enjoy their local birds. More enthusiastic birders may prefer to have more expensive optics or several field guides.
My favorite is Sibley’s guide. A notebook for recording observations and a bird check list are also useful tools. A wide-brimmed hat and good walking shoes or hiking boots can make the field birding experience more comfortable.
Who you know
Once you have a field guide, read the introduction and take time to browse all the pages. You may be surprised to learn that you already know a few of the most common cast of characters. Browsing the guide can help you know what other birds to watch for in your area. This is the first step for keeping a life list or an annual list.
Make a list
I keep a life list and an annual list. Friendly competition is encouraged. My regular opponent is Douglas Stinson. We’ve enjoyed the annual challenge of “who can see the most birds” for the past 15 years.
We were neck and neck (304 to 300) up until my recent trip to Kaua’i’s Alakai Swamp. Deep mud, rain, and fog made the trail a challenge. I located the birds on my most wanted list (in particular, the I’iwi) and ended the year at 316 bird species.
Familiarize yourself with the local birds and those that are easily spotted in your backyard, neighborhood or nearby park. Note which types of habitats seem to have the most birds and learn to listen for bird songs and calls that can help you begin birding by ear. If you take the time to observe even the most familiar birds you can learn their habits and be able to easily distinguish them from more uncommon birds.
Most dedicated birders enjoy not only finding birds in the field, but also attract them for easy backyard birding. A bird-friendly landscape, appropriate bird feeders and a bird bath can quickly attract a diverse collection to your yard. Hummingbird feeders with perch, suet, and goldfinch sacks are established in my backyard. A large berry tree offers seasonal food for a vocal phainopepla. Loose seed scattered carelessly on the lawn attracts doves but make sure there are no free-range felines in the yard, please. Raw unsalted peanuts placed on the rail of my sun deck attract noisy and determined scrub jays (there are no blue jays in California). Develop your backyard into a good feeding station and enjoy the birds while you’re at home. Check for bird feeding specialty stores locally or online. One of my favorite feed stores is Wild Birds Unlimited, whose website offers expertise for attracting backyard feeders.
Share the love
Birding can be an individual hobby, but it can be even more fun to share your love of birding with others.
Join a local bird watching club or group, and consider joining national and international organizations that work not only to promote birding, but also to protect and preserve wild birds. The American Birding Association, National Audubon Society and Royal Society for the Protection of Birds are some of the most familiar and most well regarded birding organizations to join. Hiring a bird guide, traveling to bird festivals or taking a bird tour are other excellent ways to connect with other birders.
Patience, tracking, hiding, and observing. In this game of birding, patience is more than a virtue. It’s a key piece. Most birds are unpredictable and often do not appear at the precise moments birders may wish them to.
It doesn’t take an ornithology degree to become a birder, but it helps. The best birders are educated about the birds they see. Knowing what habitats to visit and when to find the birds can make this hobby more rewarding. One who understands the basics of bird behavior will be successful.
A good birder must be observant in order to spot shy or unusual species. There are many bird species that look similar to one another, and an observant birder will be able to distinguish unique field markings that separate these birds. Being observant also means observing bird habitat, behavior, songs and other details that create a rich portrait of each bird.
Birding is an amusing and rewarding hobby. Start small and focus on local resident birds and the feathered friends that visit your backyard. Gradually build your birding expertise to feel confident venturing further and further into the field to see even more species and enjoy watching all the birds you can throughout your life. Everyone is a winner when it comes to experiencing life through a set of binocs. Get out and see what you can see.