Birdwatching is a great way to get out in nature, appreciate the beauty of our natural world with minimal impact on our environment, while at the same time rejuvenating ourselves.

Several years ago, I learned that “Birding”, the recreational sport linked with birdwatching, was one of America’s favorite outdoor activities.  In a 2019 article, “How popular is birdwatching?,” John White states, “It has become one of the fast growing hobbies in North America, and in Canada more time is spent birdwatching than gardening! Birdwatching is now a multi-million dollar industry and one of the strongest magnetisms for ecotourism.”  Since the Covid-19 pandemic outbreak, with more people being outdoors and social distancing, birdwatching has grown to be even more popular since his article was written.

Is there a difference between birding and birdwatching? 

Birdwatching is more of a casual activity while birding is more of a passion or sport.

If you are a person who feeds birds in your garden, are familiar a few local species, and notice new bird varieties that visit, you are a birdwatcher.

A birder is someone who watches birds in their garden and is driven to seek and find specific birds.  A birder studies birds and is able to identify a large variety of species.  They often keep a list of the birds they have seen and submit their bird sightings to citizen science projects.

Have you seen the hilarious movie, The Big Year, filmed in 2011?  Owen Wilson, Steve Martin, and Jack Black are extremely competitive birders. They assemble their lists and travel all over just to increase their number of rare species sighted, trying to be the number one birder of the year.

The Big Year (2011, PG)

Starring Owen Wilson, Steve Martin, and Jack Black

As a birdwatcher/birder, I can understand the humor as one afternoon my daughter-in-law stopped by to visit.  As she walked into the dining room, I was looking out the window noticing a newcomer in the birdhouse.  I had seen this bird about five years ago flying from tree to tree while bicycle riding on a nearby rails to trails.  It was a Blue Indigo Bunting, such a vibrant blue color.  I was so excited.  My daughter-in-law said that you should get the binoculars.  She was surprised and laughed at how quickly I had access to them.  She too marveled at how beautiful that bird was.  That Indigo Bunting came back to the feeder the next day.  I haven’t seen him since.  I hope that he remembers his flight pattern and stops by this year.

How do you get started in birdwatching or birding? 

Start by paying attention; take time to listen and notice the birds that are in your area.  You may already know how to identify a bird by its melodic song whether it be from a robin, mourning dove, blue jay, or woodpecker.  Begin to flip through field guides, bird books, and magazines to identify the species of birds that you are noticing.  You can always pick up a bird checklist that details local birds in your neck of the woods at your local home and garden center, Audubon society, botanical garden, or local park service office.  Aspen Song sells wild bird food for bird feeders and has a great wild bird checklist called, Who’s in Your Backyard?  You may find that your increased interest in birdwatching may prompt you to go birding in other parts of the country or world.

Being a birdwatcher is a great individual or family affair and a great way to invite nature into your backyard habitat. 

By providing bird houses and wild feeders, we invite our beautiful feathery friends to eat while at the same time we enjoy watching their mannerisms, listening to their songs, and marking our checklist identification.  My backyard visitors inspire me to plant more native plants, flowers, and shrubs that will attract more species like hummingbirds, cardinals, bluebirds, woodpeckers, etc. to my backyard and feeders.  The birds have inspired my family and neighbors to add bird feeders to their own backyard habitat for their enjoyment.  Thus far, we have recorded twenty-five species of birds in our backyard.  We have also noticed that Blue Jays happen to be the messiest birds, scattering seed all over as they eat.  No worries though for the chickadees and sparrows will clean up the mess that they left behind on the ground. Here are some of our most recent bird sightings:

Female Northern Cardinal

The Northern Cardinal is the state bird of seven states. Females have a sharp crest and warm red accents as shown here. Cardinals don’t migrate and they don’t molt, so they’re still beautiful in winter. In summer, their sweet whistles are one of the first sounds of the morning. Only a few female North American songbirds sing, but the female Northern Cardinal does, and often while sitting on the nest. The oldest recorded Northern Cardinal was a female, and was 15 years, 9 months old when she was found in Pennsylvania.*

Male and Female Mallards

Mallards are the most familiar of all ducks and live throughout North America and Eurasia. The male is very recognizable with his sleek green head. Almost all domestic ducks come from this species. Mallards are strong fliers and have been estimated traveling at 55 miles per hour. The quack sound we associate with ducks is is the sound of a female . Males don’t quack; they make a soft rasping sound.*

Northern Flicker

Northern Flickers are large, brown woodpeckers with black-scalloped plumage. While it’s not where you would expect to spot a woodpecker, you may find one on the ground as they eat mainly ants and beetles. When they fly you’ll see a flash of yellow in the wings if you’re in the East, and red if you’re in the West. The Northern Flicker is strongly migratory and they most commonly nest in holes in trees like other woodpeckers.*

Great Blue Heron

Seeing a Great Blue Heron is a beautiful sight. Heron’s may move slowly, but they are lightening quick when snatching a fish. In flight, the heron’s stretches out its neck with long legs trailing out behind. Despite their large size, Great Blue Herons weigh only 5 to 6 pounds due to hollow bones.  The oldest recorded Great Blue Heron was found in Texas and was at least 24 years, 6 months old.

Ring-billed Gull

Ring-billed Gulls are sociable and can congregate by the hundreds.  While the species is common on coastal beaches, many live inland and never see the ocean. These birds are strong flyers and will circle and hover looking for food.  They’ll be nearby if you bring food to the beach.  You’ll often see them around trash sites, golf courses, newly plowed fields, and beaches.

There are free apps to learn more about identifying birds, their songs, habitats, and behaviors. Here are two apps we like.

  • Merlin Bird ID by Cornell Lab – Once the app is installed, Merlin Bird ID will ask you to pick a bird pack.  The bird packs are birds listed in all countries of the world; the United States has eight bird packs to choose from.  Since I live in the Northeastern part of the U.S., I chose that list and found 338 birds featured.  All that is required is to simply take a picture of the bird from your phone or camera roll and the Merlin photo ID app will give you access to a list of possible bird identifications.  After the photo is taken the bird ID will ask where did you see the bird and gives you two options to choose from, current location or a map.  According to the website, “Merlin also includes more than 29,000 curated audio recordings from the Macaulay Library, identification tips from experts, and range maps from Birds of the World.”
  • Audubon Bird GuideThe Audubon app enables you to track your sightings by keeping a log of the birds that you see and the location of the site.  They will notify you when a bird that you wish to see is nearby.  There is also an opportunity to share your photos with the public photo feed, family, and friends.  The setup is quite easy; you simply download the offline field guide, data, and sounds.  Once the content is completely downloaded you are ready to begin your birding experience.  You may want to begin with listing the birds that you see in your own backyard. You can even list the birds that you wish to see and a notification will be sent to you if that bird is near your location.
Tips for birdwatching

  • Be excited about your sightings – maybe draw a quick picture and write a note in your nature journal about what you have seen and heard.  In your journal, report the time of year, time of day, weather and temperature.  It is really interesting to go back and review your journal entries.
  • Whatever activity you choose, hiking, bicycle riding, or walking, in addition to your necessities make sure to add in your daypack, tote bag, or hip sack, a pair of binoculars.  You just never know when you will see a red-tailed hawk, eagle, blue bird, tanager, etc. in your area.  It is really a good idea to invest in a decent pair of binoculars.  I have listed a couple of websites in the resources for more information on binoculars.  In western PA, we have an eagle webcam hosted by the Audubon Society of Western Pennsylvania, in partnership with PixCams.  It is amazing to watch this American bald eagle (U.S. national symbol) in her nest and see first hand how she protects her three eaglets.  Check out your area to see if you have anything like that; it is quite fascinating.  “According to a new report in 2020 by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and its partners, bald eagles once teetered on the brink of extinction, reaching an all-time low of 417 known nesting pairs in 1963 in the lower 48 states. However, after decades of protection, the banning of the pesticide DDT, and conservation efforts with numerous partners, the bald eagle population has flourished, growing to more than 71,400 nesting pairs.”  Now that is really something exciting to read as birdwatcher/birder.
  • Use your downtime to explore what is going on in your own location.  Check out the trees, shrubs, waterways, fields,  and streams.  Listen to the sound of birds; relax and enjoy while you meditate and watch their actions, beauty, and power of flight. You can always bring a hammock with you on your next visit to a local, state, or national park, find a relaxing spot, and observe.

The more you learn about birds, the more entranced you get about how intelligent they really are.

Have you ever heard the phrase of being a bird brain or have been called one?  Well it turns out that it is quite a compliment.  Jennifer Ackerman writes in The Bird Way, “The bird way is much more than a unique pattern of brain wiring.  It’s flight and egg and feathers and song.”  She goes more in depth in writing that, ”In the past decade or so, birds have revealed their ability to solve problems, using advanced cognitive skills rather than simple instinct or conditioning, learning by association.  These sophisticated mental skills – such as decision making, finding patterns, and planning for the future – are what allow birds to flexibly fine-tune their behavior in response to challenges of all kinds over their lifetimes.”  So the next time that you are called a bird brain, say thank you!

The importance of protecting our natural environment.

As you ponder about our feathery friends and learn more about birdwatching, you will understand the importance to create, support, and promote a relationship between ourselves and the natural environment. Our time, talent, and resources are needed in volunteering, in protecting and restoring our wildlife and habitats, and for sustainability and conservation projects.

OPL Naturalist Yvonne Dwyer

This experience was shared by OPL Naturalist Yvonne Dwyer.

Learn more about Yvonne.

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