Looking for something to keep you busy? Birding is the perfect activity to enjoy while social distancing and your observations can help scientists and conservation efforts across the world! While spring may not be the easiest time to become a birder, it certainly is the most exciting! New birds arrive daily from warmer southern locations, birds are singing loudly to find mates and defend territories, and they’re busy snatching up insects and gathering materials for their nests. According to a survey by the US Fish and Wildlife Service, 47 million Americans consider themselves “birders” whether it be in their own backyard or somewhere away from home. If you’re not already in that 47 million, consider joining us! Bird watching has many benefits. You spend more time outside (and there are tons of benefits from spending time in nature), it can keep you active, it can be a solitary activity or a community/family building activity, you’re constantly learning by observing, it leads to new experiences and the exploration of new places, it can give you “feel good” sensation, you can help scientists all around the world, and most importantly, it’s a fun hobby that can be done while social distancing!
I typically recommend that folks join the bird watching realm during winter, for a couple reasons. 1 – We have a LOT less birds. It’s easier to focus on a few to learn, rather than the greater summer variety. 2 – The birds that remain here in winter may have a hard time finding food and are all too happy to take a free meal at your feeder, giving you a nice observation spot! While you’ll certainly still have birds visit your feeder in the summer, the return of the insects has diverted many of our regular feeder birds. Most song birds, even ones who primarily eat seeds/fruits the rest of the year, need the high-protein food source insects provide during the breeding and nesting season. But don’t fret. Our bird population soars in the spring, as birds return to nest here for summer or pass through on their way to more northern locales. There are plenty of opportunities to find and identify birds, you just have more possibilities! So, where should you start?
First, a pair of binoculars can make a HUGE difference, especially if you’re interested in our smaller, fast flitting songbirds hiding in the treetops. Often state parks or even local libraries may have some binoculars you can borrow or rent, but that may not be an option right now due to Covid-19 closures and safety precautions. You can find lots of blogs and articles about how to use binoculars, but I’ll give you just one tip that changed how I felt about using them. First, find the bird with your eyes (no binocs) and lock on. Then raise the binoculars to your eyes, without looking away from the bird. This can save you a lot of wasted time looking through your binoculars (potentially not even in the right tree) for a bird that will surely fly away as soon as you finally find it. If you have a digital camera, this can be a helpful tool, too! I personally think it is slightly harder to find the bird in a camera, focus, and get a shot before it flies off, but on the other hand, then you have the image to study as you try to identify it. I learned many, many birds through the “shoot now, ask questions later” approach to birding.
Second, you’ll want to get familiar with a few traits of birds when you’re trying to ID them. After some practice, your brain will start automatically analyzing the bird for these characteristics when you find something new. The Minnesota Conservation Volunteer has a great article on Birding for Young Naturalists, or anybody, for that matter. This graphic from the article describes the traits you want to quickly look at when bird watching: Size, Shape, Color/Pattern, Field Marks, Behavior, and Habitat.
Third, you’ll need a bird guide to reference. There are lots of websites, books, or apps you can use. Of course there is no shortage of bird information on the internet, but two of my favorite sites to use are All About Birds by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and the Audubon website. As far as books go, I prefer the National Geographic Field Guide to North American Birds. However, if you’re looking for a guide to carry around with you – this two pound book is NOT it. Stan Tekiela offers more pocket sized bird guides, but be aware they won’t have all the birds! One of my favorite books for kids and new birders is Wild About Minnesota Birds (or Wild About Wisconsin Birds). It’s pretty rare that I lug around a book while on a birding adventure, now that there are so many apps at the tips of our fingers. When I took ornithology in college, we were required to purchase the iBird Pro Birds of North America App for a one time fee of about 10 bucks. Honestly, it may be the best $10 I’ve ever spent! I still use the app a decade later! It has information from 14 traditional field guides and it can live in my pocket. You can’t beat that. One of my favorite things about it is the diverse way you can search for birds, including using the “birds around me” that shows birds that would likely be in your location during a certain time of year! There are more and more nature/field guide apps appearing all the time, so there are many free options, too – just search in your app store. Peterson’s Birds of North America, Audubon Bird Guide: North America, and Merlin Bird ID are all great free birding identification apps. Birding apps have come A LONG way in the past decade, which has lead to some creative new ideas! There are two more apps I recently started using that have helped me continue to be a better birder!
Even after years of birding, I still struggle to identify the myriad of warblers that move through in the spring. Over 30 different species of warblers can be found in Minnesota and Wisconsin during the spring. They are small, fast, and often found in the dense understory or up in the canopy of trees, making the glimpses you catch of them rather fleeting. Many times, the 2-second flash of the bird you saw may be at a weird angle, like directly up above your head, which doesn’t make it any easier to ID these tricky birds. Until now! The Warbler Guide focuses only on these small, elusive, hard to ID birds, providing all the info, sounds, and weird angle pictures you could want to reference!
The other aspect of birding I continue to struggle with is identifying birds by their calls. I would guess I can ID about 20 with certainty, and that may be generous. I’m just not good at birding by ear. That’s where the Song Sleuth app comes in! All you have to do is record the bird song using the app and it will pull up a list of possible birds. Listen and ID! I haven’t used this app a ton yet, but the few times I have, I’ve been very impressed! I can’t tell you how many hours I’ve spent, stumped over a particular bird noise, unable to give up until I found the culprit. I’m looking forward to using this app the next time I’m going crazy from auditory curiosity. Bird Song Hero, which also offers a visual component, is another great way to study bird sounds.
Lastly, when you start feeling comfortable with your bird identification skills, start sharing your finds! There are numerous citizen science programs that allow you to log your observations in order to help scientists from all over the world. FeederWatch is a fun program for the winter months (though this program does have a small participation fee) and NestWatch is great during the summer. You can also submit your observations on iNaturalist or eBird, either on a computer or through their apps. “eBird transforms your bird sightings into science and conservation. Plan trips, find birds, track your lists, explore range maps and bird migration—all free.” It is pretty amazing what scientists have discovered from observations of citizen scientists. My favorite thing to come from eBird are the amazing abundance animation maps, like this one for the Yellow Warbler, which is a stunning visual migration tool, plus it let’s you know when to expect a bird to return to your area!! The more information we have on birds, the easier it is for us to help them through conservation efforts.
Your first chance to help the birds through submitting your observation is fast approaching! Saturday, May 9th, is Global Big Day – a day to celebrate, enjoy, and find birds near you. It’s simple. 1 – Make a free eBird account. 2 – Go outside. 3 – Record all the birds you see. 4 – Submit your observations. 5 – Enjoy the birds and feel great knowing you helped conservation efforts around the world! I hope that you’ll find as much joy in getting out in nature to find birds as I do!