Help me bird
April 23, 2017 10:42 AM   Subscribe

After going to a park to see a great horned owl and some babies yesterday, I'd like to explore getting into bird watching. My local Audubon Society meets on a night when I have a conflict. They do have some bird watching events on weekends that I can go to. But as a complete novice, what can I do on my own?

I'm thinking that when I go walking in the woods, I just feel like I don't really see anything unless I accidentally step on a snake (which has happened a few times). The birders I've known see things that I don't notice at all, even when I'm trying. I have a bird identification book for my state (Michigan) and a good pair of binoculars. Are there any other types of books or other resources for helping me get started? Is there a good app that will help me identify calls?
posted by FencingGal to Science & Nature (15 answers total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
The Merlin app, from the Cornell Ornithology Lab.
posted by ApathyGirl at 11:06 AM on April 23 [3 favorites]

Put up a bird feeder if you can, where you can watch from the window and see the same birds over and over in decent naked eye detail. Get the Daily Bird app and learn a new bird every day. Join a Facebook group about birding in your state. Follow bird related tumblrs. Go for walks in parks with your binoculars and try to find what you hear. EBird. Meet a few birders who want to go birdwatching not in groups. Get your whole family into it like my mom did, and plan all your vacations around bird spots. Once you start paying attention, you'll notice all the birds that have been pushed for so long into the "noise" folder in your brain. Within a year, all you will talk about is birds, so beware. Birding starts as a hobby and becomes a lifestyle!
posted by oomny at 11:28 AM on April 23 [4 favorites]

You don't have to cover a lot of ground to see a lot of different birds. Experienced birders develop the quick recognition, but also the patience it takes. Being still and just letting the sounds and motions take place around you, you catch a lot in your periphery that you would have missed while in motion.
Join the local birder's Facebook pages as well, you will learn where to go and meet people on those trails who can point birds out to you too.

As a side note: The owl's nest. We just had a local situation where too many birders/photographers camped out close to a nest and harrassed the owlets to death. Please make sure to not intrude on the safe spaces needed for nesting birds. And if others are, please ask them to back off and use binoculars. Let the local wildlife folks know as well, there are laws against the harassment of nesting birds.
posted by Jazz Hands at 11:32 AM on April 23 [2 favorites]

I would suggest just going to the weekend events you can make. In my experience, birders like showing other people what they know and you are going to see a lot more birds going with folks who are experienced.
posted by elmay at 11:43 AM on April 23

Jazz Hands, just to put your mind at ease, there are signs up with instructions for not disturbing the owls, and people were keeping their distance. My friend brought a telescope, and a lot of people were using that.
posted by FencingGal at 11:50 AM on April 23 [3 favorites]

There is a shorthand for ID'ing birds and you'll pick it up. There are 115 or so species in N America and so each bird can generally only be one of a few of that size, color, type and location. Grouping them like that is really helpful and helps you ID them in a non dichtomous key so learning some info on the taxonomy is good: ie what is a songbird, what makes a bird a grebe vs a duck vs a loon. Then move on to knowing your local species somewhat decently- what raptors live in my area and what ones migrate through, what owls are here and have white wings, I keep seeing greenish small birds, what greenish passerines live here etc. Then know more about habits: you won't see fish eating birds nesting on a lake with no fish for example, and if you're in a coniferous forest the birds will be different than in a mixed forest. A lot of birders never do the last step and know very little about the ecology which is weird to me.

And a lot of spotting birds in the wild is calls. You can get CDs/ recordings (probably podcasts now) that just repeat calls over and over and tell you what the bird is, if you listen to them constantly in the background you will pick up the ability to ID birds by sound which is what a lot of birders are using to monitor their surroundings. Then get a couple good books and apps, sibley is the Bible for positive ID but I personally find that I need to look at a variety of drawings/ photos to positively ID birds well. Probably because I'm not a real birder! Merlin and iBird are similar but Merlin is free, although I think it has less species maybe?

One of those super zoom cameras is a phenomenal tool as you can take a photo from a quarter mile away then look the bird up later. I've considered buying a used one just to do that even though I'm not technically a birder I do see a lot of birds and I'm terrible at ID'ing them.

Also a good thing to do is go to a local bird-y area and just hang out. An amazing number of birders will show up and you can learn a lot from them. Plus they are interestingly weird.
posted by fshgrl at 12:24 PM on April 23

Part of what makes birding so fun is that you don't need anything. Not even binoculars, really. Just go out and stand in the woods. It takes time to train yourself to see, but you'll get it eventually.

I actually think it's better to start out alone, because birding shouldn't be competitive. You shouldn't feel bad because someone else saw something you didn't. Go at your own pace.

My last piece of advice is that you don't need to "go" birding. Birds are everywhere. When you're in the parking lot at the grocery, there are probably robins and sparrows. Part of the joy is starting to see what's right in front of you.
posted by kevinbelt at 1:18 PM on April 23 [1 favorite]

Practicing looking, and practice seeing - that's the hardest thing when you're first starting out as a birder. Your brain and your eyes are just not trained to notice and really see, and the only way to train them is to practice. Fortunately, you don't have to go to special birdy places to do this (though you can go there, too, and should!). When you're running errands at lunch, practice glancing up and noting gulls, pigeons, crows, whatever else is really common. Also when you're waiting for the bus. Basically any time you are outside, look up, and practice seeing birds. My non-birder friends are always surprised when, in the midst of our very urban city, I can go "Hey, peregrine!" or "Redtails on a date!" But I've been practicing a long time, so it's pretty much subconscious now, and just something my brain does in the background until it notices something interesting and pokes me.

Once you have a better handle on looking and seeing, you can work on IDing. Starting with larger birds that are easier to see (raptors, water birds like ducks) will give your confidence a boost. I'm still pretty crap at most passerines and I really don't have the patience for creeping through the brush, hoping to catch a glimpse of some tiny vireo that's the same color as the leaves. But since I started with larger birds, I have a general sense of what to look for and remember about a bird so that even if I don't get a great look at it, I'll probably be able to ID from the book later - things like approximate size, bill shape, head shape, sense of where prominent colors or markings appear (e.g. breast, back, secondaries, if there are tail markings, or eye rings, etc.), or at least narrow it down to a couple of likely candidates. Try to remember to spend more time looking at the bird when it is in front of you than you do trying to find it in your ID app or book!

I don't know where you are in MI, but google around to see if there's a local hawkwatch, and if they are open to new volunteers and/or visitors. It's a good way to start learning, IMO, because hawks are big and easy to see and don't hide in shrubs much.
posted by rtha at 1:20 PM on April 23 [4 favorites]

There are close to 1000 bird species in North America, but fshgrl is right that depending on where you live you'll see about 100-200 or so of them.
posted by ball00000ns at 1:28 PM on April 23 [1 favorite]

Yeah, I'll back up what everyone has said about birds being everywhere. I've been getting into birding over the past year or so, and I haven't actually gone birding anywhere. I got the Merlin bird ID app, and it's not a substitute for expertise, but it's a great way to make a pretty good guess -- when you see a bird, it gets your location and the date (which you can change if you want to look up something you saw last week when you were visiting another state, etc.), you select the size of the bird and up to three main colors that stuck out at you. Then it gives you a list of possible birds. Usually what I saw is on there, sometimes not, but it's a good starting point for a beginner like me.

Whenever I see a bird I can't identify, I take out the app and it helps me figure out what I was seeing. I've done it taking walks at the park, on my way to work/school, on my university campus, looking out the window from the car/bus/subway. I've gotten used to seeing the more common ones, so I can say, for example, "oh hello, little California towhee!" (and I mean I literally say it out loud, which leads to endless teasing by my SO).

I will say, too, that the birders I know are happy when I call and ask for their help figuring out what I've just seen. Sometimes it'll be "oh yeah, that's really common," or sometimes I'll call and say "I THINK I JUST SAW AN OSPREY FOR THE FIRST TIME" and they'll say "oh, that does sound like an osprey, yes!" I can't speak for all birders, but I think part of the fun of birding is being able to share your enthusiasm with other people, even if they're not birders themselves, or even if they're just starting out like I am.
posted by shapes that haunt the dusk at 1:47 PM on April 23

If you live somewhere where this is okay, a simple window feeder is a great way to figure out what's nearby you and get to see birds up close. Or even have a few feeders, depending on what your house is like. I live in a second floor apartment and I have a suet feeder and a squirrel-proof canister-type feeder and a home made window feeder that I made from some suction cups and a soda bottle. I regularly have anywhere from 3-12 different kinds of birds come by. After a while you get really used to what is in your local neighborhood. I compare birds with my neighbors and we sometimes have different stuff!

If you have a feeder you can also participate in FeederWatch which is a fun citizen science project that takes place over the winter. That whole website is cool and you can learn a lot about birds from just clicking around. Cornell really dominates the online=bird-content space and their online bird guide is a great reference especially because it lets you know what birds are similar to the one you are looking at on the screen. A lot of people I know who are less good at birdwatching have a hard time limiting what they are seeing from the list of "all available birds in the world" so learning how to limit by size, color, and habitat so you can start saying "If I saw a flash of red and the bird was a little smaller than robin sized there's a good chance it's a cardinal" Narrowing down is good practice. And even I give up trying to ID seagulls or what we all call the LBJs (little brown jobbers)

And I agree, have a pair of lightweight binoculars and carry them when you go walking. Sometimes you have to sit still for a while for the birds to come out, but there may just be places without a lot of birds. For me the good places to look are near water sources, a sunny spot in an otherwise dark forest, or "edge" areas like where a field stops and a woods begins, or on the edge of a pond or where a backyard becomes more wild. You might even want to just park yourself with a book to read for a while and see if anything shows up near you. I'm a very non-competitive birdwatcher and I barely keep a life list but I like chatting with people about birds as part of my connection to the natural world generally. Have fun.
posted by jessamyn at 3:31 PM on April 23 [1 favorite]

Look up where you live on to find interesting places to go watch birds (hotspots).

Look at the lists from experienced birders at those hotspots to see what birds are likely to be present. If there are ones you don't recognize, look them up on, and then look for them next time you're out birding.

It'll take practice and patience, but you'll notice yourself getting better and better at spotting birds.
posted by jhawk1729 at 8:41 PM on April 23

I was attacked by a barred owl. I say run for it.

But srsly, nthing Cornell's suite of apps and tools, and getting a window feeder and a suet cage. I made mine out of tupperware and scution cups. I never even knew what a nuthatch was... or that chickadees are not yellow ... or that I get a ton of LBJ's but they are in a constant war with starlings, who are big aggressive (beautiful) jerks. It's been fun to wake up and see who's at the window. A few mornings ago, really early in the morning, I wasnt awake yet and I was just staring at this blue jay, who was staring right back at me. Then I slowly moved my hand to get my phone, and he fled.

Ah, fun times.
posted by not_on_display at 9:34 PM on April 23 [1 favorite]

If you make a feeder though watch out for cats. I had a great feeder on my old house on the roof top deck but then I got new neighbors and after their cat nearly ate a pretty rare bird i had to get rid of it. The cats didn't come over much when I was home so you have to be careful.
posted by fshgrl at 11:23 PM on April 23

(I read Oomny's comment like that famous soeech from "Trainspotting" and it made birding seem very gritty! And jaded! And Scottish!)
posted by wenestvedt at 3:16 AM on April 24

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