Birders, bring a novice into the fold!
July 14, 2008 3:46 PM   Subscribe

Birders: I need your help! Yes, I have a guide. Yes, binoculars. Yes, I wander around heavily wooded areas with my fingers twisted in knots, hoping to see a measly robin so I can feel like mine is a life not wasted. Now help me be better!

Please, dear hive mind, tell me it's not all hard work and practice. Tell me that there are shortcuts and awesome tips to finding the sweet birds in the high branches.

I've been to the top googled sites, and man. I want something more personal.

I went birdwatching in earnest for the first time this weekend up in the Sleeping Bear Sand Dune area, and I came away with 20 or so positively identified birds, but frankly most of them sucked. Chipping sparrows? House wrens? Bah. I want scarlet tanagers and the like.

Tell me. How do I find them? What guides, equipment and so on do you recommend? I live in a townhouse in Detroit with no yard, so feeders are kind of tough, but if you know of feeders that work well in very urban locales then tell me all.

No advice too arcane to consider! When I find something elusive, you can accept my giddy and distant yelp as your cosmic reward.
posted by palindromic to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (12 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
More experienced local birdwatchers would know the best spots and best seasons for your area, and might be able to alert you to exotic IDs you would otherwise have missed. Does Detroit have any birdwatching clubs or meetup groups?

Failing that, try consulting the rangers at your nearest state/national park; many run periodic birding walks open to amateurs and experts alike, and at the very least they'd be able to refer you birdwatching resources with a Michigan-specific bent.
posted by Bardolph at 4:19 PM on July 14, 2008

I second Bardolph's advice. I'll add:
-Breeding time is good for songbirds. Migration time is good too, even more so for raptors and waterfowl.
-I've had the best luck right around the crack of dawn.
-You'll get more interesting birds walking around in the wilderness than setting up a feeder, even if you had space for a feeder. But if you would like to put a feeder up, you can get one that'll stick to your window.
posted by Jeanne at 4:32 PM on July 14, 2008

Best answer: What is it you want out of birding? Your question isn't really that clear. Do you need help spotting robins? Are you seeking to understand your local ecology better? Compile a life list a mile long? Be a master of identifying birds by just their calls or flight patterns? Or do you just want to enjoy looking at birds?

The best thing I got out of birding was the increased awareness of my surroundings. I went from barely knowing what a robin, cardinal and pigeon were to learning hundreds of species I could potentially spot. It completely changed the way I looked at the natural world. The skill gives you something to look for every time you're outside, and a key to a little more understanding of what's around you.

20 birds on your first time out is nothing to sneeze at. If you want to see more birds, keep at it. You'll spot a scarlet tanager eventually. Look up your local Audubon Society and go on their trips. Prepare ahead of time by boning up on what you can expect to see according to the time of year and type of terrain. And you really want to gearing up for the spring, that's when you'll get the most variety of migrants coming through at predicable times. Plus, it won't be as leafy.

Once you've got the basics down you can really go nuts by reading the listservs and spending your weekends to driving out to where that rarity was last spotted. (There used to be hot lines, but I imagine it's all on the web now.) I have a friend who does this. He's planned his life around birding--bought a house close to a major migratory path, has a job that allows for suddenly taking a couple of days off to go chase down that bird he doesn't have on his life list yet. Or his year list.

But overall, just be patient. You've seen starlings, but have you watched their mating displays? Can you ID females and juveniles? Know your fall warblers yet? I've seen hundreds of red-tailed hawks, and it's still exciting. I don't go birding much anymore, and I've gotten pretty rusty, but I still get a kick out of mallards.
posted by hydrophonic at 4:51 PM on July 14, 2008 [2 favorites]

I'm a beginner too but I got a lot out of 'How to Be a Bad Birdwatcher' by Simon Barnes. It's more a celebration of enjoying birds (and nature) for what they are rather than being a field guide but it's still a good read. (You might find it a little UK-centric in parts, however.)
posted by tnai at 5:18 PM on July 14, 2008

Location, location, location.

Seeing birds is all about noticing habitat, for me. I've seen two indigo buntings recently just by noticing that I was in an area that they usually choose to nest. In a high spot at the edge of a prairie I though, "Hmmm if I was a raptor, great place to choose dinner" and I looked above me and there was a Northern Goshawk.

I bike in the woods, take my time and look around as I go. Also I listen to songs. The Cornell Lab of Ornithology has a great site that includes bird songs. If you're looking for something in particular familiarize yourself with its call.

This is a great life long hobby. I've been kind of keeping track for 25 years - the one thing I wish I had done was write a date and place in the back of my Petersen's guide for each sighting.

Good luck!
posted by readery at 5:46 PM on July 14, 2008

Dude. You're right by the summer habitat of the ever disappearing Kirtland's Warbler. HIRE A GUIDE!!!
posted by Stewriffic at 5:49 PM on July 14, 2008

Also, this time of the year in the Northern Lower Peninsula is fantastic. The fall migration is starting already, but not quite. Your neck of the woods is FILLED with good passerines. A few years ago I saw the most birds I'd ever seen before, about an hour north of Muskegon, on Lake MI, in a very slightly inland (.25 miles?) nature preserve (private, sorry to say, but I'll be up there the first week of Aug if you wanna come on down!).

By memory, what I saw included:
Scarlet Tanager
Yellow-billed Cuckoo
American Redstart
Cedar Waxwing
100000000 different warblers (exaggeration, but still)
several Flycatchers (very hard to tell apart--alder, willow, acadian)
red-eyed virio
white-eyed vireo
black throated blue warbler
black throated green warbler
black and white warbler
blackpoll warbler,
magnolia warbler
yellow breasted chat
indigo bunting
song sparrow....

OMG even more. I can't think of them all!

This all August 4-6, 2006.

(I can't wait for my vacation!!)
posted by Stewriffic at 6:01 PM on July 14, 2008

Seconding readery's recommendation of Cornell's site. I googled for something similar in Michigan ag extension resources and the best I came up with was this paper. Not terribly useful... but dig down in the site and find contact info for your county's office. You could find a birder.

Here's the Michigan Audubon Society site. It may take a few trips but someone, something, somewhere will helps you find that *click*
posted by dogrose at 6:13 PM on July 14, 2008

I wouldn't say so much "hard work and practice" as I would "experience". I never would have believed I could start recognizing birds by the shape of their flight pattern, but I do, now - and I didn't TRY to learn that, it just happened.

Learning (by experience) the best spots will go a long way. I love black oystercatchers (they have these great bright red beaks). They're really, really hard to spot - they blend in with the rocks they hop around on - but now that I know which rocks they like, I see one or a pair nearly every time I go out.

Also, learn to be still. Find a comfy place and just sit or stand still. Look around. You'll see a lot more (once you get used to doing this) than you will zipping along the trail.

And definitely feel free to focus on the birds you like. I'm the opposite of a life-list birder - I have five favorite species, and if I see all five in a day, I'm a happy girl - even though I've seen them all before. It's only competitive if that's fun for you. If you like to sit and watch the same group of warblers every time you go out, go for it.
posted by kristi at 6:30 PM on July 14, 2008

I started by starting with other, more experienced birders. Actually, it started as hawkwatching, and has morphed into birding.

Volunteer with a local bird group, join your local Audubon, and go on the outings. We take a birding class through the local CC, and there are field trips, and lemme tell you, when you'd learning about annoyingly similar birds like sparrows, it's much more fun to go out with people who know more than you, and who like to talk to you about IDing birds (this is most birders, honestly).

The class has also taught me good, basic stuff like: when looking at a bird, look at the bird. Don't glance at the bird and then spend ten frantic minutes picking through the field guide - because the bird will fly away! Now, when I see an unfamiliar bird, I say the field marks out loud, and I name as many as I can, and I look at the bird for as long as I can, and then I look in the field guide.

I still suck at IDing sparrows, though. Also flycatchers. And gulls. Vireos. Warblers. Yeah.

Field guides: I use both the Sibley Guide(s) and the National Geographic Guide - North America, 5th edition. They're both good. Borrow them from the library, if you can, and see what "fits" you better.

(This weekend, we were in New Mexico, and saw some excellent new-to-us species, although the trip was not "really" a birding trip. Although of course, we both brought binos. I mean, duh.)

Congrats on your new hobby/vocation!
posted by rtha at 10:51 PM on July 14, 2008

Response by poster: Thanks everyone for your very helpful hints.

To answer one question: basically, I think I fall in the camp that just wants to know what's going on out there. Who are all these birds? What are their names? What do they eat? I can be competitive, and the boyfriend and I were engaged in a sort of numbers game (he's one up - stupid American redstart, grr)

I was hoping there would be a miraculous technique for seeing one of the myriad olive-brown small birds that like to sing from high in the tree tops in our forests here, but alas. It appears experience and perseverance are the order of the day.

And on a fun note, I can feel this hobby sinking into my blood - driving to work, I found myself saying things like "Ooh, a starling! A house wren! A herring gull!" and so on.

BTW, we figured out the 'look at the bird' thing really early on - but it helps that there were two of us, so we could have one looker, and one researcher. We'll be at some Metroparks this weekend, and keep the eyes on the sky. Also, shrubberies, as we learned.
posted by palindromic at 6:04 AM on July 15, 2008

One of the things that I find the most helpful is going birding with someone who really knows their birds. Whether it's for a class or a local Audubon group, or just asking other people you see walking past with binos slung around their necks, go look at birds with other birders. Birders may be more eccentric than your average group, but they are generally happy to talk about the bird they just saw, or the finer points of accipiter ID.
posted by gingerbeer at 10:19 PM on July 15, 2008

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