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Birdwatching, or "Birding" is a sport with tens of millions of enthusiasts around the world. Although many people casually observe birds, the birder actively seeks out and identifies species using key characters distinguishing it from other similar species. The birder usually keeps a list of bird species seen in his or her lifetime.
This "life list" is entirely one's own, and the addition of new species is entirely at one's discretion and integrity. Although birds may be subsequently identified by call, most birders only add a bird to the life list if seen. Some add birds heard-only with a special notation.
The life list gives birding the elements of a sport. The birder usually feels a strong drive to add new species to the life list. This calls for increased travel to new regions and new habitats where unrecorded species may be present. Of course, everything must be done at the proper time and season. There are no guarantees, but time invested usually has its reward in seeing new species. Unexpected sightings of a bird out of season or out of the usual habitat adds an element of adventure and surprise that even the experienced birder enjoys and anticipates. Young adult males especially find elements of competition in "listing."
As the life list grows it diminishes in importance as an incentive to bird in one's own neighborhood or region. Many birders overcome this by keeping a "yard list" of species seen in your own yard or from your own yard, a "county list" of species seen in a specific county, a "year list" of species seen between January 1 and December 31, and even a "trip list" or "day list." Some birders plan ahead with birding companions for a "big day" of birding to see how many species can be seen or heard between midnight and midnight. Around the last two weeks of December, birders join in groups for special "Christmas Bird Counts" organized to count all the birds in a prescribed region in one day.
Most birders are avid outdoor enthusiasts who enjoy hiking and camping. Many hunters and fisherman take up birding to give them outdoor recreation out of the hunting and fishing seasons. For me, birding was the introduction to a new career in wildlife management.
A bird feeder can provide the opportunity to attract a variety of species. Feeders are especially attractive to birds in northern areas in the winter when food is scarce.
Birding is a relatively inexpensive sport. The only items needed are a good pair of binoculars and a bird field guide. Binoculars should be light weight because of the many hours they'll be hanging around your neck. They should be wide-angle because you'll often be searching or trying to follow a moving bird. They should focus to within 15 feet for those birds that are approachable. Avoid cheap binoculars (under $100) because they will soon be knocked out of collimation (alignment of the two eye images), resulting in eye strain and headaches. Whatever you buy, handle them with care, always keep the strap around your neck, keep them in the case when traveling, and don't loan them out - no one will respect your binoculars but you.
For beginners, the best field guides in my opinion are the National Geographic Society's "Field Guide to the Birds of North America"; the Golden Guide "Field Guide to Birds of North America" by Robbins, Bruun, and Zim; and the Kaufman Focus Guide "Birds of North America" by Kenn Kaufman. All three field guides cover all birds in the U.S., have maps of each species' range, and have all the illustrations on the right side, which helps in thumbing through the book for a particular set of characters. More advanced birders may want a Peterson Field Guide to the Western Birds, Eastern Birds, or Birds of Texas. There are also excellent field guides for birding in other countries.
More advanced birders may want to purchase a spotting scope and tripod. This is a monocular, low-power scope (usually 15-60 power) for viewing waterfowl, shorebirds, hawks, and other birds that sit in the open and are difficult to approach.
Beginning birders will want to join with more experienced birders to learn more rapidly. But the identification of every new species should be verified using the illustration, description, and map in the field guide. This is the best way to learn and to maintain true ownership of your list. There are local chapters of the Audubon Society and the American Birder's Association that conduct bird walks. These are especially helpful to the beginner because experienced people on these trips are always anxious to help with identifications.
Many parts of the country have a birders' telephone recorded message, where recent sightings of unusual birds are announced. The Internet has an increasing number of web sites that give information on unusual sightings. The Great Outdoor Recreation Pages (GORP) web page on Birding gives links to many other interesting web pages for birders.
As new birders open their eyes and look intently for movement around them, even in their daily activities, they often express the thought that they have never seen so many things. Birdwatching makes us more aware of our environment and the natural elements around us - weather, rocks, trees and shrubs, hills, insects, and other animals. As you grow in your appreciation and understanding of our natural surroundings, you too may feel the awe expressed by Stuart K. Hine:
When through the woods and forest glades I wander,
Then sings my soul, my Savior God, to thee,
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