Carpe Birdem: Now is the time to start birding!

Apart from the occasional whistle of wind, the world was rather quiet last weekend. Winter Storm Linus draped the Midwest in what seemed to be a soundproof blanket of snow. The few times I poked my head out into the whiteout, I heard no cars, no squirrel chatter, no gossipy dog-walkers, and no birds. No cardinal chips, no woodpecker drumbeats, no chickadee dee dee dees. The oppressive snow had muted them all.

Had I been listening two years ago, I surely would not have noticed this absence. At that time I scarcely gave birds much thought at all. When I began working as an interpreter with Metroparks in 2013, I learned some cool facts about local species, and grew comfortable sharing them at programs. Even then, it took me quite some time before I felt comfortable calling myself a “birder.”

Bridging the gap between “birds are kinda neat” and “my name is Lauren and I am a birder” wasn’t easy. I worried that a simple interest in birds, in observing them and trying to identify them, just wasn’t enough. I met a lot of amazing, serious birders through Metroparks. How could I, a total neophyte, count myself among these ornithological heroes?

I’m here to tell you that bridging that gap isn’t so scary. All you need to start using that particular “B-word” is an earnest interest in birds, a little time, and a humble willingness to learn. In fact, if you’ve always wanted to get into birding but weren’t sure how, there’s no better day to start than today! It may seem counter-intuitive, but winter is an excellent time to start your journey toward birderdom.

Study up

Take Linus, for example. What did you do when he rudely barricaded you inside your home? If you’re at all like me, you did a little housework, watched an embarrassing amount of Netflix, and caught up on some reading.  Snow days are perfect for delving into the expansive world of birdy entertainment! There’s nothing like snuggling up with a good book, and there are plenty that will whet your birding appetite.

If you’ve been intimidated by the huge variety of field guides out there, the library is a great place to shop around before investing! Read the introductory sections to learn some bird ID basics. Just flipping through the pages will familiarize you with taxonomic groupings, different mechanisms for bird ID, and how to best use field guides.

If you’re in a less “technical” mood, there are lots of great birdy memoirs and essay collections out there. If you can’t make it to the library, no problem! There are plenty of excellent articles, websites, and videos to explore online. See my Recommended Reading list at the end of this post!

The power of observation

One of the first lessons I learned on my Quest for Birderdom was that field guides are really helpful… and really #*^&ing heavy. I used to take my field guide everywhere, until I found myself in the middle of the Maumee River with binoculars in one hand and book in the other. One of them was bound to end up swimming, and the guide didn’t have a neck strap.

It’s far better to bring a notebook and pencil, take detailed notes, and later consult your ID tools at home. Not only will this spare your expensive field guide a watery grave, but it will force you to really, really look at birds. You’ll become more intimately familiar with field marks, size and shape, and behaviors. What better time than winter to start working on those note-taking skills?

Invest in a birdfeeder and you’ll observe a diverse crowd of thankful birds – without getting out of your PJs! Of course, birds are perfectly capable of enduring the winter on their own, but they always seem thankful for the extra help. Hang an inexpensive suet feeder from a branch or shepherd’s crook, strategically move your couch to a window with a view, grab a notebook and pencil, and start practicing your note-taking.

If your front door isn’t frozen shut, many parks have great viewing areas to explore. Cozy observation rooms look out onto collections of birdfeeders and water features and attract a diverse crowd of birds. As a bonus, many local birding groups utilize these spaces for regular birding “sits.” If you want to start making connections with other birders, these are the places to do so!

Get to know your “regulars”

Winter is a great time to get to know your locals. Everybody loves to glimpse a rarity, but studying the most common birds in your area is the best way to build a solid foundation of birding skills. After you’ve logged a couple pages of observations, you’ll notice that certain species can always be counted on to appear. Focus your observations on these species, until you feel like every tufted titmouse (or your equivalent) you see is an old friend.

Getting to know the birds that call your backyard “home” is excellent preparation for a very exciting event: the Great Backyard Bird Count! This annual birdwatching event gathers Citizen Science data from around the world. This year’s event runs from February 13th to 16th, and the birds need YOU to participate! All you have to do is observe your backyard birds for 15 minutes, submit your observations online, and… that’s it! Visit birdcount.org to get all the details.

Even when the weather outside is frightful, opportunities abound to start practicing your birding. Books, online resources, backyard birdfeeders, and indoor viewing areas are all great ways to get your feet wet – without getting them cold. If you take time now to learn some fundamental birding skills and strategies, you’ll be ready to hit the boardwalk running when spring migration arrives… and maybe to start using that “b-word” too!

A bird field guide, pencils, binoculars - winter birding materials.

Camped out at an indoor viewing window with all the birding necessities: field guide, pencils and eraser, notebook, and binoculars.

Recommended reading and watching:

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One bird, two bird, three b– wait, is that Bird One again?

I’ve always taken notes while birding. These started as personal asides (my blog’s title should betray my tendency to inject romanticism into all), only recording species if they were surprising. I reported peculiarities to eBird, because I thought that’s what eBird was looking for. As a bonus, curiosities are usually easy to count: One. Boom.

But this isn’t the most valuable data. Birds face a grave opponent in climate change, and researchers need to know where species as wholes are found. Vagrant individuals travel heroic distances; while awesome to behold, they generally don’t indicate trends applicable to their entire species. They’re usually outliers, in the most basic statistical sense of the term. It’s the “Usual Suspects,” in all their abundant glory, who betray larger geographical and temporal shifts.

After this concept “clicked” in my bird brain, I began taking more detailed, quantitative notes, trying to record every species. I report lists to eBird as often as I can, and I’d love to do so more. There’s just one thing standing in my way. When I’m dealing with a common species, seen by the dozens, maybe even hundreds, over one birding session…

How the heck am I supposed to actually count these things?

Last week I had a great sit at an indoor viewing area, where I was treated to a huge turnout. I jotted a list of species I saw, and began frantically making hash marks. Initially, I had a system. I’d start with the first species on my list, tally the individuals I could see at that moment, then move to the next species and tally; when I got to the end of the list, I’d return to the first species and start again, adding to the previous tally. Repeat ad nauseam. (Literally. This sometimes makes me nauseous.)

As you may have guessed, this system rapidly collapsed. I was counting cardinals when — Oh! Is that a red-winged blackbird? He’s not on my list yet! Let me write him down… okay… where was I? Cardinals? Or was it titmice? Now who did I count already? Sit still! Were you there the last time I counted, or are you new? Did I skip goldfinches this round? Let me go back to — Oh, wow, a white-throated sparrow! Great, got him. Okay, hang on, did I see you already?

I was left with a list of species and some idea of their relative abundances. I have no idea just how accurate my crazed tallies are. How am I to know if each individual is a new arrival, or has already been tallied? What of those who land, depart, then return some time later? More importantly, does it matter? Does eBird have a resident Dark Wizard of Statistics who recites a mathematical incantation and makes all these inaccuracies smooth themselves over?

A historical depiction of either witchcraft or eBird birding statistics

I’ve never actually taken a statistics class, but this is how I imagine them.

We all know that birds don’t comply with our silly requests, and they seem to hate being counted for some reason. I really want to contribute meaningful data to eBird. So riddle me this: how can I get the most accurate abundance data I can, being only one human with one pencil and two eyeballs?

That wasn’t a rhetorical question, reader. I would like YOUR best tips and tricks, schemes and strategies, and methods to manage the madness of overwhelmingly numerous flocks. How do YOU do it? Please share your advice in the comments. In a way, given the immeasurable value of Citizen Science data… the future of our birds depends on it!

UPDATE! The good folks at eBird have published a couple of helpful articles on the art of counting birds – check them out! They mostly detail strategies to count large flocks on the move. The techniques described are great, but they weren’t extremely helpful regarding the feeder situation I described above. I’ve emailed eBird suggesting that they expand the series to include feeder strategies.