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.
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!
Recommended reading and watching:
- Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s “Birding Basics” collection
- David Attenborough’s Life of Birds series
- Luke Dempsey’s A Supremely Bad Idea
- A collection of essays called Good Birders Don’t Wear White
- Pete Dunne’s The Wind Masters
- The Big Year, featuring Steve Martin, Owen Wilson, and Jack Black