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On birdwatching alone

Books and apps make it possible for anyone to take up birding; now is a great time


On January 1, 2020, I decided that I would take a weekly walk through Amherst State Park to record the birds I would see there. This would serve two purposes: first, to break me out of my developing cabin fever to provide some outdoor exercise; second, to record a birding year in the park. Of course, this pre-COVID-19 decision has served me well during the necessary lockdown that has followed.


Because I can no longer manage walking on rough trails, my hikes have been limited to even ground, so I follow the paved path leading from behind the former nun’s residence that is accessed from Mill Street. I walk down that path through the old orchard, across the creek bridge, over the open field and up the hill to the gate near the Reist Street park entrance. I then return over the same route: a total hike of just over a mile.


As I write this in late March, I have kept to my initial plan and have this morning returned from my fourteenth walk. So far, I have recorded twenty-three species. My total was just eleven in January and seventeen in February. Almost all of those January and February birds were the expected winter species we also find around our bird feeders. Just three were unexpected: other walkers pointed out a Cooper’s hawk in the hillside woods in early January, a kingfisher rattled along the creek several times, and a winter wren joined the chickadees and nuthatches in the pines behind the mother house in late February. Despite its name, the winter wren is rare here in winter and normally doesn’t pass through on migration until April.


Finally, a few migrants have begun to appear. Robins and red-winged blackbirds first arrived on March 5 and their songs have added to my pleasure ever since. But the exciting times are yet to come. By the end of the year my species list should be over eighty.


During these park walks, I have been wondering what it would be like to take bird walks with no prior knowledge of bird identification in the field. Learning to identify birds completely on your own would be, I suspect, like trying to learn Russian by reference to Russian newspapers. My own experience in England confirms this. I was there for a month before I could identify any birds other than the starlings and house sparrows already familiar to me. Even that was with help: friends showed me their robin (very different from our own), a bird whose lovely song I had been hearing each morning, and a few other species as well. They also loaned me a British bird book, with which I was able to identify a few more species.


In any case, everyone I know began with similar help from mentors. I was especially fortunate. Not only did I learn from a number of Rochester birders but I was tutored there by Fred Hall, who later became director of the Buffalo Museum of Science.


So how would could you take up birdwatching on your own with no prior bird identification experience? Here are some things you might do.


 First, you could review the bird names that you know from your reading and schooling and even television watching. You would find yourself pleasantly surprised at how many bird names you recognize.  Here are some with which most of us are familiar: crow, swan, sparrow, duck, hawk, eagle, turkey, pigeon, gull, woodpecker, owl, hummingbird, even stork (the one that brings babies) and, of course, roadrunner (the one who fools Wile E. Coyote.)


Some of those birds you could identify on sight. Surely, for example, you could identify a turkey or a swan. Never mind that there are different swan species; that general knowledge assures you that you have a base from which to learn.


But what next? The best time to take up birdwatching would be at the beginning of the calendar year. Then, as my own park sightings have indicated, there are few species around. You can learn the species coming to your feeders and add others when spring brings migrants.


Unfortunately, that is not how it usually works, and you may find yourself in the midst of a hundred or more species, many of which look much alike.


And this is when you can make a critical choice. You can purchase a good field guide. Of the two guides most often used today, I recommend the Peterson Field Guide to the Birds of Eastern North America. The Sibley Birds East is less attuned to beginners. But either book is still overwhelming. What are you going to do when you see a little yellow bird with black wings resting on the telephone wire behind your house? You really need something much simpler to get started.


There are a number of books that would give you a good start. Some excellent ones are Stokes Beginner’s Guide to Birds and The National Geographic Backyard Guide to the Birds. Harrison’s Bird Watching for Kids is good for adults as well and a good self-teaching book is the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology’s Backyard Birds Flashcards. If you can find a copy, you might even use the book a group of us developed for children: Ten by Ten: Bird

There are also some pretty good smartphone apps, including eBird and Merlin Bird ID, both from Cornell.


Once you’ve mastered one of those simple books or have your smartphone app in hand, head out first into your own backyard. Don’t start at one of the fine local birding spots—you’ll be overwhelmed. Get to know your local birds and then you can expand from your experiences.


I note here that I have written these suggestions for adults, but they work equally well for children. Kids can start keeping a list of the birds they have found and can identify as a challenge — just as most of us birders did when we first took up this wonderful avocation.


Gerry Rising is Buffalo Spree's nature writer. 


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