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Birdwatching 101

For aesthetics, fun, and the thrill of victory

Downy woodpecker


The 2016 National Survey of Fishing, Hunting, and Wildlife-Associated Recreation carried out by the United States Fish and Wildlife Survey provides some interesting information about birdwatchers. It records the total number of people who observe birds as more than forty-five million, most of whom merely watch birds around the home, but sixteen million are more active, taking trips away from home to observe or photograph birds. This means that one out of every twenty of us is an active birdwatcher.


Those numbers have additional significance when they are compared with the thirty-six million Americans who fish and 11.5 million who hunt. It is also of interest to note that wildlife watching in general appears to increase among retired Americans.


Conclusion: people enjoy watching birds. Perhaps they are onto something and you should consider joining them.


The sport

There is, of course, an aesthetic appeal to observing these remarkable feathered animals, many of them beautifully plumaged as well. But there is another aspect to birdwatching that draws many to the avocation: I call it the sport of birdwatching.


Most of us love competition. We root for our favorite sports teams and we compete in games like bridge and chess. Many of us also compete against ourselves: we seek to increase the number of states or national parks we have visited, how many push-ups we can do, or how many mountains we have climbed.


For most beginning birders, there is competition from the very beginning. Almost all birdwatchers keep lists and the basic one is how many species they have seen and/or heard in all their birding. (Purists record only birds they have seen.) This so-called life list includes birds identified by others and pointed out to the list-keepers. Initiating and keeping such a list is great fun, especially at first when the numbers mount quickly.


That life list is easy to start. Before you leave home for active watching, it already includes a half-dozen or more birds. You surely know species like robin, crow, pigeon, and Canada goose. And if you have maintained or visited a bird feeder you know chickadee, downy woodpecker, white-breasted nuthatch, blue jay, and cardinal.


Now it’s time to join a birding outing at Tifft Nature Preserve or the Audubon Society’s Beaver Meadow refuge or one led by a Buffalo Ornithological Society member. These trips can add forty or fifty species to your list. Most beginners who participate in a few field trips end their first year with a life list of over a hundred species.


In accumulating that number, beginners should not feel that they are inconveniencing the experienced birders who help by pointing out “lifers”—birds the new watcher has never seen before.  Most are delighted to contribute and share in the fun. For them, adding a new lifer is far harder, and your achievement gives them vicarious pleasure.


Hopefully, you will eventually go beyond birdwatching as a sport to become more concerned about the science of ornithology, but that can come later.





Here on the Niagara Frontier, about 300 bird species are recorded each year. For beginning birdwatchers learning to identify, that number seems like a insurmountable undertaking, but consider how ornithological identification compares with that of entomology: among insects, there are over 24,000 beetle species alone.


Learning well over a hundred bird species is readily achievable for a number of reasons. First, many birds are not only colorful but are also strikingly patterned. It is hard to confuse the bright red cardinal or the soft blue bluebird from other species, so it is easy to learn many common species. Among them are the bright yellow and orange Baltimore oriole, the red-winged blackbird with its red and yellow shoulders, the mallard duck with its green head, and the goldfinch, whose body is yellow and wings black.


The birds also fit quite neatly into groups, starting with the groups that appear now, in late fall:


First, waterfowl. About twenty easily identifiable species of ducks, geese, and swans winter each year in the Niagara River where most of them can be seen up close, especially from the Canadian side. You can observe them resting on the water in large flocks. With a bird book, you can identify most of them by yourself. Later, you learn to identify them in flight as hunters do.


Second, feeder birds. You can easily double that list of bird species that appear at your feeders, including titmice; hairy, red-bellied, and (rarer) pileated woodpeckers; song and house sparrows; and juncos.


Autumn is also a good time to become a birdwatcher, because the annual Christmas Counts are coming up. Basic familiarity with birds is all that’s needed to join one or more of these group counts and participate in a national program of citizenship science. You won’t land many new species, as most of the birds found on these counts are those in the groups I mentioned, but you will extend your birding community.




Yes, birdwatchers do spend money on books, binoculars, and telescopes. I recommend that every beginning birdwatcher purchase the current version of Peterson’s Field Guide to Birds of Eastern and Central North America (or, if you plan a Western trip, his Field Guide to Birds of North America.) With this book alone, you can get a good start on this avocation.


But then come binoculars. I suggest one important caveat at the outset: the difference between lower-priced and higher-priced binoculars is, I believe, less than ten percent. You can get a good pair of binoculars for less than $150. I recommend 8x by 42 and you can find a number of brands recommended by Audubon at audubon.org/news/category-get-game. One concern, especially if you purchase used binoculars: lens alignment is important. You should not see two loops the way binocular vision is often portrayed in the movies; rather, you should see the same circular image with both eyes. Instructions how to check binocular alignment yourself are found on the web.


Today, you often see birdwatchers lined up behind expensive telescopes. Although I have a powerful telescope, I rarely use it. (Admittedly, I do occasionally look through friends’ scopes.)


Preferred birding spots

Here are some regional sites experienced birdwatchers often visit. For waterfowl: the shores of the Niagara River and Lakes Erie and Ontario. For land birds: Tifft, Reinstein Woods, and Beaver Meadow Nature Preserves; Amherst, Beaver Island, Buckhorn, Golden Hill, Wilson-Tuscarora, and Woodlawn State Parks; Goat Island (in Niagara Falls State Park); Chestnut Ridge and Bond Lake Parks; and Tillman Road Wildlife Management Area.


Information Sources

The Buffalo Ornithological Society and the Buffalo Audubon Society maintain websites from which you can obtain information about meetings and field trips. The mailing list GeneseeBirds-L gives much up-to-date information. Dave Suggs’ phone-in resource, Dial-a-Bird (716-896-1271) provides current and very specific information about where to find uncommon birds.


To anyone who accepts this invitation to join the throng of birdwatchers, I offer my very best wishes. If you have any questions, please do not hesitate to contact me at 716-689-8301 or insrisg@buffalo.edu. 


Click here for a list just over 100 birds that I believe a beginner could find with reasonable effort in his or her first year.


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