S-L-O-W Birding: A Primer for Beginners

By Laurie Freeman

Are you con­sid­er­ing bird­ing? Per­haps you’ve heard that bird­ing is a great way to enjoy the out­doors, to be clos­er to nature. Or maybe a friend has been regal­ing you with the myr­i­ad birds they have seen. Or maybe the cute feath­ery friends at your feed­er piqué your inter­est. What­ev­er the rea­son, you’ve just become a bird­er. Wel­come to the club!

I’ve been a bird­er just about all of my life. As a child, I would read Ranger Rick,” a children’s mag­a­zine pub­lished by the Nation­al Wildlife Fed­er­a­tion. In one issue there was a sug­ges­tion to try watch­ing a tree’ – to study it every day and note what was hap­pen­ing in and around it. I remem­ber that I focused on two trees, a cher­ry and a mul­ber­ry. I may not have watched them every day, but I did pay atten­tion on a reg­u­lar basis. I have the dis­tinct mem­o­ry of watch­ing a male car­di­nal singing, first in the cher­ry tree and then in the mul­ber­ry. I was fas­ci­nat­ed at the way he sat on a branch, tilt­ed his head, beak to the sky, and chor­tled out PER­TY-PER­TY-PER­TY over and over again.

In my first apart­ment in Farm­ing­dale, New York, I hung a bird feed­er out­side my liv­ing room win­dow. I stud­ied the finch­es — were they house finch­es or pur­ple finch­es? With a pair of cheap binoc­u­lars I spent hours parked near Long Island Sound, watch­ing and iden­ti­fy­ing the shore birds, always mes­mer­ized by their inter­est­ing behav­iors.
This is the kind of bird­ing — what bird diva Brid­get But­ler calls slow bird­ing’- that accom­mo­dates both begin­ners and more sea­soned bird­ers. This mind­ful bird­ing is not about rack­ing up num­bers for your life list. It is about con­nect­ing with your sub­ject, tak­ing time to real­ly see, hear, and expe­ri­ence each bird. In this approach, pigeons, star­lings and crows all count as wor­thy sub­jects. Any and all birds are a won­der to watch and lis­ten to.

To get start­ed, it is help­ful to acquire decent binoc­u­lars. Plan on spend­ing about $200. Look for a qual­i­ty pair of 8×42 binoc­u­lars. The 8 tells you the mag­ni­fi­ca­tion is 8x. You might be tempt­ed to get a high­er mag­ni­fi­ca­tion. Don’t. It is very hard to hold your hands steady enough to appre­ci­ate the added mag­ni­fi­ca­tion. The 42 tells you the objec­tive lens diam­e­ter. A small­er diam­e­ter will com­pro­mise the amount of light col­lect­ed by the device; larg­er, and the binoc­u­lars become unwieldy. Now prac­tice with them. Look off at a branch, some­where a bird might be. Keep your eye on the spot as your raise the binoc­u­lars and focus. With repeat­ed tri­als, you will mas­ter find­ing the exact thing you want to observe. Start­ing with fixed objects will hone your skill.

The next lev­el is to find a mov­ing object, per­haps a bird! Now study that bird as it goes about its busi­ness. What kinds of plants does it vis­it? What is it eat­ing? What col­or is its bill? What pos­ture does it take when it sings? What oth­er nois­es does it make? The object here is that you do not have to make this anoth­er chal­lenge in your life. There are no steps to achieve, no lists to make, no rea­sons for stress. The joy is in mind­ful­ly watch­ing nature.

To get more out of your sight­ings, try a bird­ing guide. The Mer­lin app from Cor­nell Lab or Ornithol­o­gy is free. It pro­vides pic­tures of birds, the range they are found in, infor­ma­tion about their life cycles, and the sounds they make. You can even record a bird or take its pic­ture, and it will iden­ti­fy it for you! To keep track of your dis­cov­er­ies, try the ebird app also from the Lab of Ornithol­o­gy. With ebird, you can share your sight­ings with oth­ers and find good bird­ing loca­tions around the world. Both of these apps are easy to learn. (There are tuto­ri­als.) For those who pre­fer print resources, I rec­om­mend The Sib­ley Guide to Birds” and The Sib­ley Guide to Bird Life and Behav­ior,” both by David Allen Sib­ley.

Spring is a per­fect time to start your bird­ing adven­ture. The birds will be singing, nest­ing, and rais­ing young soon. Take a few moments to observe their antics, and you’ll be rich­ly reward­ed. Hap­py birding!

Spring 2023

Volume 41 , Number 1

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