Bird Watching

Cheery red cardinals, silent owls, majestic bald eagles - birds are a colorful and fascinating part of the animal kingdom. If you enjoy watching wildlife, or just having a project during outdoor walks, then it's time to take up bird watching. Few hobbies are so easy to start and so instantly rewarding. With a basic set of equipment and a little practice, youÌll quickly expand your circle of friends to include birds of all sizes, from the tiniest finch to the largest egret.

To get started, invest in a good bird guide. Be sure to get one that's suited to your region and that has colored pictures of the different bird types. It's worthwhile to take a minute to flip through your book, noticing the way it's organized. The water birds may be grouped together, for instance, as are the raptors, the songbirds, and the owls. If you like, design little tabs for each section so it's easier to flip to the group you want in a flash. Many books have territorial maps that show where a specific bird can be found during the warm or cold months of the year.

Next, consider buying a pair of binoculars. You can start your birding hobby without them, but even a low-cost pair (available at sporting goods or military surplus stores) will dramatically improve your ability to identify birds. As you progress in your hobby, you might advance to a fancier pair of binoculars or even a spotting scope. If you're unsure what kind to buy, just ask your fellow birders. TheyÌre always eager to discuss equipment and to share advice about what kind of equipment to buy.

With a bird book and binoculars, youÌre ready to go. You can start anywhere birds congregate - at your backyard bird feeder, in your campsite, at a pond, or on the beach. Pick a bird, or type of bird, and make a mental note of its size and coloring. If you're new to birding, do yourself a favor and pick a bird that isn't part of the small, brown multitude. These birds, known to birders as 'LBBs' or Little Brown Birds, are notoriously hard to identify. You'll have better success if you choose a bird with a nice spot of color or some kind of distinctive marking (a crest, a bright wing-patch, etc.)

As you develop your birding skills, you'll get better at knowing a type of bird from a quick look, but for now, take a look at the bird's beak. Is it a short, thick beak, designed for eating seeds? Is the bird small? If the answer to both questions is yes, you're probably looking at something in the finch family. The size and shape of the beak gives you clues about what the bird eats (worms, insects, fish, rodents, fruit, etc.) You can probably make your own educated guess about some well-known families of birds like woodpeckers, hawks, gulls, ducks, and doves.

See if you can find your bird in the bird book, then take a minute to double check. Read the description of the birds habitat and see if it fits your area. Check the territorial map in the back to make sure that bird lives in your part of the state. Double-check its markings with your binoculars. Once you're fairly certain, then congratulate yourself! You've just identified your first bird.

You might jot down the name of your bird, either in a birding notebook or in the back of your bird book. Be sure to note the specific variety and where you saw it. This is the first step to building an understanding of which birds live in what parts of the country, what type of terrain, etc.

A quick note about the pictures in your birding book. If your book has drawings (rather than photos), you might find that the color patches in the drawing are sharper or more distinct than they are on the bird in front of you. That's fairly normal. Because the differences between some varieties are quite small, the illustrator has taken pains to make these distinctions clear in the pictures. Your bird might have subtler coloring or you might be viewing it during a less colorful time of the year. Many birds, particularly males, develop more vivid colors during the breeding season.

Now that you've identified your first bird, you're off and running. Before long, you'll know all the birds in your campsite or backyard feeder and you'll be able to tell the chickadees from the house finches at a glance. So long as you remember to travel with your two pieces of equipment, you can enjoy birding wherever you go. You might plan a special trip to birding hotspots like the Gulf Coast or Florida. Or you can plan trips around birds you'd like to see - bald eagles in Alaska, puffins in Maine, mountain bluebirds in Utah. Welcome to the world of birding!
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