Did You Ever Want to Be a “Birder”?

By Dawn Swartz

“It’s a Black-And-White-Warbler,” he slowly said to me.

“I heard you the first time,” I wanted to say but didn’t. I really didn’t want others to notice that I was the only one who couldn’t see the birds. I was beginning to feel like the little boy in the story of The Emperor’s New Clothes, the one who knew what he saw and it was nothing like what everyone said.

I was there because I needed a hobby. It was going on one year since my husband and I had wanted to get pregnant. We had used everything known to medical science but that little tester-stick came up colorless every time. I had more frustration that year than I ever had known in life and needed desperately to get out of my life and into another space. A lovely friend had listened to my story and then said kindly, “Have you any hobbies?” I did have a few hobbies, but my sewing and crafting only kept me at home where everything reminded me of the baby we wanted. So here I was, miles from home in the woods with strangers in the second week of May. I had been holding my binoculars up every time these Audubon people called out their birds but wasn’t seeing much. Their enthusiasm was drawing me in, but I didn’t know how they could actually be seeing tiny birds, especially those called Warblers.

I had been attracted to birds since I was a child. I remember buying four-inch models of them to take home and paint. I loved those birds and memorized their names. I painted them by number just as the directions said. But trouble was, I never saw any. Sure I had Woodpeckers at my backyard feeder. There were also Blue Jays and Sparrows: the same ones everyday. Nice as they were, I wanted to see the really exciting ones. You know, Scarlet Tanager, Baltimore Oriole, Indigo Bunting, and Yellow Warbler. I’d seen them in “bird guides” but had always looked upon them dubiously. Those birds must have been around in the past, sort of like dinosaurs. There wasn’t much chance I could see them, I thought.

Here I was again longing for the promise of those birds. I had seen an invitation in a local church bulletin that said everyone was welcome to come “watch the Warblers while in their spring migration.” I had wondered aloud at the church if this was for real. “Yes,” came the answer. “There are beautiful South American birds coming up north just now to breed, and you, yes anyone, can see them. Can you borrow a pair of ‘binos’?” Well, sure, everyone has ‘binos,’ right? So I got some from a relative and showed up at 7 a.m. to see those beautiful birds.

But that aggressive man wouldn’t stop with me. “Did you ‘get’ it yet?” he wanted to know. Well, I’m not in the habit of lying, so I said with my head hanging, “No, I didn’t.” “No? Well let me see your binos! I’ll get it for you.” I didn’t know then that everyone has to learn to use that birding tool and I was no different. Unbeknownst to me he was simply hoping he could adjust my binoculars in case that was keeping me from seeing what everyone else saw.

“Here, try it now,” he said. “Look for movement on that tree trunk and then bring the binos to your face. Do you see the tree trunk?” “Yes.” It was true. I saw the trunk in the binos. Who could miss that? Whatever he had done had made all the difference. But still, no bird.

“Now move the binos up the trunk until you find the bird.” I dutifully obeyed. Up, up the trunk I went until… a zebra? Not a zebra, a tiny bird that just looked like a zebra! It was an unbelievable sight! Excitement? Not the word. Awe. Amazement. No words. This tiny bird, which now was huge in my ‘binos,’ was walking up the tree trunk like a dog sniffing vegetation. I took the binos down because there were tears in my eyes. I took a breath and tried to imagine what the bird was like that I saw. Did it have a head color? A body color? Beak? Feet? Wings? I only saw black and white feathers in stripes all over. Had I really seen it? It was nothing like what I’d imagined. Nothing like I’d seen in the bird guides. A feeling of magnificence and meaning and truth shot through me like I know my own name. It said without words, “Pay attention. This is important. This is life and you are just a part of it.”

I didn’t see the Virgin Mary or God or my dead grandmother, but I felt like the Universe touched me in a new way. And I was hooked. That day, as my facility with binoculars got better, I started seeing more and more of the birds that the others were seeing. I realized this man wasn’t being impatient, he had just wanted to share the magnificence of this with me. I couldn’t wait to go on another “Bird Walk.”

Of course, everyone sees birds. But that day I learned about “Birders,” those who decide to be where they can see more birds. Birders feel some connection to creatures with wings and they can never get enough. Is it a “consuming hobby”? It’s probably different for everyone, but let me just say that it is controllable. It’s a passion that will keep calling, gently reminding you that there is wonder and beauty to be known in birds.

Beginning “Birding”

If you ever wanted to be a “birder,” now is the time to get out there. Here are some practical tips.

Find others who like birding. Audubon is a group that is everywhere and has been around quite awhile. There you will meet people who barely have to be asked to give a beginner some help. In our region, there are several groups that hold meetings and bird programs for the public, like Washtenaw Audubon Society (usually referred to as WAS), Michigan Audubon, Detroit Audubon, and Toledo Audubon.

Black-And-White-Warbler

Black-And-White-Warbler

I recommend local beginners explore the WAS website first, Washtenawaudubon.org. WAS tends to have field trips in most months, and during the spring and fall migrations they have trips every week on Thursdays at 8 a.m. in Nichols Arboretum. These self-guided walks include all ages and are user-friendly. People go together, because the more eyes there are, the more birds you will see. Even if you don’t know the birds you see, you can point out what you see and someone else will figure out what it is. So if you can see, you can contribute! And if you can’t see, but you can hear, there, too, you can contribute. The give and take, the connection with others you have never met, are good for the soul and just plain fun!

Washtenaw Audubon has hikes and caravan trips with leaders, so check the website often and plan ahead to get a start with others who will welcome your eyes and ears. It is a good idea to tell the leader that you are a beginner (I didn’t know this back then…) so you can get extra help. Remember this is a non-competitive sport (not withstanding The Big Year) and relies on honesty and candidness to get everyone working together.

WAS also has meetings at the Matthaei Botanical Gardens on the third Wednesday of each month, September to June, at 7:30 p.m.

Birding classes are offered at Leslie Science & Nature Center quite often in March through April, but the classes only have twenty spots and there is always a waitlist. Call early to get in on this.

Other things to know about getting started:

1. Most birders like to bird a lot during the migrations, which are in spring (roughly April and May) and fall (roughly September and October). This is because migrations provide the most birds to see, as well as, and this is key, a high species count.

It’s fun to see whatever birds are around, but the really sought-after birds are those you can hope for but not predict. Here are some terms that are helpful to know as you begin:

·         Resident birds: those who live in the area year-round

·         Migrants: those who are passing through to breed elsewhere

·         Breeding birds: those who are having young where you see them

·         Incidentals: those who are off their own species’ usual course


2. You can “bird” anywhere and anytime, so do whatever gives you joy! I watch for Robins to build nests (breeding) in the spring in my yard. In five years at my address, I have noticed they come every year and often have two clutches (nesting cycles). I look to see how close they build nests to last year’s nests and I am observant to when they are courting, nest-building, nest-sitting (on eggs), and feeding young in the nest, as well as when the fledglings are on the ground still begging for food. I love cheering them on from a distance, aware of their successes as well as their perils.

From my home I have also seen nesting Chipping Sparrows, House Wrens, Chickadees, Grackles, and House Finches. But Robins have captivated me because they so regularly return to the same places to have their young.

3. Along with finding other birders, buying your own bird field guide is a must. If you like looking at it, give yourself time to just read and peruse. Any guide that you like will be fine. I recommend not buying one that has the birds in photographs. I know the pictures are beautiful and seem most realistic. But what you don’t see is that the figure has actually gone through the eye of the camera before it came to you. It came in through certain light and you might not see the bird in that light. Thus, you might not recognize the bird you see when it is in a different light. Hand-drawn birds have been seen multiple times by the person before they draw it and that will temper their representation. In my experience, the drawings will be most “realistic” and actually more realistic than a photograph. But judge for yourself. There are different opinions on this, so of course, buy what you like to look at.

Another consideration is, do you want to learn only the most common birds, or resident birds, of your area or would you also like to learn the migrants and breeding birds? Do you wish to have a field guide that only shows birds of your state, the Eastern U.S., or the whole of North America?

4. The other necessity for birding is binoculars. The ideal birding binocular is 8 x 40. This is the best compromise between the magnification and field of view. These will let in enough light but also will show a steady picture with the distances one usually sees birds. At any higher magnification, binoculars will need to be on a tripod. And if you think you might ever want to use them to view insects, dragonflies, or butterflies, get the feature called “close focus.” The most important thing after you get your own pair is to take the time to practice using them before you are out in the field. Just practice finding an object that you see with the naked-eye and then see how quickly you can get that image in your field of view. Nimble birders see the most birds because birds usually have more to do than wait on us!

5. Of course, opportunities online have no limit. Pictures and video are everywhere for the Googling. If you want to learn to identify birds by ear, there are commercial products like CDs to train your ear. But there are also many free of charge on YouTube. Cornell University is one of the best-known places to study ornithology and offers many resources online. Another good resource can be found at: www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/search.

With approximately 10,000 bird species worldwide and about 1/10th of them coming to North America at some time each year, a multitude of birding adventures await you. So follow the pull to watch birds however, wherever, and whenever you wish — because when it’s birds you want, the sky’s the limit!


Dawn Swartz has been “birding” since 1995 and her personal species count is 522. She takes annual trips to Magee Marsh and Point Pelee, Canada, and often joins Washtenaw Audubon’s activities. Contact her at fddlr2003@yahoo.com.


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Posted on August 31, 2015 .