A Beginner's Notebook
So You're New to Birding?
Welcome to the world of bird watching. Twenty-five or thirty years ago people who enjoyed observing the habits of birds were known as "bird watchers". More recently the preferred term is "birders", and their activity of choice is known as "birding". You might be surprised to know that birding is now one of the most popular outdoor sports in the United States.
Perhaps you are unsure about where you fit into this activity, or maybe if you fit at all! Well, there are many kinds of birders who have varying levels of dedication to their hobby. At one end of the spectrum there are the hard core birders who keep a lifetime list of bird species they have seen. They will travel miles or even across oceans just to get a glimpse of a new species. Their life often revolves around field trips and seminars on their favorite subject ... birds. At the other end of the spectrum are those who simply enjoy the outdoors, getting outside, communing with nature, hiking, being with others who enjoy nature, and observing birds is part of that experience. For them, birding may be a casual hobby that shares time and space with many other interests. The good news is, it doesn't matter where you fall in this spectrum of birding enthusiasm. You can enjoy birding at the level that is comfortable to you, and there is a place for you in the Birmingham Audubon Society.
How can you learn more about birding? Take advantage of the free birding classes that Audubon holds. These are announced on this Web site. Another way to quickly improve your birding skills is to take one of the classes offered in the evening at UAB or one of the other local colleges. The instructors for these classes are experts, and they can give you a quick boost in identifying and appreciating our feathered friends. There you will also meet other beginners with whom you can share the same joys and frustrations of spotting birds with binoculars, identifying species, and other birding difficulties that beginners all experience.
Also, joining the field trips held by Audubon is a must. There is no substitute for field experience, especially when shared with a group of fellow birders. After all, that is what it's all about! All BAS trips are led by expert birders who are eager to help beginners get started. Don't hesitate to ask questions on these trips. If your group leaders fails to give tips on identification of a species you are not familiar with, don't hesitate to ask, "How did you know that was a rose-breasted grosbeak?" or "How do you tell the difference between that swamp sparrow and the song sparrow?"
Like jogging, birding requires a minimum of gear. The basics are comfortable walking shoes, clothing appropriate for the season, and a good pair of binoculars. Much has been written about the selection of a pair of binoculars. There are also many BAS members who can serve as good sources and who can give advice on buying binoculars (although many have their own favored brand of optics they prefer). If you expect to indulge in birding more than two or three times a year, go ahead and splurge on a good pair of binoculars. Expect to pay at least $150-$200 to get decent optics. You will find cheap binoculars frustrating to use, they make your enjoyment of the hobby of birding more difficult, and in the end likely a waste of money. (A good Web site for learning about birding optics is: the birding binoculars guide site. Once you establish your own level of enthusiasm for birding, you may want to add more birding gear. If you find that you will want to observe waterfowl or shore birds, consider buying a spotter's scope. Binoculars usually won't have the power to bring these birds close enough for thorough observation. Again, local and Web advice is available for choosing a scope.
Of course, there are lots of gadgets and specialized items of clothing for birders. There are scope bags, birding vests, various kinds of headgear, thousands of books, videotapes, etc. that dealers are eager to sell you. You will see these items advertised in the back of birding magazines or in local stores. Like any sport or hobby, one can spend large sums of money collecting gear, but it is not necessary for the enjoyment of birding.
Your Front Yard
Consider installing a year-round bird feeder. Hummingbird feeders can be fun in the spring and fall. There are a variety of bird feeders available at many retail stores or through catalogs. The best overall bird food for your feeder is black oil sunflower seeds. Cheaper bird food sold in grocery stores usually contains a high percentage of millet. Few local species can crack the millet seeds, with the result that millet will become scattered on the ground beneath the feeder as the birds knock the millet out of the feeder seeking out the occasional sunflower seed in the mix. Black oil sunflower seeds are available at a number of locations in Birmingham including Massey's, Home Depot, Lowe's, Birds Unlimited, and many large grocery stores. Place the feeder close to bushes or other cover to give the birds a fighting chance to escape cats or a marauding sharp-shinned or Cooper's hawk. Be sure to place your feeder in a spot where you can sit in a comfortable chair on a winter's day and watch the activity. You may even see an unlucky bird taken by a sharp-shinned or a Cooper's hawk. While no doubt a violent ending for the victim, this is a part of the cycle of life in nature. While the victim gives up its life, it provides the sustenance for the hawk to survive the winter and reach its breeding grounds in the spring.
In the winter consider adding a suet cake for the insect eaters. A small suet cage can be hung near or underneath the feeder. See the recipe for suet that is given elsewhere on the BAS Web site. Homemade suet is generally superior to the cakes that can be bought in stores.
What to do about squirrels? In my opinion, there is no sure-fire way to defeat squirrels that are determined to dine on your sunflower seeds. (This is one advantage of the cheaper bird food with high millet content. The squirrels don't care much for it, either!) There are certain systems that are squirrel deterrents, but I have never had a lot of luck with them. Think about it. All they have to do all day long is to figure a strategy for defeating your system. In the end, they usually figure it out. My advice is to give up and enjoy them.
Hummingbird feeders should definitely be out at the beginning of the fall migration for the ruby-throated hummingbirds. In fact, our local hummingbird experts, the Sargents, recommend that feeders be kept out year round. The fall migration starts in mid to early July, and it ends around the middle of October. All of the hummers passing through are headed for South America, and they will make the trip in one long flight over the Caribbean Ocean. During that flight they may lose up to half of their body weight. In preparation for the voyage they are laying on body fat during their passage through Birmingham. The ruby-throated hummingbirds return in the spring to breed in Alabama, so it is also a good idea to have feeders out in the spring. Since in the spring the birds will be pairing up and breeding, they are not as populous around feeders as in the fall.
Put out a humming bird feeder only if you are prepared to keep the sugar mixture changed out on a regular basis! During hot weather this should be every 2-3 days, and less frequently during cooler weather. In any case, if the mixture shows a cloudy appearance, the feeder should be immediately emptied, cleaned, and refilled with fresh food. The proper food for filling a hummingbird feeder is one cup of sugar dissolved in four cups of water. Food coloring should not be used!
If you want to advertise your feeder you can hang red ribbons or use any kind of bright red objects to attract their attention. It is amazing, but the same bird will visit your feeder on the next migration. After traveling those thousands of miles they have the ability to locate your city, your block, your house, and the exact location of your feeder! I have seen birds checking out locations where I had feeders hanging the year before.
Get to Know the Locals
There are a number of local species that stay around all year and do not migrate. These will be seen around or on the feeder, and they include the blue jay, northern cardinal, mourning dove, rufus-sided towhee, house finch, house sparrow, grackle, white-breasted nuthatch, brown-headed nuthatch, downy woodpecker, hairy woodpecker, red-bellied woodpecker, titmouse, common grackles, Carolina chickadee, and Carolina wren (to name some common ones). Other less common locals that tend to move around during migration, but strictly speaking don't migrate long distances, are redheaded woodpeckers, eastern screech owls, barred owls, or great-horned owls. If you are lucky you may have one of these owls in your neighborhood. The redheaded woodpecker, although in decline nationally due to competition over nesting sites with starlings, is still fairly common locally. I have had a mother redheaded woodpecker bring the young to the feeder, crack the sunflower seeds, and feed the young at the feeder site.
In the winter we get visitors from the north and the west. Ruby-crowned and golden-crowned kinglets can be seen and heard all winter, but they probably won't grace your feeder. Two species of warblers live in central Alabama all year ... the yellow-rumped warbler and the pine warbler, although the yellow-rumped warbler becomes much more common in the winter due to its migration pattern. Underneath your feeder you will likely have white-throated sparrows, our most common urban migrating bird. These ground feeders prefer to scratch in the leaves for bugs and grubs, but will also take sunflower kernel crumbs beneath the feeder. Depending on the weather, juncos will also likely appear on the ground or in the bushes near the feeder. Other possibilities are pine siskins (normally requiring a cold winter) and evening grosbeaks.
Getting to know these local birds and common migrants by sight will greatly enhance your enjoyment of your feeder and its environment. As you become more proficient at spotting field marks and learning the habits of various species, you will be ready to tackle the identification of the warblers during migration, or the wintering waterfowl that can be viewed at the Wheeler National Wildlife Refuge.
But I Can't Seem to Figure Out What It Is!
Even experienced birders throw up their hands from time to time, and are simply unable to unambiguously identify the species of a bird (although they often don't admit it to others!). Always use one rule of thumb. If the identification process gets too frustrating, relax and just enjoy the outing. There will always be plenty of birds that refuse to sit still long enough or reveal their field marks to you, and will remain "the bird that simply was a mystery"! The beginning birder learns first to quickly scan the field marks that are discussed in the front of Peterson's Guide. By going through a pattern recognition process, the bird is finally usually identified by eliminating the field marks of similar species. As more experience is gained, additional information is brought into the identification process. Habitat comes into play (e.g., white-throated sparrows are normally not seen singing from the tops of trees in Alabama in the winter, and red-eyed vireos are seldom seen scratching in the leaves in the understory in the summer). Silhouette becomes important, as well as body language (e.g., the dipping tail habits of the hermit thrush, spotted sandpiper, or the family of phoebes). Habitat and habit become dominant cues for species recognition for the experienced birder. Finally, there is a gestalt process that aids the experienced birder. This seems to pull together many visual and habit cues together into one recognition process. It is difficult for them to explain how this process works, and it is acquired only through experience and many hours in the field.
Enjoy birding and don't worry about becoming an expert! After all, it is the journey that is important, not the actual arrival.
Birmingham Audubon Web master and part-time birder