Birdwatching is a fun, relaxing, outdoors activity. So here’s how you can get started.
Lesson #1: Be prepared.
The first time I saw a western tanager — a gorgeous bird, by the way, with a scarlet head and golden bodies and black wings just for contrast — I didn’t know the first thing about birdwatching. The only reason I noticed it in the first place, in fact, was that my birding friend pointed it out to me, perched like a tongue of flame on a pine branch. I didn’t have binoculars, or a field guide, or a notebook — only her word for it, and a brief vision of a gold flicker on the branch before the tanager flew off.
First of all: birdwatching is totally worth it. But it takes some work; birds are small, fast and often far away when you see them. So, if you’re interested in birdwatching, the first step is to invest in a good set of binoculars and a field guide. (An Amazon search for such guides turns up 882 results, but don’t be intimidated — there’s plenty of resources to help you figure out which guide is best for your needs).
Lesson #2: Be more prepared.
The second time I saw a western tanager was during an “Ecology of the Sierra Nevada” class with West Valley College. This time, I was armed with a field guide and binoculars, but I also had a few more tools at my disposal that allowed me to spot the tanager as it flew across the trail in front of us, hone in on it in the tree branch and identify it as such — without the aid of my birding friend.
Let me reiterate that birds are small, fast and often far away. In fact, they might not even be visible — maybe all you can hear is a tantalizing, crystalline song reminiscent of a hermit warbler’s. In that case, even the best field guide isn’t of much use if you haven’t taken a few preliminary steps: familiarizing yourself with some common bird calls, for a start, or flipping through your field guide to get an idea for what different birds look like. Learning to use those new binoculars of yours might be a good idea, too.
Lesson #3: Be aware.
This is the story of the bird I never saw… twice. The mountain quail, similar in appearance to the California quail, is another native of the Sierra mountains. But as I’ve found out, much to my consternation, whining inwardly about the weight of your pack as you trudge up yet another endless rise in the trail on sore and blistered feet isn’t conducive to birdwatching. According to my (same) birding friend and to another backpacking partner, I’ve twice missed seeing this tolerably uncommon bird — probably on account of being distracted by my body’s torment. Now, there’s a good argument for getting my parents to haul my gear for me.
Even if a bird happens to be large, slow and very close by, it’s no use if you’re not paying attention to your surroundings. It sounds simple, but the mind is easily distracted by such minor problems as hips being rubbed raw by backpacking straps. So, especially at the start of your birding career — and even once you’ve got lots of experience — it’s a good idea to remind yourself to look up from the trail once in a while or even to set aside half an hour or so to just sit and watch for birds. A nice starting exercise that you can do in your backyard is to close your eyes and listen for five minutes. What can you hear around you? People talking? Bird calls? What kind? What’s the quietest noise you hear? Farthest away?
Lesson #4: Notice the details…
Here’s a fun fact about MVHS, one you might not have realized (or cared about): ravens occasionally hang out in our parking lot. No, not crows — ravens. Now, both of these birds are very intelligent and very cool. In fact, tests have shown ravens to be smarter than 4-year-old children — using tools to get food, yes, but also bartering, planning ahead and delaying gratification. These birds, however, are both big and black. How to tell them apart?
Once you get the hang of using binoculars, it’s time to start actually identifying birds. In the case of crows and ravens, there’s a few things to keep in mind: ravens have diamond-shaped tails, while crows have rounded ones; ravens tend to be bigger and more massive; and ravens have a deeper, throaty “caw” than crows do. With other birds, details like the presence or absence of a pale stripe above the eye, whether it’s climbing up or down a tree trunk, and the position of its wings in flight can all be key identifying characteristics for distinguishing similar species.
Lesson #5: but don’t lose sight of the bigger picture.
An early lesson I learned in humility was in identifying chickadees. There was one right outside my bedroom window; I was hanging out with my birding friend (we’re quite close, if you haven’t figured that out yet), and grabbed a field guide from the shelf. I had two options: one chickadee with brownish-reddish sides and back, and a gray-backed chickadee. “It’s a mountain chickadee,” I said proudly. “See? It’s gray, just like this one.”
“Chestnut-backed,” she said.
We weren’t in the mountains.
It’s easy to get excited when you spot something unusual, but don’t forget that birds have ranges, too. Once you’ve figured out whether you’re looking at a woodpecker or a sparrow, paying attention to the easy things like where the bird is found and at what time of year can help you narrow down your choices. For example, realizing that a mountain chickadee isn’t likely to be found at sea-level in the Bay Area.
Lesson #6: And don’t jump to conclusions.
On my field trip to the Sierra this summer, we spent a good hour standing in a wet meadow and watching the birds come and go. There was one particular one that kept hopping down to sip from the stream; it had speckled white and brown feathers and some paleness on the wings and rump. Flipping through my field guide, I came to the “Warblers” page and announced to the instructor that we were looking at a yellow-rumped warbler. I didn’t bother to check what other birds could look similar.
It was a juvenile dark-eyed junco (for all you non-birders, it’s about as common as weeds in a field).
Did I mention not getting overexcited? Birding is hard. Not only are there tons of extremely similar birds out there, like different species of sparrows or flycatchers, but one species can look completely different each time you see it. The lighting might make it hard to see the green-purple shine on a starling’s feathers; juvenile or molting birds might lack characteristic coloring; and female birds often aren’t as distinctive or bright as their male counterparts. You won’t always be able to identify a bird, and that’s okay. Just don’t make conclusions you don’t have the resources to make.
Lesson #7: Get started!
Now, then, I’ve (obviously) convinced you that birdwatching is a wonderful pastime and that you ought to try it out. But, quite apart from everything I’ve mentioned above, how do you actually go out and start birdwatching?
The easiest thing to do is to just spend some time on MVHS’ campus. Yes, that’s right — you don’t need to go on a backpacking trip to see cool birds! There’s a startling variety of birds on our campus, ones that you can see on your way from Calculus to the choir room or to PE or to American Literature. For example, take a look up at the roof of the Fieldhouse next time you pass by it. There’s swallow nests, made out of mud, in the corners under the overhang; you can even see the swallows themselves during spring and summer. Or listen for the shrill, whistling call of hummingbirds as you pass by any one of the trees on campus — they’re often perched on a branch or checking out the territory. House sparrows, house finches and the aforementioned ravens are a few more of the common birds here.
And if that’s not enough for you, there’s lots of options around the Bay Area. McClellan Ranch, just down the road, is a wonderful habitat for seeing everything from great blue herons to spotted towhees. For the more adventurous, Rancho San Antonio offers both good hikes and plenty of chapparal-oak woodland where birds make their homes. And the marshes edging the Bay, like at Shoreline Park or the Don Edwards Wildlife Refuge, are a veritable treasure trove of migratory water birds during the fall and spring seasons.
So, what are you waiting for?
Get out there and do some birdwatching!