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Become a Birdwatcher

Updated on August 20, 2014

Why You Should Become a Birdwatcher

First, let's talk about insider terms. We call each other "birders". A birder is a birdwatcher. It's too much trouble to say "birdwatcher", you see. Then there is the famous greeting used to sign off on emails about birding: "Good birding".

Reasons for becoming a birder

get some exercise; works for nearly everyone; even a few people can bird from a wheelchair.learn to see and appreciate the many beautiful birds; they're really quite remarkablethe fellowship with other birderslearn to appreciate how God designed the birdscollect a list of the birds you have seen in your lifetime; collect photos of the birds you seelearn patience. That's a big one.be refreshed by the peace that comes from observing nature, especially in remote places.gather useful information that will be used to study habitats, migration patterns, populations, and other scientific pursuits. This will also help improve the survival of the birds.I sure don't remember exactly why I started watching birds. I just know that I did, and I have been doing it for several years, and find it most enjoyable and profitable.I started seriously watching birds around December of 2009. I don't remember that much about my very first birding trip, but I do remember about one that happened shortly after that. It took place at Sweetwater Wetlands. Sweetwater is a series of ponds that are part of the water processing system for the city of Tucson, Arizona. There are about 4 or 5 major ponds, and a couple of smaller ones, and on the other side, there are four larger areas, called "recharge basins" where water is stored temporarily and allowed to seep into the ground. Wastewater from the city is piped into these ponds. It's been processed, and the birds love it. Close to the parking lot is a very small pond with a little stream, called Hidden Pond.That's where I saw her: a leucistic Vermilion Flycatcher. That's her picture on the left. I never knew birds did that! I figured there were normally colored birds, and then there were albinos, but they must be very rare, really. I am told that a leucistic bird is one that is almost pure white, but has a little color someplace, in feathers or eyes or both. I am told that the reason why some birds are leucistic is because it takes energy to make colored feathers, and these birds didn't have quite enough energy to make all those colored feathers, so they made white ones. I have NO IDEA about that, but I suspect it's some kind of genetic thing.So I went several times to photograph this bird, and one of those times, I was walking from the parking lot, and there were two women standing there looking at the top of a tall tree. The little girl was sitting on the very top. So they asked, "What kind of bird is THAT?" And I said, "That's a leucistic Vermilion Flycatcher!" And they said, "Oh!" and I explained what that was.I got good pictures of her several times. I wish they were a little sharper, but she only stayed around for a couple of weeks. She had a normal colored mate: that brilliant crimson look with the gray accents.

All photos are mine.

Vermilion Flycatchers

Click thumbnail to view full-size
Here's the little leucistic Vermilion Flycatcher seen above.Here is her mate.A normally colored female. She's hiding among the twigs, but you get the idea.
Here's the little leucistic Vermilion Flycatcher seen above.
Here's the little leucistic Vermilion Flycatcher seen above.
Here is her mate.
Here is her mate.
A normally colored female. She's hiding among the twigs, but you get the idea.
A normally colored female. She's hiding among the twigs, but you get the idea.

Equipment

You can, of course, bird with your naked eye, but you won't see all that much. Birds are small and shy. They like to sit 50 feet away from you, and when you are looking at one that far away, you won't see much detail unless you have an eagle eye.

Wait! Only eagles have eagle eyes!

Getting started can be a little expensive. Unfortunately. But you don't have to do it all at once, and when you have gotten the basic equipment, your only real expenses are travel-related, mainly buying gas for your car.

So you need a reliable car that can get you to places where birds hang out. You are unlikely to find places along the bus lines.

And you need something to use for viewing the birds. Most commonly, birders carry binoculars. These are specially designed for birders. Believe it, or not, I have never actually tried any, so I can't say much about them. Do you have to adjust them for distance to the bird, or are they designed so that birds are in focus over a very large range? I honestly don't know!

There is a reason for that. It's because I don't bird with binoculars. I bird with a camera. That's all I own. Turns out, my chief interest is in getting really nice photographs of birds.

Another piece of equipment, less commonly owned, is a scope. I am told they can range in price from $100 on up. The scope sits on a tripod, and is a bit cumbersome, so people also prefer binoculars for that reason. But people who want to see birds at a distance find a scope very helpful. A few people get a fitting so they can attach their camera to their scope. And even fewer get good pictures that way. I am told that one major reason it doesn't work better is that scopes are designed for spherical eyeballs, and camera sensors just happen to be flat. But it's a possibility.

A camera requires some kind of good telephoto lens. Some people bird with a smartphone. Most people don't get satisfactory pictures that way. I don't recommend it. There are some less expensive cameras on the market that have a built-in lens that some people like to use. I remember looking at the camera of one birder who was taking pictures of a Chestnut-sided Warbler. He actually got some fairly decent pictures, and I am sure he had plenty of other species as well. I found his camera awkward to use because you had to look at his viewing screen to locate the bird and frame the picture. That is very unnatural for me, because I am totally used to looking through a viewfinder which gives me the same view my lens is currently seeing. Pixels on a viewing screen reduce sharpness, and you have to rely on autofocus, and autofocus works poorly, in my experience, on birds sitting in trees.

So I prefer a DSLR with a telephoto lens. I have two lenses I commonly use. One is a 100-400mm zoom, to which I have attached a 1.7x extender. That reaches out to 680mm, and is better than what most birders have, as far as zoom is concerned. The lens cost me $100 (I had to replace it, and that's what the used one cost me; the new one I had originally was cheaper). The extender is one I had, and it didn't cost me very much when I bought it a long time ago. The camera cost me about $600. The other lens I have is a 650-1300mm zoom lens which weighs 4.4 pounds, which is pretty lightweight (most 600mm fixed lenses are heavier), and can be used without a tripod if there is plenty of light. Even if you aren't totally steady, you won't be moving the camera much at 1/1000 of a second. That lens cost me $280, but you can get a used one for about $200, and new prices are down to about $240.

I have to operate on a low budget. This means I don't get as many really good pictures as I'd like, but I've gotten plenty just the same.

B&H Photo Video

This store is located in New York City, but they ship all over the place. I have bought a number of things from them, both new and used. They're dependable and reliable, and their used equipment is in excellent condition. They don't sell on Saturday or Jewish holidays, but you can put stuff in your cart while you wait. They are also very helpful by email.

This is the best place to get a good camera, unless you want to shop around (which I have done), and a good lens or two. I recommend Pentax because it's what I use, and it's inexpensive. You might get a camera with one of the more well known brands for less, if it's not a DSLR, in which case, you'll be limited to the lens that is permanently attached. But if you go for Nikon or Canon, expect to pay a hefty price for a decent lens.

They also carry binoculars and scopes.

I won't get a cut from anything you buy there, but that's OK. I owe them for the equipment and service I have gotten from them.

B&H Photo Video

Life lists and eBird

Once you have a little equipment, you start looking for places where you are likely to find birds. You can start with your back yard, especially if you have feeders. But there are lots and lots of wild places where birds can be found. So become acquainted with the local birding spots, and go to one of them and start looking! Areas where there is water (lakes, rivers) and in the woods and mountains, all usually have very good locations.

Birders customarily keep a number of lists of birds they have seen. The life list is a list of all the birds you have seen in your lifetime. You might have a life list for your back yard, your county, your state, or for one country. We also keep things like year lists. A year list is all the birds you see in one year. You start counting all over again every January 1. It keeps things a little more interesting when you have so many birds on your life list you are unlikely to see a new one very often.

Birders also have something called a Big Year. This is a year when we deliberately travel to see as many birds as we can in one year. There is even a movie about birders called "Big Year", so I understand.

Cornell University runs a web site where you can record your observations. They will keep a life list for you, as well as a year list, and a backyard life list. You can get other summaries of your birds. You can also get information about specific birds and where to find them, and reports from other birders, and they offer a service where they send you an email every day with birds you are probably looking for from a region, and where they have been seen, and an email with rare birds from the state. The emails you get from Cornell include ONLY the birds that are NOT on your life list, for the region, a custom list just for you, so they're very handy. Cornell uses the data submitted for all kinds of studies of birds.

Cornell also makes available apps for smartphones and tablets that provide visual information on birds, that you can use in the field. And they provide a library of bird songs for these as well.

Here is a link to eBird:

eBird

Here is an example of one of my reports:

Sweetwater Wetlands

Notice that I can post photos of the birds I see on flickr and then embed them in my report.

There are also email lists from different parts of the country, where members can report what they have seen and where. These go out to list members, and that's how we find out where the birds are that we are looking for. That's how we find out about rarities. That's how I found a number of birds I haven't otherwise seen.

Here is a link to the place where you can sign up for the Arizona and New Mexico email list, and read the archives:

American Birding.

Arizona has a site called Arizona Field Ornithologists. This site includes photographs of rare birds for Arizona, and recordings of bird songs and bird calls.

Finding rarities

One of the most exciting parts about birding is finding rare birds. There are several ways in which you can enjoy this excitement. One is to find the bird in the first place. Then you report it to the email list, and everyone else goes out looking for it. This is how I find out about a lot of different rare birds. Then there is taking photos of the rare bird and turning them into the Arizona Field Ornithologist web site. These are posted for people to see. I have contributed photos of a couple of species. And then there's just going to find the bird for your own amusement and your list.

The rarest bird I have seen so far is the Baikal Teal. This duck was thought by North American birders to be extinct, because it is so rarely seen. I think there are records (reports of sightings) in only three locations in North America. It just so happened one of these places was Gilbert Water Ranch, near Phoenix, and that's where I caught up with it.

The day I went, I met some folks on the trail leading to the spot where he was. I asked someone returning, where the bird was. He said, go to such and such a place, and look for the photographers. So I did. I took my pictures, and then when I was walking back, some people asked me, so I told them, go to such and such a place, and look for the photographers. There were probably a dozen people there at the time I saw him.

The next gallery has some photos of some of the rare birds I have seen.

The rare and not so rare

Click thumbnail to view full-size
Baikal Teal. Very, very rare. Lives in Siberia and Viet Nam normally.Rose-breasted Grosbeak. Somewhat Rare. Found in Madera Canyon, Santa Rita Mountains.Flame-colored Tanager. Very rare. Found in Madera Canyon. Last seen in the company of a Hepatic Tanager. They went off and had kids. Some were seen.Aztec Thrush. Very rare. Found in Madera Canyon.Elegant Trogon. With the Aztec Thrush. Once a real birder magnet, this bird is more widespread today.Berylline Hummingbird. Fairly rare. Found in the Huachuca Mountains.Blue-throated Hummingbird. Fairly rare. Found in the Huachuca Mountains.Northern Parula. Fairly rare. Found just the other day by the Santa Cruz River at Ina Road, Tucson.Red-breasted Sapsucker. Rare enough for annual comments on the email list. Found in Madera Canyon.Louisiana Waterthrush. Very rare. Santa Cruz at Ina. 3 in Arizona this year, and I observed all 3. Bushwacking required to reach it.Black Scoter. Reid Park area. We get some really weird water birds...for a desert.
Baikal Teal. Very, very rare. Lives in Siberia and Viet Nam normally.
Baikal Teal. Very, very rare. Lives in Siberia and Viet Nam normally.
Rose-breasted Grosbeak. Somewhat Rare. Found in Madera Canyon, Santa Rita Mountains.
Rose-breasted Grosbeak. Somewhat Rare. Found in Madera Canyon, Santa Rita Mountains.
Flame-colored Tanager. Very rare. Found in Madera Canyon. Last seen in the company of a Hepatic Tanager. They went off and had kids. Some were seen.
Flame-colored Tanager. Very rare. Found in Madera Canyon. Last seen in the company of a Hepatic Tanager. They went off and had kids. Some were seen.
Aztec Thrush. Very rare. Found in Madera Canyon.
Aztec Thrush. Very rare. Found in Madera Canyon.
Elegant Trogon. With the Aztec Thrush. Once a real birder magnet, this bird is more widespread today.
Elegant Trogon. With the Aztec Thrush. Once a real birder magnet, this bird is more widespread today.
Berylline Hummingbird. Fairly rare. Found in the Huachuca Mountains.
Berylline Hummingbird. Fairly rare. Found in the Huachuca Mountains.
Blue-throated Hummingbird. Fairly rare. Found in the Huachuca Mountains.
Blue-throated Hummingbird. Fairly rare. Found in the Huachuca Mountains.
Northern Parula. Fairly rare. Found just the other day by the Santa Cruz River at Ina Road, Tucson.
Northern Parula. Fairly rare. Found just the other day by the Santa Cruz River at Ina Road, Tucson.
Red-breasted Sapsucker. Rare enough for annual comments on the email list. Found in Madera Canyon.
Red-breasted Sapsucker. Rare enough for annual comments on the email list. Found in Madera Canyon.
Louisiana Waterthrush. Very rare. Santa Cruz at Ina. 3 in Arizona this year, and I observed all 3. Bushwacking required to reach it.
Louisiana Waterthrush. Very rare. Santa Cruz at Ina. 3 in Arizona this year, and I observed all 3. Bushwacking required to reach it.
Black Scoter. Reid Park area. We get some really weird water birds...for a desert.
Black Scoter. Reid Park area. We get some really weird water birds...for a desert.

Other interesting activities for birders

There are many different activities that birders can get involved in, that also include other birders, some of them experts.

My favorite is the Christmas Bird Count. This takes place every year in December or January. The country is divided into different regions. Each region consists of a circle 15 miles in diameter. People break up into teams which go out to all the places in the circle, where there are likely to be a lot of birds. This was my first year to participate. I was assigned to bird a local cemetery. They had one rarity there which I had photographed a few days earlier. I didn't see him on that day, but someone else did. For our region, we had 164 species, which is a record. Each year we seem to see a few more birds. After the day of birding, we all met in a hall and had a pot luck, and the organizer read out the species on the master checklist, and the members called out if they had that bird on the checklist they were checking. The potluck food was wonderful, and we had a good time.

Here is the report from this year's CBC count:

Tucson Valley

Other activities include "birds and beer", where people get together just to socialize once a month. These are sporadic. Also, there are bird walks led by experts, that take place in the morning. Because I can't do mornings, I haven't been able to do this, but they're very popular. And there are professionals who lead birding trips, either locally or to really neat places, such as some of the tropical regions of South America. I would love to go to Costa Rica, where they have 44 species of hummingbirds. And I think there is another country in the area that has a couple hundred. Hummingbirds are so beautiful, and there are so many species! These trips, of course, are very expensive, and you don't get to go back again and again to catch what you didn't see, but if you can afford it, they're worthwhile.

Recently, Whitewater Draw was dedicated as a significant bird area. A team from Audubon studies an area, gathers eBird reports, and apply for designation. Once a place has been designated, it will draw more birders, as they learn about these areas. I have contributed reports to help them document the good birding areas. They're collecting data on the sky islands in southeastern Arizona. I share my eBird reports from these areas with them.

What about you?

Do you go birding?

See results

Interesting situations I've been in

I am sure that anybody who birds for any length of time, sooner or later, has some interesting adventures. These are those dicey situations where you're not REALLY sure you'll get to sleep in your own bed that night, if you know what I mean.

I have had car trouble a few times. I drive a 1992 Volvo station wagon, and although it is a very good car and quite reliable for its age, it has its moments. You can read about that car in another of my lenses.

Here are a few examples of what happened to me.

One time I was in Madera Canyon, and I had finished doing a short bird walk, and was ready to drive elsewhere. But although I could get the car started, I couldn't shift it into gear. Fortunately, I had cell phone reception, so I called the mechanic who usually works on my car, and he said there would be a button down in the gearshift box I could push, and I'd be able to get it into gear. Only problem was, my particular car doesn't have one! I had to call a tow truck. While I was waiting, I took pictures of birds, of course. One of my favorite pictures of the Mexican Jay was taken while I was waiting. The cost of the tow truck was a lot less than I expected, fortunately. Mexican Jays are common, and very loud, and some people don't like them. I think they're pretty.

The worst situation I got into was when I went to Florida Canyon. I so wanted to see the Rufous-capped Warbler. I STILL haven't seen it. When I got there, I quickly learned that in order to get to the place where it was being seen, I'd have to manage my way along a very steep embankment of several feet in height, with loose rock, for a distance. I declined. I saw all of two birds on that trip, neither identified. I got back to my car, and it was kaput. I don't remember exactly what it was doing, but I discovered later that if I ran my air conditioner (which has a frozen fan belt) and tried to open the window, it would blow the fuse. That was one time when I did NOT have cell coverage, so I bummed a ride back down to Green Valley and called my husband from there, and he had to come and take me back up to where my car was. He put in another fuse, and I, of course, had to test it, and blew that one. So he cannibalized another fuse, started the car, ordered me to get into it and go off down the mountain, and he followed me to the shop.

Then there was the time I went up into the Mount Lemmon area, and discovered I couldn't shift into backup, I could only keep it in drive. So I knew I had to drive straight down the mountain and over to the shop, and as long as I didn't have to shift into another gear, I'd be fine. But I got stupid and decided to turn around to take a photo of a waterfall, and there wasn't enough room to turn around without backing up, and there I was stuck, blocking traffic. Some young men came along, and eventually were able to push me back onto the road, where I could then turn and go down the mountain.

I guess it's fair to say my car doesn't really like mountains!

If you do travel to remote places to see birds, be sure and take plenty of water, some food, and some warm clothing. Particularly in this part of the country, it can drop 40 degrees at night, so if you were comfortable in shirt sleeves in the daytime, you better have a good jacket with you in winter. Having enough water is necessary for survival if you get stranded, so make sure you have enough to last a day or two.

Mexican Jay

The Mexican Jay I photographed while waiting for the tow truck in Madera Canyon.
The Mexican Jay I photographed while waiting for the tow truck in Madera Canyon.

Is birding for you?

I can't answer that question. Only you can. But if you like nature, give it a try. Don't invest a huge amount of money in it at first. See if you like it. If you do, by all means pursue it as a regular activity. You can do it alongside other activities, such as scenery photography, or photography of other wildlife, or whatever floats your boat. Then, if you really, really like it, you can then get some better equipment. It's really quite inexpensive if you do it long enough, because it is only the initial cost of equipment and the gas that are a problem.

Good birding!

Other things I've found while birding

Click thumbnail to view full-size
Black Bear. About 6 feet away in Madera Canyon. Was I scared? Nope! He wasn't interested in me, either.Bobcat. Found in the Santa Cruz riverbed below the Ina bridge. I wasn't scared that time, either. He was at least 50' away and didn't know about me.Spiny Softshell Turtle. Near where the bobcat was a couple of days earlier.Flame Skimmer. One of about ten species I've seen.Red Admiral. Found at Agua Caliente.Arizona Sister. Madera Canyon.Desert Spiny Lizard. Sweetwater Wetlands, but I see them often.Ornate Tree Lizard. Madera Canyon.Cottontail Rabbit at night. I was looking for a bobcat, and he told me the bobcat wasn't there.Cliff Chipmunk.Mule Deer. Seen frequently in the mountains, and in my yard.Coral Bean. Yes, lots of flowers. Beautiful but poisonous. Molino Canyon Vista, Mount Lemmon.Coyote at Arthur Pack Golf Course. He wanted duck for dinner, but didn't get any.
Black Bear. About 6 feet away in Madera Canyon. Was I scared? Nope! He wasn't interested in me, either.
Black Bear. About 6 feet away in Madera Canyon. Was I scared? Nope! He wasn't interested in me, either.
Bobcat. Found in the Santa Cruz riverbed below the Ina bridge. I wasn't scared that time, either. He was at least 50' away and didn't know about me.
Bobcat. Found in the Santa Cruz riverbed below the Ina bridge. I wasn't scared that time, either. He was at least 50' away and didn't know about me.
Spiny Softshell Turtle. Near where the bobcat was a couple of days earlier.
Spiny Softshell Turtle. Near where the bobcat was a couple of days earlier.
Flame Skimmer. One of about ten species I've seen.
Flame Skimmer. One of about ten species I've seen.
Red Admiral. Found at Agua Caliente.
Red Admiral. Found at Agua Caliente.
Arizona Sister. Madera Canyon.
Arizona Sister. Madera Canyon.
Desert Spiny Lizard. Sweetwater Wetlands, but I see them often.
Desert Spiny Lizard. Sweetwater Wetlands, but I see them often.
Ornate Tree Lizard. Madera Canyon.
Ornate Tree Lizard. Madera Canyon.
Cottontail Rabbit at night. I was looking for a bobcat, and he told me the bobcat wasn't there.
Cottontail Rabbit at night. I was looking for a bobcat, and he told me the bobcat wasn't there.
Cliff Chipmunk.
Cliff Chipmunk.
Mule Deer. Seen frequently in the mountains, and in my yard.
Mule Deer. Seen frequently in the mountains, and in my yard.
Coral Bean. Yes, lots of flowers. Beautiful but poisonous. Molino Canyon Vista, Mount Lemmon.
Coral Bean. Yes, lots of flowers. Beautiful but poisonous. Molino Canyon Vista, Mount Lemmon.
Coyote at Arthur Pack Golf Course. He wanted duck for dinner, but didn't get any.
Coyote at Arthur Pack Golf Course. He wanted duck for dinner, but didn't get any.

Learn to Identify Birds

Good books, available on Amazon.

In order to know what birds you see, it is wise to have a couple of good books that illustrate the birds, arranged in taxonomic order. These books are my favorites. They are mostly from my region. There are other regions available as well.

The Sibley Guide to Birds

by David Allen Sibley

There are two editions of this book. You really need both. The first edition has Sibley's paintings which are reasonably accurate in showing the birds from various angles. The second edition has up to date information. The reproduction of the paintings has such atrocious color that it is unusable.

Peterson Field Guide to Birds of Western North America, Fourth Edition (Peterson Field Guides)

by Roger Tory Peterson

Peterson Field Guide to Birds of Eastern and Central North America, 6th Edition (Peterson Field Guides)

by Roger Tory Peterson

National Geographic Complete Birds of North America

by Jonathan Alderfer

Birds of Southeastern Arizona

by Richard Cachor Taylor

I like this one because it's actual photographs, which helps a lot.

Give me a tweet or a hoot!

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