People find their way to birding for all different reasons. But this past year, interest in the hobby exploded rivaling maybe only sourdough bread baking in the pandemic-stricken hearts of Americans and Canadians. Chances are you know someone who, pre-2020, had never given birds a second thought; now they rattle off the differences between towhees and finches, get starry-eyed about roseate spoonbills, and spend weekends stalking the elusive Kirtland’s Warbler.
A means of escape from pandemic routine, birding offered a reprieve from heavy thoughts and anxieties with time spent outdoors simply observing, say, an epic tug-of-war between a robin and a worm (RIP worm). And for many, it became a sport, metered by the number of birds on one’s life list.
To keep track of their conquests, birders favor lists, like the basic “life list” of birds they’ve personally identified. Each bird listed is associated with a place and a time and a memory! Some of the birds are like ‘oh yeah, that was that trip!
There are yard lists, year lists, state lists, even national park lists. With almost 10,000 species in the world to encounter, there’s always more to be spotted. Run out of birds to identify in your neighborhood? Drive a couple of hundred miles and it’s a whole new demographic, a new lens through which to observe your surroundings. Pack up the RV and drive across America and it could very well be the crux of your travels.
I remember the first green jay (see photo above) and great kiskadee (see photo below) I saw (and photographed) was in South Texas. It was this moment of “WOW! Oh my gosh! What amazing colors!”
Not only can birdwatching take you out of your head (and out of doors) it can add depth to an RV trip. But it can be intimidating to know where to start. I’ve gathered some useful tips to help you on your journey to becoming a birder. But be warned: after that first one, you might need to catch them all.
To get started, just look out the window. Unless what you seek is, like, a greater flamingo, you don’t need to go somewhere exotic to see interesting birds. Some of my life birds have been sighted at home or out the window of my motorhome when I’m not expecting to see them.
Want the birds to come to you? Get a bird feeder whether at home or for your RV. It’s a great way to get to know the birds around you—wherever you might be. You can also try different types of bird feeders such as platform feeders, birdseed socks, suet feeders, window feeders (attached with suction cups), fruit feeders, and tube feeders.
What kind of bird feeder should you get? Unfortunately, there isn’t any ‘feeder X’ that will work for all birds in all situations so there’s an important question that we need to ask ourselves before choosing one. That question is: What kind of birds do I want to attract? The reason that this question is so important is that different birds eat different types of foods in different ways. Without getting too specific here, we can break this down into three broad categories:
- Seed eaters
- Fruit eaters
- Insect eaters
Remember, the more bird feeders you have out the more birds you can attract so don’t limit yourself to just one. Enjoy your feathered visitors!
When you’re ready to venture further afield, seek out parks and other green spaces. A pro-tip for the adventurous: water treatment plants and sewage ponds are very rich in life and organisms. Waterfowl and waders will come because they’re a really reliable source of water. Big, open, ponds of water!
Choose some binoculars. You don’t need any gear to get into birding—just your eyes and ears. But as your interest grows and you start desiring a clearer view you may want to invest in a pair of binoculars. Try out several models as each person’s hands are different. It’s all personal preference. When you test them, feel for the focal knob and make sure it’s easy to reach.
Many birders prefer something in the 7-power or 8-power range for their wide field of view. Choose a pair with adjustable cups and diopters (which compensate for the space differences between the eyes) especially if you wear glasses. But don’t worry about spending too much. There are definitely usable binoculars that will make your birding experience great in every price range.
Pick an app, or physical field guide—or both. Say the name Sibley to any bird enthusiast and not only will they know who you’re talking about, but they’ll also probably have one or more of his books. David Sibley’s illustrated field guides are the go-to references to help you identify species within the continental US and Canada. (The birders are also very excited about his latest, What It’s Like to Be a Bird.)
An app like Merlin Bird ID from the Cornell Lab (free) can give you customized information based on your specific location. ID a bird from a photo or a short description and it provides you with photo guides, maps, and sounds—an advantage over a physical field guide.
And here’s where all those birding lists come in. For layman users, the free eBird app lets you create and store your own lists—a powerful conservation tool as it provides scientists at the Cornell Ornithology Lab with useful location data. You can also utilize their map database to check out what other users are spotting and where.
Practice, practice, practice! If your goal is to identify birds, there’s only one way to get good at it: practice. Go on bird walks, compare what you see to similar birds in your guide, and take note of the five ID categories: size, shape, color, sound, and behavior.
It’s a pretty good bet that you know the ins and outs of what birders do: They wander across fields, along shorelines, and through woods, peering through an optical device, and—increasingly—tapping away on their phones to record sightings.
So don’t bird photographers do pretty much the same thing? Except, of course, their “optical device”, is a camera, often with a long lens? Surprisingly, while both activities occur in the same sorts of places and both involve birds they are quite different and not entirely compatible with each other. As I’ve discovered, birders can be downright hostile to photographers wanting to capture the perfect image.
The differences stem from the different objectives of the participants. Birders typically are interested in hearing and seeing birds, getting as good a look as possible, and moving on down the trail to look for the next bird. Bird photographers, by contrast, typically want to capture a definitive photograph of an individual bird as a representative of its species. If it’s an Altamira oriole, say, I want a photo that captures the essence of what it means to be that species, and I like to hone in closer than birders much to their distain.
Or just sit back and observe. If you don’t feel like pulling out the field guide or hitting the trails, it’s okay to just sit back and watch, too.
Birds are funny. Some more than others resemble their dinosaur ancestors (think: Chachalacas or wild turkey). Some will snatch your sandwich. Some have spectacular colors that don’t look like they should occur in nature and some just want to blend into the trees and be left alone (I can relate). Some build nests in precarious locations that seem, frankly, irrational. They’re just fun to observe. They are cute, they are round, and they are colorful. They do fascinating things. Every time you watch them you’re like ‘what are you doing?’”
Legends say that hummingbirds float free of time, carrying our hopes for love, joy, and celebration. The hummingbird’s delicate grace reminds us that life is rich, beauty is everywhere, every personal connection has meaning and that laughter is life’s sweetest creation.