Americans are atwitter over making feathered friends. Whether it’s creating backyard habitats with all the creature comforts for yard birds, taking nature walks sponsored by local birding societies in hopes of spotting rare species or trekking to celebrated birding destinations such as the Rio Grande Valley Birding Festival in Harlingen, Texas, people of all ages are discovering the joy of birdwatching.
Getting started in birding is easy, says Norma Friedrich, president of the Arroyo Colorado Audubon Society in Harlingen and secretary of the Rio Grande Valley Birding Festival. Here are her best birdwatching tips for beginners:
Join a local birding organization. Experts can teach you the basics about birds in your area, and share information on how you can enjoy and protect indigenous birds.
Take guided bird walks. Find out when nature trails, greenways or parks in your vicinity hold bird walks led by a local expert.
“This is an excellent way to begin birding because you have someone with you who can tell you the various species and is experienced at spotting birds in their native environment,” Friedrich says.
Carry binoculars and a field guide. All you need to begin is a pair of 8x42 binoculars and a good field guide to birds for your region of the country, such as the ones by Sibley or National Geographic. Friedrich advises that while field guide apps are available for smartphones, it’s difficult to see the screen in sunlight, so it’s best to carry a print version for handy reference.
Visit a birding festival. The Rio Grande Valley Birding Festival in Harlingen, which runs November 5 to 9 in 2014, lures over 4,000 people for its guided field trips, free seminars and related activities.
“This region of Texas is famous because we have over 30 specialty birds you cannot see anywhere else in America, including the Chachalaca and Olive Sparrow, whose call sounds like a bouncing ping pong ball,” Friedrich notes.
Start a bird “life list." One of the most fun aspects of birding is creating a life list, which is a field book in which you record every species you see and jot down details about sightings. You can keep your bird life list in a simple notebook, on an Excel spreadsheet or more complex systems available at sites like ebirds.com. Friedrich prefers the Thayer Birding Gold Edition published by Cornell. She also recommends beginners watch The Big Year, a comedy about two birdwatching enthusiasts out to defeat America’s life list record holder.
Attract backyard birds with water. According to Freidrich, water is more important for birds than birdseed.
“If you install a small fountain or bath with dripping water with a shallow base for bathing, you will have tons of birds,” she says.
Friedrich says America’s growing interest in birdwatching is rooted in people’s desire to embrace Mother Nature, which instills a fascination for the beauty and wondrous behaviors of winged creatures.
"Some people don’t know they have a love of birds until you turn them on to it,” she says.