How to get started
Adapted from longtime member Ernie Stokely’s Beginner’s Notebook
Welcome to the world of birding! Twenty-five or thirty years ago people who enjoyed observing the habits of birds were known as “birdwatchers.” 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 activities in the United States.
Perhaps you are unsure about where you fit into this activity, or 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 are the hardcore birders who keep a lifetime list of all the bird species they’ve seen. These folks will travel many miles or even cross oceans just to get a glimpse of a new species. Their lives often revolve 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. Observing birds is one more 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 that it doesn’t matter where you fall on this spectrum of birding enthusiasm. You can enjoy birding at any level that is comfortable for you and find a place for yourself in Alabama Audubon.
How can you learn more about birding? First, take advantage of the birding courses at Alabama Audubon. The instructors for these classes are experts, and they can give you a quick boost in identifying and appreciating our feathered friends. These courses also help you meet other beginners with whom you can share the same joys and frustrations.
Participating in Alabama Audubon field trips is also a must. There is no substitute for field experience, especially when shared with a group of fellow birders, and all Alabama Audubon trips are led by experts who are eager to help beginners get started. And there are no foolish questions, whether it’s “How did you know that was a rose-breasted grosbeak?,” “How do you tell the difference between swamp sparrows and song sparrows?,” or “What’s a northern cardinal?”
Like jogging, birding requires minimal gear. The basics are comfortable walking shoes, clothing appropriate for the season, and a good pair of binoculars. Much has been written about binocular selection, and there are also many Alabama Audubon members who can serve as general resources and guides (although many have a particular 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 on decent optics. Cheap binoculars often prove frustrating to use, can make your enjoyment of birding more difficult, and in the end are likely a waste of money. (For more information, check out 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 enjoy observing waterfowl or shore birds, consider buying a spotting scope, as binoculars alone usually don’t have the power to bring these birds close enough for thorough observation. Again, local and web-based advice is available for people interested in buying scopes.
Of course, there are also lots of gadgets and specialized clothing items available for birders. There are scope bags, birding vests, various kinds of headgear, thousands of books, videotapes, mobile apps, and other add-ons that dealers will eagerly sell you. Like any sport or hobby, one can spend large sums of money collecting gear, but most of it is not necessary for enjoying your new hobby.
Birding in your front yard
First, consider installing year-round bird feeders for perching birds and hummingbirds. There are a variety of bird feeders available at many retail stores and 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, which few local species can crack. Black-oil sunflower seeds are available at a number of locations in Birmingham including Massey’s, Home Depot, Lowe’s, Wild 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 bird of prey. 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 or owl 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 this website. 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 the squirrels that are determined to dine on your sunflower seeds. (This is one advantage of the cheaper bird food with high millet content, as the squirrels don’t care much for it!) 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, recommended that feeders be kept out year round. The fall migration starts in mid-to-early July, and ends around the middle of October. All of the hummers passing through are headed for South America, and will make the trip in one long flight over the Gulf of Mexico. During that flight they may lose up to half of their body weight. In preparation for the voyage, they stock up on body fat during their passage through Alabama. The Ruby-throated Hummingbirds return in the spring to breed in our state, so it is also a good idea to have feeders out then. Since in the spring the birds will be pairing up and breeding, they are not as populous around feeders as in the fall.
That said, 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 recently boiled-and-cooled water. Food coloring should not be used!
If you want to advertise your feeder you can hang up 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.
Getting 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, eastern towhee, house finch, house sparrow, common grackle, white-breasted nuthatch, brown-headed huthatch, downy woodpecker, hairy woodpecker, red-bellied woodpecker, tufted titmouse, Carolina chickadee, and Carolina wren, to name some of the more common species. Other, less frequently encountered locals are red-headed woodpeckers, eastern screech owls, barred owls, and great-horned owls.
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. Underneath your feeder you will likely have white-throated sparrows, our most common overwintering sparrow. 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, dark-eyed 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 Wheeler National Wildlife Refuge in Decatur, Alabama.
Running into difficult identifications
Even experienced birders throw up their hands from time to time, unable to unambiguously identify the species of a bird (although they often don’t admit it to each other!). The best rule of thumb is this: if the identification process gets too frustrating, just 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 ones that got away!” The beginning birder learns first to quickly scan the field marks that are discussed in the front of a Peterson’s or a Sibley’s field guide. By going through a pattern recognition process, the birder usually arrives at an identification by eliminating the field marks of similar species. As more experience is gained, additional information is brought into the process. Habitat comes into play (for instance, 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, the spotted sandpiper, or the eastern phoebe). Habit and habitat 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.