Anyone can become a bird watcher or birder. Whether you're a casual backyard observer or someone who wants to travel far afield to catch a glimpse of a rare species, all it takes is a little equipment and patience.
A logbook, bird identification book and a good set of binoculars are about all you'll need. You also might bring along a camera with zoom lens to record your finds.
Some observers really get into the sport by joining clubs and groups. There's even "Birding Camps," where the hard-core birder can take a weeklong vacation. Others hire charter boats to get a better view of our waterfowl.
The sport requires a special kind of patience. You might spend the day trudging through a swamp or climbing a rocky slope and still not see the bird you're after. Observers can travel miles in an attempt to see a particular species, have no luck, and later find it sitting on the lounge chair in their backyards. Some limit their watching to only the backyard and become "Armchair Birders."
Learn the Basics from A Veteran
Probably the best way to start your new hobby is to learn the basics from a veteran. A knowledgeable birder can show you how to spot birds with binoculars, use a field guide effectively and what to listen for. There are about 900 different species of birds in North America, so it's best to get some help in the early going. Seeing an osprey soar above a lake or a ruby-throated hummingbird buzz a group of flowers can be thrilling with someone who appreciates such things.
You also might want to visit someone who regularly feeds birds in the backyard. Find out what they use and if they've done anything special to attract the birds. The average backyard can attract about 12 species of birds, including blue jays, black-capped chickadees, white-breasted nuthatches and northern cardinals, on any given day. Morning is the most active time at bird feeders, so ask if you can stop by for morning coffee. For beginners to see a dozen species in one sitting is an excellent way to start.
With a little bit of planning, bird watchers can develop a bird sanctuary right in their own yards and make it close enough to view them from a window. Backyard habitats should provide three basic ingredients -- cover, food and water.
Cover is any natural vegetation where birds can hide from predators, and build nests and get food. Shrubs, mature hardwoods (oak, beech, maples, and dogwood) smaller trees and a selection of low-growing annuals (sunflowers, marigolds, and daisies) would provide a perfect setting for a variety of wild birds.
A feeder filled with seeds can be added. A feeding station also could include grains and suet. Local butcher shops or meat sections of grocery stores can provide scraps of suet for a low cost. You could spend all morning watching purple finches, scarlet tanagers and rufous-sided towhees crack and shell their food.
Birdhouses also are a type of cover. Some 30 species of birds will nest in a pre-fab home. Many will return year-after-year. Depending on the size of the house, backyard watchers can attract anything from ducks to small wrens. Comfort and safety of the birds is the most important consideration so don't construct the birdhouses just for cosmetic looks or to match the siding of your house.
Rough, thick wood is one of the best materials for a birdhouse. Stay away from smooth, slippery materials. Cedar is among the most durable and it blends nicely with the surrounding trees. The thicker wood also provides good insulation during the winter months, gives birds a stable foothold in the wind, and is good for fledgling babies.
Don't Forget The Water
Water is necessary for all life. A strategically placed birdbath or small pond can draw even more wild birds into backyards. A pond with re-circulating water that cascades down some rocks can be a bird magnet. The sound of moving water draws birds from great distances for a bath and a drink.
Don't be afraid, though, to take a "field" trip. Out in grassy areas, birders can spot birds such as red-tailed hawks, ring-necked pheasants, ruffed grouse or gray partridge. Or take a friend out at night to find a few different owl species. Many can be found all year round such as the great horned owl, barred owl and the long-eared and short-eared varieties.
Cold weather also shouldn't stop you. Many species stick around during the snowy months and love visiting bird feeders. American gold finches, hairy woodpeckers, American robins and European starlings are among the year-round inhabitants, while Lapland longspurs, rusty blackbirds and snow buntings show up in winter.
Many books are available on bird watching with checklists. Field guide tapes with recorded bird songs made by the Cornell University Lab of Ornithology are a way to learn through listening. You also might contact your regional Audubon Society or ornithological group for help in finding local groups who share your interest.