Thursday, June 20, 2013

Your First Bird Walk

Note: this is the third post in a series on beginning birding

You don't ever have to go on an organized bird walk. But if you decide to, you'll find that many organizations all over the country, such as your Parks Department, the Audubon Society or other conservation group, or even a local group of enthusiasts, offer free or low-cost bird walks for bird lovers of all ages. The first bird walks I ever went on were sponsored by a mom-and-pop birding supply store, The Wild Bird Store, here in Tucson.

wildbirdstoreThe Wild Bird store in Tucson, showing some of their many products, most of which are for sale by mail order.

The main thing I remember about my first bird walks is that I was very nervous, because I was such a novice. I was afraid that the leaders or other participants would laugh at me. But instead, they all helped me to learn how to identify birds that I didn't know, and explained how to look for “field marks,” the individual signs that aid in identifying bird species. Field marks include such obvious items as size and color of the beak, overall size, length of tail compared to body, and more detailed markings, such as eye rings, color patches, and stripes, The amount of information really good birders know can be daunting, but birding is not (or should not be) competitive, and you can proceed at your own pace.

bird field marksIllustration of bird’s field marks from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology

My first “official” bird walk with the local Audubon Society was even scarier than the first ones with the Wild Bird bunch. These, I thought, were real pro birders, and they would no doubt sneer at my obvious lack of knowledge. This trip was out of town to a local canyon famed for its wide variety of hummingbird species. It was wonderful to see those beautiful birds. Equally wonderful: there was no sneering. In fact, I was surprised to find that I knew more about some hummingbirds than many of the more experienced birders, because of all the time I had spent studying hummers in my yard.

Anna2Anna’s hummingbird in flight

Here are two Do's and one DON'T for your first bird walks:

  1. DON'T be afraid. Birders of all levels of expertise are mostly very nice, generous people (some fanatics are not—but that is true in any endeavor). After all, everyone has to start somewhere.

  2. DO ask questions. Most birders are happy to share their expertise. And you'll be surprised at how many may not have an answer to your question. Even the best birders are occasionally stumped. When I lead bird walks at Tohono Chul Park, I never assume that beginners know anything. Some bird walk leaders may gloss over such very common birds as house sparrows, (the image below is from Wikipedia), to avoid boring more experienced bird watchers, 800px-House_Sparrow_mar08 but I always make sure that my newbies know all the birds we encounter. Learning a common bird is every bit as much an accomplishment as learning a rarity, if you did not know it before.

  3. DO learn at least one new bird on each bird walk, if you can. As you gain more experience, you can try to learn more on each outing, but learning even one or two is doable and a real win.

Next: Improving Your Birding Skills 

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