Nature Connection: Becoming A Bird Or Nature Watcher

By: Mary Richmond

Mary Richmond photo

These days I see a lot of articles and social media posts giving people all sorts of information about how to “become” a bird or nature watcher. I have a personal opinion about this which doesn’t involve a single penny, so it won’t be popular with those selling books, podcasts, videos, etc. but here it is. Get outside. Look and listen. Tada! You are now a bird and nature watcher.

Can you learn more with books, videos, going for walks and attending informational talks and slide shows? Of course, and I recommend adding those to your to do list if you have the time, money, and inclination to do so, but there are many free resources.

If you go outside every day, even if it’s only to tend your backyard garden, you are going to see and hear some nature. If you go to town, the beach, a conservation area, a school sports game, or a golf course, you are going to see and hear some nature. Even in a city, you are going to have nature all around you, though it may be more limited.

Most experienced watchers will agree that learning the simple things you see or hear every day is the best way to start. Learning the differences between chickadees, titmice, nuthatches, goldfinches, and house finches is a wonderful start. After that, identifying the different kinds of gulls you see at the beach can be amusing as well as informative for there is no such thing as a seagull. Depending on the season you will find herring, greater black-backed, ring-billed, and laughing gulls in various plumages and ages. This is where a good guidebook can be handy for it will show the difference between a first year and third year gull and also the ways in which winter and breeding plumages differ. And we occasionally get other gulls, which can make it even more interesting.

After you’ve got gulls down you can move on to sparrows, and if that doesn’t kill you, prepare to learn your warblers and vireos as spring rolls around. The warbler migration may be the high point for birdwatchers each year but there’s plenty to see and hear on the Cape the rest of the year as well.

Most birdwatchers learn pretty quickly that most birds are the opposite of well-behaved children of a time long ago. In other words, they are heard before they are seen. This means listening and trying to track down whatever bird is singing, calling, or chipping. And, because birds have their own complex languages, most birds have a variety of sounds to learn. You can spend years learning all the different calls of titmice, blue jays, crows, and Carolina wrens, for example, but you will also be entertained while doing so.

I hear from people that don’t want to take it all too seriously. That’s just fine. I’ve been a birdwatcher since I was about 8 years old and memorized the Audubon Bird Cards my grandmother gave me, but not once in 60 years have I kept a list. I don’t chase rare birds, either, though I’ve actually found and reported a few because I’m out and about every day. I consider myself a casual birdwatcher, not a birder. For some reason the word birder seems to denote a more serious commitment, and not one I’m willing to make.

I’m out in the woods, marshes, pond and woodland areas almost every day and I generally make it all around the Cape in every season, so I see and hear a lot. If I want to know what something is I take a picture or I sketch it and I look it up. I can’t go on a lot of scheduled walks because of my own busy schedule but I go out with different experts when I can, and I always learn something new. Check out your area’s organizations first. You’ll meet like-minded people and learn about other opportunities. As a whole, the nature-loving community is welcoming and helpful. It has its share of know-it-all-uppity people, but they are easy to avoid as they prefer to hang out with each other and ignore the rest of us. As I said, though, most are amazingly easy to get along with and go out of their way to be helpful and kind to even the newest beginners. After all, sharing what they love and hoping others will share their passion for conservation is what they’re all about.

You don’t need any fancy equipment, though a pair of binoculars is helpful. They don’t have to be the best. I started out with my dad’s old pair that was his dad’s, and up to a few years ago, they served me fine. I have upgraded since then, but you can spend a fortune on good optics. Be sure you know how often you’ll actually use them before making a big investment. 

Although there are many smart phone apps for birds, flowers, mushrooms, trees, etc., I still use good, physical guidebooks. They are more helpful when beginning because you don’t have to know too much about what you are looking up. You can browse through many pages and get more information as you do so. The apps are handy when you already have a pretty good idea what it is you’re looking at, so by all means, add them to your phone if you want.

Most importantly, just get outside. Nature is all around us, even in mall and restaurant parking lots. Don’t forget all the little guys, like insects, amphibians, and spiders. They can all provide hours of interesting observation. It doesn’t matter how you start, just start. You’ll be glad you did.