How I became a birder

August 7, 2023

Everyone comes to birds differently. Here are some things that got me excited about birding, in case they’re helpful for your own birding journey!

1) I watched online bird cams.

I first started birding by watching birds online! My coworkers recommended a few different bird cams to me, including an NYU Hawk Cam that I believe is no longer in existence. I later found more cams through the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. The Cornell FeederWatch Cam was super helpful in learning my backyard birds (and getting to see what they looked like up close!).

2) I signed up for FeederWatch.

Even though I was living in a second-floor apartment at the time, I bought one of those bird feeders that suction to the outside of your window, and I was shocked to find that the birds actually liked it! I got lots of black-capped chickadees and house finches, so I joined FeederWatch that winter.

FeederWatch is a program that lets you count the bird species that come to your feeder from the months of November to April. You enter the data online. Thousands of people across the US participate, so scientists use the data to understand how birds are doing in different areas throughout the winter. It was fun to be able to contribute to important bird research and to pay attention to the birds right outside my window.

3) I went on bird outings.

My first ever bird outing was called a “Bird and Nature Adventure” through Madison Friends of Urban Nature. We rode in a pontoon on Lake Monona and saw lots of bank swallows. I was so impressed with our bird guide - he was able to tell the difference between birds in flight! I didn’t know people could do that!

Over the years I also started attending bird outings with the Madison Chapter of the Feminist Bird Club. That’s where I met most of my birding friends!

No matter what outing I go on, I try to make it a goal to learn just one thing, whether it’s a new bird fact I didn’t know before, a tip about where to find birds in my area, or a new bird sound.

4) I started volunteering.

I first volunteered with the Southern Wisconsin Bird Alliance, formerly Madison Audubon, in 2019. Every Saturday, my husband and I went out to one of the land sanctuaries and learned about a new prairie plant, then helped collect seeds that would be used to restore prairies in the area.

Later, we also joined Bald Eagle Nest Watch. We watched an eagle nest once a week from January to July and recorded our observations about what was happening in the nest. I loved the program so much that I also signed up for the Kestrel Nestbox Monitoring Program, where I got to check a kestrel box once a week and eventually attend a kestrel banding session. In three years, my nest box never did attract a kestrel pair, but it was still fun to try.

5) I invested in gear.

First I needed better binoculars! I got 10x42s and they are so much better than the little kiddie binoculars I was using before. Once I got used to using them, I started noticing EVERYTHING. Robins have white feathers under their tails! House finches have lines on their tummies! From that moment forward I started going on walks nearly every day, trying to find more birds.

If you’re looking for binoculars, I recommend checking out your local library or other local bird clubs; they often have binoculars available for borrowing. (See this article for details!) The Madison Chapter of the Feminist Bird Club even raised money to create birding backpacks with the Madison Public Library. All packs come with binoculars and custom bird guides that anyone with a library card can check out! For more info about birding backpacks, click here.

For a few years, my binoculars were enough for me. But soon I got that itch to take photos. I felt like I’d hit a wall; it was hard to learn fall warblers, for example, without being able to capture a quick photo and compare it to a reference guide later. But cameras are expensive! Eventually my husband did lots of research and was able to buy a refurbished Nikon D7500 and a Sigma lens. Now, taking photos has become a fun hobby for me, and it has really helped me learn some of the trickier bird IDs.

6) I downloaded all the apps.

First I started with Merlin Bird ID. This app is so helpful when trying to identify birds. You can input certain criteria about a bird you’re seeing and it helps you narrow down a list of possible suspects. It also provides a list of the most likely birds you’ll find in your particular area on any given day. And now it has a feature called Sound ID, which allows you to record birdsong and is pretty darn good at identifying which birds are making which particular sounds. It isn’t perfect, but it’s a good place to start.

Then, after a year or so of recording all of my bird observations in a private journal, I started using eBird.

I had heard about eBird for a long time and was scared to use it. That’s because eBird allows you to record a list of all the birds you see while you’re out on a bird walk, and that data is compiled on the eBird site and made available for public use. So when you submit an eBird checklist, you really want to be sure about the birds you’re reporting. If a bird you see is listed as “rare,” you’ll be asked to provide information (and maybe even photos) to support your claim, and your checklist will be flagged for review. So I recommend using it with caution when you first start out.

Once you get past the initial fear, though, eBird is awesome! It gives you a living list of all your bird walks: where you went, what you saw, who you were with. And it counts how many species you see each year, so it’s a fun way to challenge yourself to see more next year!

Even if you don’t submit checklists, you can still use eBird to find birds around you. The Explore feature lets you search for your county, and then you can see what birds have been reported recently as well as a list of popular “hotspots” in that area.

7) I read lots of books.

The first bird book I ever read was when I was still working in publishing, back in 2014. I read a few very early pages from a yet-to-be-published book about bird migration, and suddenly I found myself thinking, “Wow. Birds are neat!” But I didn’t act on that birding impulse for another few years.

If you want a good field guide for identifying birds, I’m a fan of the Sibley Guides. I also love The Warbler Guide by Tom Stephenson and Scott Whittle.

If you’re looking for good books about birds or nature, I recommend Scott Weidensaul’s A World on the Wing, Aimee Nezhukumatathil’s World of Wonders, Robin Wall Kimmerer’s Braiding Sweetgrass, and A Sand County Almanac by Aldo Leopold.

Posted on:
August 7, 2023
6 minute read, 1211 words
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