I like learning new skills to bring with me when I’m out hiking – how to box a compass, how to recognize different kinds of plants, how to geocache.
And now, your blogger-in-chief is taking an interest in birdwatching.
Some bird watchers are experts; I am of the “I can recognize robins, cardinals and finches, but for anything else I have to go looking through the guidebook” level of birdwatching skill.
Why do so many people enjoy birdwatching?
Birds are beautiful (though some might beg to differ in the case of, say, a vulture), often entertaining, and most importantly, vital to a functioning ecosystem. Basically, if you don’t have birds, then you’ve got a serious problem. After all, that’s where Rachel Carson got the title for “Silent Spring;” she noticed, one day, that there weren’t any birds singing. And birdwatching gives you a sense of how many of what kinds of species there are.
Here in my neck of the woods, in the North American eastern woodland/suburbia biome, we’ve got lots of the usual suspects: robins by the flock, sparrows ditto (mostly house sparrows and song sparrows, I think), blue jays, cardinals, starlings, tufted titmice and chickadees. There’s woodpeckers, too, red-headed and red-bellied – there’s an old tree in the backyard that they really seem to like.
We’re now into hatching season; on my walk into the office one morning, I spotted half a speckled blue eggshell on the ground, which told me that there were some robin hatchlings somewhere nearby.
I’ve also seen at least one Eastern towhee, what may have been a northern flicker (I was flipping like mad through the book looking for a dun-colored bird with a red spot on the back of its head), and while on a walk in one of our local parks, I finally spotted the first fully-yellow goldfinch (New Jersey’s state bird, BTW) of the season. Out in marshy or swampy places, I’ve seen a few red-winged blackbirds.
Once a year here in northern New Jersey, the local Audubon chapters have the “Birdy 30:” to participate, all you do is sit in the yard or the park for half an hour and record how many and what kinds of birds you see.
Here in town, we have the Montclair Hawk Watch. And their viewing platform, perched way up on the face of the First Watchung near Mills Reservation, is the scenic view to end all scenic views.
There’s a book that I’m finding really useful: the Smithsonian Field Guide to the Birds of North America, a copy of which I found at my local library (a good source for hiking and nature books in general). The book comes with a CD full of MP3 files of bird songs; you can play different tracks and say, “Okay, then, that’s what a summer tanager sounds like,” or “So that’s that bird that keeps making an unholy racket at six in the morning.”
Some of the phonetic writings of bird calls can be a little amusing. There was this one bird guide that described the tanager’s call as “chip tucky-tuck.” To which my mother routinely asked, what were the guide’s authors putting in their thermoses when they went out bird-watching?