Seeing the snow geese migration at Freezout Lake in Montana is what turned me from a part-time bird-watcher into a real birder.
I remember going there one year when a large fraction of the Pacific Flyway population of snow geese was stacked up at the lake, waiting for the weather to clear so they could continue their journey north.
There must have been 500,000 to 600,000 of them in the area, along with hundreds of thousands of other waterfowl. You could see huge white waves rolling across the distant hills as the geese came in to land — literal avian tsunamis.
It was the greatest wildlife spectacle I’d ever seen. Wanting to experience more things like that is what made me a birder.
Or, no, maybe it was that quiet afternoon walk along the Oregon coast. I was alone on the trail when I spotted a winter wren flitting through the trees. I watched as this tiniest of birds, smaller than my thumb, perched on a log and began wagging its butt back and forth, like a little go-go dancer moving to its own tune.
I’d never imagined birds behaving that way. Enjoying such mysteries of nature is why I became a birder.
No, what really made me a birder was that trip to the Cayman Islands, a “romantic getaway” with an old college flame that quickly turned into a disaster. She spent most of her time diving with squid and huffily ignoring me. I responded in kind, spending my days biking around the small island and getting close-up views of birds I’d never heard of before: little blue herons, green herons, tricolor herons, smooth-billed anis, white-crowned pigeons, magnificent frigatebirds, ruddy turnstones and sleek brown boobies with fuzzy white chicks.
There is beauty in the world, even when your life is in tatters. That’s what birds taught me. That’s why I continue to seek them out.
Whether you’re looking for beauty or mystery or larger-than-life spectacle, birding provides endless opportunities to interact with the world. You’re almost guaranteed to see something you’ve never seen before, and chances are it will leave you smiling and eager for more.
If you want to make the leap from casual bird-watcher to more active birder, joining a local group like Palouse Audubon or Canyon Birders is a great way to get started. Field trips highlight various birding hot spots in the area, and birders themselves tend to be a friendly bunch, happy to share advice and talk about recent sightings.
For those who are more inclined to do things on their own, here are a few suggestions to help take your birding activities to the next level:
1. Get some good binoculars
One of the things that distinguishes birders from mere bird-watchers is a desire to know exactly what you’re looking at. That means you have to be able to see details.
A decent pair of binoculars will help you figure out whether that black-and-white water bird 70 yards from shore is a Clark’s grebe, western grebe or a common loon. If you’re 50 yards away, it’s the difference between a bohemian waxwing and cedar waxwing, a robin or a varied thrush.
If you’re 20 yards away, it’s the difference between a black-capped chickadee, mountain chickadee or even a pygmy nuthatch. It’s the difference between a common yellow-rumped warbler and a nearly extinct Kirtland’s warbler.
Binoculars are the difference between, “Hey, I just saw my first gray-crowned rosy finch!” and “Wow, that was a strange-looking bird. I wonder what it was?”
Serious birders fantasize about winning the lottery so they can afford the best binoculars on the market. Beginning birders, though, should be able to find a good pair in the $100-$300 price range.
Even if you can afford more, you might want to stick with the lower end of the scale until you’re sure birding is for you. I’d also recommend visiting a sporting goods store, rather than shopping for deals online. You can check out several models in your price range and find the one that suits you best.
2. Buy a good field guide — and bring it with you
There are at least 10,000 bird species in the world, including more than 900 in North America. Many are very similar in appearance, so having a good field guide is at least as important as a good pair of binoculars in helping figure out exactly what you’re looking at.
That said, my advice on birding field guides begins and ends with National Geographic’s “Field Guide to the Birds of North America.” I wouldn’t use another guide if you gave it to me for free.
The softcover edition of the National Geographic guide is superb. It’s comprehensive, easy to use and relatively compact, so you can bring it with you in the field.
That last part is important. Birds are hard enough to identify even when they cooperate and stay still long enough for you to get a good view. But unless you have a photographic memory, it’s hard remembering all the characteristics that distinguish, say, a wintering red phalarope from a red-necked phalarope, or common and hoary redpolls. Having a field guide in hand while you look at them will save you a lot of second-guessing.
I’m also told there are some excellent birding apps available for your phone, which makes it even easier to bring that field guide expertise with you on the trail.
However, that is one new trick this old dog refuses to learn. I’ve seen too many birders use the apps to play bird songs, trying to lure in hard-to-spot species. In my techno-snob opinion, that’s inappropriate behavior, akin to hunters salting or baiting a field to attract deer.
But by all means, beginning birders should talk with more experienced birders about their favorite field guides and apps. It’s a topic most of us have strong opinions about.
3. Keep a checklist
I wish this wasn’t one of my suggestions, but birding is about paying attention and I know I pay more attention because I keep a life list, a checklist of all the species I’ve ever seen.
I’d rather that weren’t the case. I wish I went looking for birds simply because they’re beautiful and fascinating to watch. But I know I became a little more fanatical once I started keeping a list. I know I’ve taken vacations, driving tens of thousands of miles, visited different places, not just because I want to see birds, but because I’m hoping to add to my total and check a few more species off the list.
I’m not sure I know a serious birder who doesn’t at least keep a life list. Some go even farther, tracking birds they’ve seen by county or state or listing species seen at their backyard bird feeders.
It’s also very common for birders to track species seen during a weekend outing. It’s our way of counting coup.
So, keep a list. Pay more attention, and pat yourself on the back every time you spot something new. By keeping your eyes open, you’ll be rewarded with the unexpected.
4. Be patient
All the binoculars, field guides and checklists in the world won’t help you be a better birder if you lack patience.
Birds by nature are flighty — no pun intended. They survive by flying away from anything that could be a danger. It’s not like you need to act like a statue all the time, but you’ll see a lot more and get much better views if you move slowly and stay quiet.
Think strolling, not running. Birding is not meant to be an aerobic activity. I’ve seen birders walk 30 yards in 30 minutes and feel like it was time very well spent.
So slow down. Stop and listen. Be nonthreatening. Do that and birds will repay you with beauty and song.
Spence may be contacted at email@example.com or (208) 791-9168.