I admit, I’m not that much of a birder. I spent many years studiously ignoring the connections among names, songs, and plumages. Even during the years when being a naturalist was my primary job, I always had friends and colleagues who knew birds much better than I. I pointed out flashes of movement or notes of sound and relied on friends to identify them to family or species. I complained that birding was too nerdy and too specialized. I was a big-picture naturalist–I cared about forests and their trees. What I really meant, however, was that birding was hard. I didn’t want to put forth the effort.
Two years ago, that changed. I began not only distinguishing among songs in the summer forest, but actually wondering to which bird they belonged. I started to look up birds in identification books and the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. I started asking friends questions and actually committing their answers to memory. I just returned from a tropical vacation with more pictures of birds than beaches, and I watched a flock of foraging White Ibises considerably longer than the mama alligator and babies across the road. What happened, and how can you make the same transition into the intimidating world of birding?
Step 1: Get Over Yourself
Most of my original objections to becoming a birder were based in pride. My friends had years more experience than I, and some were even avian professionals in former lives. What if I didn’t learn new birds as fast as they did or got an “easy” bird wrong? As soon as I admitted I would make mistakes, didn’t know much of anything, and made myself willing to learn, our outings became a lot more fun.
Step 2: Have Fun
Instead of jumping right into birding as a life calling, consider taking it up as a diversion on other planned outings. Any walk, hike, canoe, or fishing outing can become a birding outing if you keep your eyes and ears open. Even driving can be a birding adventure–as long as you do it safely. Rural highways in the Mid-Atlantic can some of the best places to see Red-tailed Hawks at certain times of the year.
Step 3: Identify Patterns
Before you get caught up in the green-breasted or blue-breasted identification black hole, consider just looking and listening for patterns. Do you notice 3 or 5 distinct bird songs when you take the dog for a walk? What does the first bird you hear every morning sound like? Are a robin’s or sparrow’s eyes larger? I was shocked by how much I already knew when my expert birding friends started walking me through the patterns they use to identify bird families.
Step 4: Take Your Time
Birding is a lifetime pursuit; the blue-haired grannies getting off the world-wide birding tour buses will tell you just that. Accept that you won’t become an expert in your town’s birds, let alone your state’s birds, in a single season. If you take your time, however, and commit to learning a bird or two at a time, you can make progress. Once you get a hang for what to look and listen for, you’ll get even quicker.
Step 5: Laugh at Yourself
Birders are a quirky lot. They (we?) use their own terminology, have their own habits, and dress in ways that are ultimately practical if not fashionable. Here’s a crash course in birding culture.