Tips on how to watch extra birds through the pandemic
Are you looking for ideas to enrich your bird watching world while staying closer to home at the same time? Do you also, like many of us, miss the bird watching community as well as our feathered friends?
I have been fortunate enough to have traveled the world as a storyteller and writer for more than 40 years. For the past twelve years I've been a speaker at around 12 bird watching festivals each year where I've shared the weekend with some of my bird watching heroes but also made many friends in the bird watching community, a wonderful collection of unusually fine people.
For the past two years I have been on bird watching trips to East Asia and South America. And last summer I finally made it to my 50th state, Alaska. But like most of you, I've spent a lot more time at home in northwest Illinois since the pandemic started. Even so, I've been looking for ways to spend more time with my bird friends.
Backyard bird watching
I've avoided the listing for years and only recently came across eBird. (I quickly became a huge fan and advocate! Are you in?) I've been promoting the Great Backyard Bird Count in my appearances for years, but I'm usually out during the event (every year in mid-February). This spring, I finally started a backyard bird list. I quickly learned that having a backyard list is a great way to develop a closer relationship with the birds in your neighborhood.
You can also deepen your appreciation for the migrants moving through your area. This spring some neighbors sent me photos of birds they had never seen in their garden. It is likely that the birds have migrated around the area many times, but no one has been home to pay attention. Pay attention. I often paraphrase Jane Goodall, who I once heard say, “If 10,000 wildebeest come through your yard tomorrow night, could you be curious and visit her? Well, every spring a million birds fly over your home on their annual migrations. Are you curious? Go out and check them out. "
Do I have to ask? What could be nicer than sitting on your porch, balcony or winter garden, not far from a refrigerator and bathroom, and spending time really getting to know the birds that visit your bird feeders?
Asking good questions and looking for your own answers is the essence of basic research. More than "which bird is that?" Consider questions like “What field markings do I see? Why does it do this “Having time to really observe bird behavior and get up close to identifying features is very helpful in identifying birds in the field. That extra time at home not only made me a better bird watcher , but I also feel much more confident in the kind of ID “out of the corner of my eye” of ordinary birds, based on flight patterns, flash of color and song.
Blackburnian Warbler. Photo by Mircea Costina / Shutterstock
A great sitting
People who know me know that I don't sit still very long or very well. When the annual big day turned into a big sit, I didn't want to participate. Friends from Illinois Audubon and American Bird Conservancy invited me along with nearly 200 people from the state of Illinois, so I decided to play along.
The idea is to sit in one place for a day and count as many birds as possible. Some people do the full 24 hours. Not me, but I got up in the middle of the night hoping to hear a barred owl I'd heard the week before. That night it was a no show. This dedicated effort means you are more likely to see the rare flyby and strange birds that might just linger a few minutes on their way elsewhere.
The Big Sit was so much fun that it is now one of my favorite bird watching activities. I plan to do one a month for the foreseeable future! And eBird really values the data that you regularly collect in one place over long periods of time. And of course I asked in advance if it was okay to get up and walk around every now and then. I circled my lot three times during the day.
Again I feel very happy in this difficult time. I own two acres with a small orchard and prairie seed nursery, one acre of wild prairie and edge of forest, and a stone's throw away from the Edwards River, a tributary of the Mississippi. During my first big sit, I saw nearly 40 species including some first year birds and some that I had never seen in my yard. Highlights included a pair of ruby-crowned kinglets that danced around me for most of the day and a brown creeper that I watched for over an hour as he worked every tree in the old oak grove next to my bench.
Illinois Audubon's Big Sit was a live event on multiple social media platforms at once that made me feel less isolated and connected with fellow bird watchers taking refuge on site. People were chatting on Facebook about who was seeing what where. I was very impressed with the downtown Chicago bird watchers who saw birds of prey and rare seagulls from their rooftops, and the Springfield people who saw warblers in their patches of wood.
Two years ago I started doing monthly bird counts in my neighborhood. I live in a wooded city with 125 inhabitants, a bird oasis in the middle of a large corn desert. I can go around the whole city in about two hours and get a good count of the native birds. My long-term goal is to see if my orchard and prairie can change the landscape of the entire city and positively affect the bird population. So at the moment I'm collecting basic data on eBird.
Thanks to the pandemic, my monthly counts have become weekly lately.
I really like the idea that I know where and when to see which birds. I like to watch swallows build their nests and raise their young. I particularly enjoy knowing which dead tree has a red-headed woodpecker, which has a red-bellied woodpecker and which has a yellow-shaft northern flicker. I know Indigo Buntings nest one block north in the gorge and Common Yellowthroats nest in the willow grove on the edge of our damp prairie.
You only learn these things after observing the same ground repeatedly for years. Our neighborhoods are the best place to start. And knowing your native birds and their habitats will make you a better bird watcher in new locations in the future when we are back in the field.
After canceling two extended tours this spring that I was supposed to do with our bed and breakfast as a base, I was surprised and delighted when the neighbors asked me to do regular bird walks around town. Practicing social distancing while running small group bird group tours in our rural community was also a way for us to reconnect as human beings.
Black and white warblers. Photo by Ray Hennessy / Shutterstock
Hotspots very close to you
After quarantining myself for two months, my daughter asked me to care for my granddaughter for a week in May, so I went to Kansas City, where they live. With a little free time, I went to ebird.org to look for bird watching hotspots and found great opportunities.
How to find bird watching spots on eBird: On the home page, click on "Explore" in the bar at the top and on the next page click on "Explore hotspots". Then you can search for your location or a hotspot name.
When you find a site, click the pin to view the list of birds that have been reported on the site. The Recent Visits tab displays bird lists from people who have recently seen birds there. The Illustrated Checklist tab creates a list of species with photos or audio from the website. You can also find photos and audio files in users' individual checklists. Checking the photos and listening to bird songs will help prepare for your hike.
I was thrilled to find a couple of hotspots that were within walking distance of my daughter's house. And when I drill down into eBird, I was able to see the warbler species and other birds I might expect, check photos, and remind my ear of songs so I was a little less baffled by flashes of color and songs in the height of the treetops .
From my daughter's house, I could walk through Meadowmere Park to Longview Lake on the south side of Kansas City. Saw more than 40 species in a short early morning walk. Blackburnian, Black-and-White, Yellow and Yellow-Rumped Warbler, Common Yellowthroat and Northern Parula were just a few of the highlights. I don't think I've ever seen so many types of flycatchers in one day: Least, Alder, Great Crested, Eastern Phoebe, Eastern Wood-Pewee, and Eastern Kingbird. It was a photo on eBird that drew my attention to the Alder Flycatcher's minimal eye ring. I found a blue-gray mosquito catcher nest and saw wonderful courtship behavior in Eastern Bluebirds and Indigo Buntings.
Discover eBird and you are sure to find hotspots near you.
Bird watching on social media
Social media and technology have changed bird watching for the better. The best is how we can connect with each other. When I join a few different Facebook pages, I know better where to go and what I might see. And I also found that the amazing photography on the Illinois Rare Bird Alert and Illinois Backyard Birding Facebook pages helped me figure out bird identifiers.
Recent photos of red-eyed, white-eyed and warbling vireos helped me catch a warbling vireo of the first year in my neighbor's yard one morning. By becoming friends with bird photographers, I've improved my ID skills by simply liking the many beautiful photos. Part of the joy of finding a new bird is sharing it with friends. Posting and commenting, therefore, was a healing balm for keeping in touch with the wider bird watching world.
Bird watching with friends
Depending on the state of the pandemic in your area, you may want to consider how to slowly open up your social networks to select people to bird watch with. It should be people you know, trust, and feel safe around them. Who would you most like to watch birds with? If we safely stay three feet apart, wear masks and drive separately to local or regional hotspots, how can we be back in the field to enjoy our favorite pastime?
On the Kansas City hike mentioned above, I was so impressed with the site that the next day I took my 19 month old granddaughter to the park in her stroller. She was napping half the time but it was a great pleasure to see her start tuning her ear and quickly turning around and even pointing at certain bird songs. When she screamed and pointed at a solo Canada goose while I focused my binoculars on an indigo bunting, I gave her credit for the bird on her first eBird count.
But the crème de la crème for me came one morning when my wife woke me up early for my weekly bird count to go with me. She's not a bird watcher, but she is my favorite teller and she doesn't mind making the list. I can only hope that after being sheltered together for a few months, she became infected with my enthusiasm.
Much has been written about bird watching as a cure and a safe way to get outdoors and practice safe social distancing. But it is also true that the greatest joy is to share this passion with people who are closest to us! Go bird watching in your neighborhood with the people you love, find hotspots near you, and share your joy with each other.
This article was first published in the September / October 2020 issue of BirdWatching magazine. Subscribe to.
Winged Miracles: Why Birds Have the Power to Lift Us Up in Troubled Times
Sign up for our free e-newsletter to receive news, photos of birds, tips on dressing and identification, and more in your inbox.
Sign up for free