The right way to watch extra birds throughout the pandemic

Are you looking for ideas to enrich your birding world while staying closer to home? Are you also, like many of us, missing the birdwatching community as well as our feathered friends?

I have had the good fortune to tour the world as a storyteller and author for more than 40 years. For the past dozen years, I have been a featured speaker at about 12 birding festivals each year, where I have shared the weekend with a few of my birding heroes but also where I have made lots of friends in the birding community, a wonderful collection of unusually fine folks.

In the past two years, I have taken birding trips to East Asia and South America. And last summer, I finally made it to my 50th state, Alaska. But like most of you, since the pandemic began, I have been spending a lot more time at home in northwestern Illinois. Nevertheless, I have been looking for ways to get my fix for more time with my avian friends.

Backyard birding

I avoided listing for many years, and I have only recently joined eBird. (I quickly became a huge fan and advocate! Have you joined yet?) For years, I have promoted the Great Backyard Bird Count in my performances, but I am usually on the road during the event (held annually in mid-February). This spring, I finally started a backyard bird list. I quickly learned that a backyard list is a great way to begin to develop a more intimate relationship with the birds that live in your neighborhood.

You can also deepen your appreciation for the migrants that pass through your area. This spring, quite a few neighbors sent me photos of birds they had never seen in their yard before. It’s likely that the birds had migrated through many times before, but no one was home to pay attention. Pay attention. I often paraphrase Jane Goodall, who I once heard say, “if 10,000 wildebeest came through your yard tomorrow night, might you be curious and go out to see them? Well, every spring a million birds fly over your house in their annual migrations. Are you curious? Go out and see them.”

Need I ask? What can be better than sitting on your back porch, your balcony, or in your sunroom, a short distance from a refrigerator and bathroom, spending time really getting to know the birds that visit your feeders?

Asking good questions and looking for your own answers are the essence of basic science. More than, “What bird is that?” consider questions such as “What field marks do I see? Why is it doing this?” Having time to really observe bird behavior and to see up close the identifying characteristics is very helpful in identifying birds in the field. This extra time at home has not only made me a better birder, but I also feel much more confident in the kind of “out of the corner of the eye” ID of common birds, based on flight pattern, flash of color, and song.

Blackburnian Warbler. Photo by Mircea Costina/Shutterstock

A Big Sit

Folks who know me know that I do not sit still very long or very well. So, when the annual Big Day turned into a Big Sit, I was reluctant to join. Friends from Illinois Audubon and American Bird Conservancy invited me, along with almost 200 folks across 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 you can. Some folks do the full 24 hours. Not me, but I did get up in the middle of the night hoping to hear a Barred Owl I had 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 the odd birds that might just linger for a few minutes on their way elsewhere.

The Big Sit was so fun that it’s now one of my favorite birding activities. I plan to do one a month for the foreseeable future! And eBird highly values the data you collect in one location for an extended period on a regular basis. And, of course, I did ask in advance if it was OK to get up and walk around once in a while. I circled my lot three times during the day.

Again, I feel very fortunate in this difficult time. I own a two-acre lot with a small orchard and prairie seed nursery, an acre of wild prairie, and a forest edge, and the Edwards River, a tributary of the Mississippi, is a stone’s throw away. During my first Big Sit, I saw nearly 40 species, including a few first-of-year birds and a few I had never seen in my backyard. The highlights included a pair of Ruby-crowned Kinglets that danced around me most of the day and a Brown Creeper that I watched on and off for more than an hour as it worked every tree in the old oak grove next to my bench.

Illinois Audubon’s Big Sit was a live event on several social media platforms simultaneously, which allowed me to feel less isolated, connecting with other birders sheltering in place. On Facebook, people chatted about who was seeing what where. I was highly impressed with the birders in downtown Chicago seeing raptors and rare gulls from their rooftops and the Springfield folks seeing warblers in their woodlots.

Neighborhood tours

Two years ago, I started doing monthly bird counts in my neighborhood. I live in a forested town of 125 people that is a bird oasis in the midst of a large corn desert. I can circle the entire town in about two hours and get a good count of the local birds. My long-term goal is to see if my orchard and prairie can transform the landscape of the entire town and positively impact the bird population. So, for now, I am collecting basic data on eBird.

Thanks to the pandemic, my monthly counts have recently become weekly.

I really like the idea that I know where and when I might see what birds. I like watching Barn Swallows build their nest and raise their young. I especially enjoy knowing which dead tree has a Red-headed Woodpecker, which a Red-bellied Woodpecker, and which has a Yellow-shafted Northern Flicker. I know Indigo Buntings nest in the gulley one block north and Common Yellowthroats nest in the willow grove on the edge of our wet prairie.

You only learn these things when you have birded the same ground repeatedly for years. Our neighborhoods are the best place to begin. And when you know your local birds and their habitats, you’ll be a better birder in new locations in the future, when we’re able to get back in the field.

This spring, after canceling two extended tours I was supposed to lead, using our bed and breakfast as the home base, I was surprised and pleased when neighbors asked me to start leading regular bird hikes around town. Practicing social distancing while leading small-group bird tours in our rural community has also been a way for us to reconnect as people.
Black-and-white Warbler. Photo by Ray Hennessy/Shutterstock

Hotspots Very Near You

After I had self-quarantined for two months, my daughter asked me to help take care of my granddaughter for a week in May, so I headed to Kansas City, where they live. When I had a little free time, I went to ebird.org to look for birding hotspots and came away with great options.

Here’s how to find birding locations on eBird: On the home page, click on “Explore” in the bar at the top, and on the next page, click “Explore Hotspots.” Then you can search by your location or a hotspot name.

Once you find a site, click on the pin to view the list of birds that have been reported at the site. The “Recent Visits” tab will show you bird lists of people who birded there recently. And the “Illustrated Checklist” tab will produce a list of species with photos or audio from the site. You can also find photos and audio files in users’ individual checklists. Reviewing the photos and listening to bird songs will help you prepare for your hike.

I was thrilled to find a few hotspots within walking distance of my daughter’s place. And as I drilled down within eBird, I could see the warbler species and other birds that I could expect, review photos, and remind my ear of songs, so I was a little less stumped by flashes of color and twitters of song high in the treetops.

From my daughter’s house, I could walk through Meadowmere Park to Longview Lake on the south side of Kansas City. I saw more than 40 species in a short early morning walk. Blackburnian, Black-and-white, Yellow, and Yellow-rumped Warblers, Common Yellowthroat, and Northern Parula were just a few of the highlights. I don’t think I had ever seen so many varieties of flycatchers in one day: Least, Alder, Great Crested, Eastern Phoebe, Eastern Wood-Pewee, and Eastern Kingbird. It was a photo on eBird that keyed me in on the minimal eye ring on the Alder Flycatcher. I found a Blue-gray Gnatcatcher’s nest and saw wonderful courtship behavior among Eastern Bluebirds and Indigo Buntings.

Explore eBird, and you’re sure to find hotspots very near you.

Social media birding

Social media and tech have changed birding for the better. The best part is the ways we can connect with each other. By joining a few different Facebook pages, I know better where to go and what I might see. And I have also found that the fantastic photography on the Illinois Rare Bird Alert and Illinois Backyard Birding Facebook pages have helped me to key in on birds’ identifying characteristics.

Recent photos of Red-eyed, White-eyed, and Warbling Vireos helped me to catch a first-of-year Warbling Vireo in my neighbor’s yard one morning. By friending bird photographers, I have improved my ID skills by simply liking their many fine photos. And part of the joy of finding a new bird is sharing it with friends, so posting and commenting has been a healing balm to stay connected to the broader world of birdwatching.

Birding with friends

Depending on the state of the pandemic in your area, you may want to consider how to slowly open your social networks to choose people to bird with. They should be folks whom you know, trust, and feel safe within their presence. Who are the people you’d most like to go birding with? Staying safely 6 feet apart, wearing masks, driving separately to local or regional hotspots, how can we begin to get back out in the field to enjoy our favorite pastime?

On the aforementioned hike in Kansas City, I was so impressed with the site, the next day, I took my 19-month-old granddaughter to the park in her stroller. She napped half the time, but it was such a joy to watch her begin to tune her ear and turn quickly, even pointing at specific bird songs. When she cried out and pointed up at a solo Canada Goose while I was focusing my binoculars on an Indigo Bunting, I gave her credit for the bird in 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, eager to go with me. She is not a birdwatcher, but she is my favorite counter and doesn’t mind keeping the list. I can only hope that having been sheltered in place together for a few months that she has been infected with my enthusiasm.

Much has been written about birding as a healing tonic and a safe way to get outdoors and practice safe social distancing. But it’s also true that sharing this passion with people who are closest to us is the greatest joy! Go birding in your neighborhood with the people you love, find hotspots close to you, and share your joy together.

This article was first published in the September/October 2020 issue of BirdWatching magazine. Subscribe.

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