I’ll be the first to admit I am a bird watching nerd.
I have numerous bird identifications books, apps, various camera lenses and binoculars. This hobby started while taking an Introduction to Ecology class in my first year of school and carried over into my second year research project. Now I can’t get enough of it. Just yesterday I was walking along a trail at work doing some light pruning when I heard an unfamiliar woodpecker sound…. I looked up and low and behold there was a Lewis’s Woodpecker (Melanerpes lewis) trying to get some snacks out of a Cottonwood tree. These guys are rare in our neck of the woods and are a blue-listed species1 so it was a real treat.
Books and Apps to Get Started
First things first, get yourself a bird identification book. I highly recommend The Sibley Field Guide to Birds of Western North America by David Allen Sibley. It is super easy to use with a quick identification guide, pictures are true to life, and notes on how to distinguish between similar species. My copy lives on the end table in our living room so I can quickly search when a new bird shows up at my feeder. There are various other books on the market just make sure you choose one for your area. My sister gave me a bird guide to Australia for our trip last September and while it was great to have, halfway through our trip I found myself wishing for a more thorough book with more species and detail to help me focus in on what species I was seeing.
If you are more into the digital (and app) guides check out iBird, Sibley Lite, Merlin Bird ID by Cornell Lab of Ornithology and many more. Most are free for basic versions and are available on all operating systems. Cornell’s is great for beginners as you start by choosing the size of the bird, colour, and habitat you saw the bird in, then it gives you a few options. My sister-in-law recently got into birding using this app. iBird is what I use the most as it gives scientific information as well as songs and calls for each species but you have to have an idea of what you are looking at first.
Listen to the Forest
Take a walk in the woods and just listen… Identifying birds by song can be a really fun challenge. Over time my husband has become a birder by osmosis just from me pointing stuff out on dog walks. Songs and calls become easier to detect over time and with practice, but it’s always easier if you can put words to them or if they are distinctive. You’re likely to hear Black-capped Chickadees sing their typical “cheeseburger” or “I’m pretty”. Barred Owl call sounds like “who cooks for you?” and a Red-winged Blackbird sounds like a dial-up modem. Songs are used to find a mate, while calls are used to alert to danger or ward off other birds in their territory. Use apps such as iBird or the Thayer Birding Software DVD to learn and practice. For school I had to learn 75 different bird calls for lab exams…. It’s not easy so don’t get discouraged.
Encourage Backyard Birds
A suet basket and a block of suet is the cheapest and easiest way to encourage birds to your back yard. You’ll find wire suet baskets and suet blocks at any garden center, hardware store, or local birding store (yes these places exist!). I don’t recommend seed unless you live in an area without bears, or if you are diligent about cleaning up the mess every day. This is a lesson I learned the hard way. We had a beautiful birdseed feeder that my husband dubbed “The Rat Feeder” because we had a family of rats that would sit in the dish and treat it as a smorgasbord. Another great way to get birds is to have a bird bath in your yard. These don’t have to be huge elaborate concrete structures fit for a mansion. Mine is a simple bird bath I purchased at my local birding store for $20.
A few tips for using bird baths:
- Change the water and rinse the dish at least once a week to discourage mosquitos and spreading of disease.
- Place sticks across the top to act as perches, or keep water level low with rocks on the bottom.
- Install a heater in the dish during the winter. Water in the winter is just as important as it is high summer.
Life List – The Big Year
A life list is self-explanatory – a list of all the birds you encounter in your travels. I have approximately 200 different species that I’ve seen between my school work, research and travels to Australia. This list was compiled in only three years! I hope to add a few more this spring when we go to the UK. At the risk of sounding like an even bigger nerd, I’ll confess one of my favourite movies is The Big Year (2011). It’s probably the only Jack Black and Owen Wilson movie I’ll ever like. The premise is based on three different men as them embark on seeing as many different species as possible in one calendar year.
PNW Urbanite Backyard Birds:
|Black-capped Chickadees||Dark-eyed Juncos|
|Western Spotted Towhees||Bushtits|
|Stellar’s Jay||Northwestern Crow|
|Anna’s Hummingbird||Northern Flicker|
|Varied Thrush||Black-headed Grosebeak|
I hope this post has inspired you to seek out the birds in your community. I’m proof that even a novice urbanite can have a daily dose of nature just by hanging a block of suet. While I’ve focused this article on songbirds because they are the most abundant we can’t forget about ducks. Ducks are my favourite, it’s even the nick name of our dog (actual name Duke). Along the Pacific coast the best time to see really cool and rare ducks is between October and April as the migrate south for the winter months. The ocean habitat was the focus of my research project but you can still find many different species in your local lakes and ponds. Be sure to share your photos with us on facebook or instagram if you’ve been inspired to take up birdwatching as a new hobby!
– Includes any ecological community, and indigenous species and subspecies considered to be of special concern (formerly vulnerable) in British Columbia. Elements are of special concern because of characteristics that make them particularly sensitive to human activities or natural events. (BC Conservation Data Center 2016)