Outdoor Pursuits: Birding - Beyond the Binoculars
by Christine Kirkland
If when you hear the term “Bird-watching” it evokes a vision of an elderly individual dressed in beige and sporting a flappy-brimmed hat, doddering about the park with binoculars and a little dog, you’re not alone. While such laid-back observation techniques may suit some just fine, there are many others who have taken flight with the activity now widely referred to as “Birding”.
Apart from the basic fact that birds can bring joy to even the hardest of hearts, they are undeniably intriguing creatures for so many reasons. The sheer diversity of kind within the bird family is, in itself, astonishing. Hawks, Sparrows, Woodpeckers, Chickadees. Breaking it down further, within each kind there are appearance variations between male and female, young and old, changing even according to season.
The motivators that compel people to observe birds with such passion are obvious. These magical creatures are generously endowed with the gift of producing a myriad of musical sounds and songs. To the eye, most birds are strikingly beautiful, boasting a wide range of shimmering colours and patterns. And, unlike any other animal in existence (apart from the Bat, which incidentally is not beautiful), birds can fly.
Flight is a marvel that sets birds apart from the rest of the ground-imprisoned creatures, however the phenomenon doesn’t end there. Migration for many birds consists of travelling thousands of kilometres, sometimes spanning multiple continents, through adverse weather conditions, all while completing this astonishing feat of endurance not just once, but twice a year!
So much more information is now known about the migratory patterns of birds than ever before, thanks to major advancements in technology, and the dedication of scientists and birders alike. The Prince Edward Point Bird Observatory in Prince Edward County is one of many locations province-wide whose primary purpose is to operate as a Bird Population Monitoring Station mainly focusing on the spring and fall migration periods. Peter Fuller, President of the Board, puts forth that the volunteer-run centre is able, among other things, to reveal species at risk. In addition, the Observatory hosts a yearly Spring Festival complete with demonstrations by licensed banders as they band and release birds, as well as guided walks along the many trails the area offers. This is ideal for the beginner in birding as it provides great opportunities for bird identification under the tutelage of an expert.
Getting started in birding isn’t difficult and does not require a lot of expensive equipment or tools. Long-time, avid birder Drew Monkman suggests to begin with a quality pair of binoculars, and a comprehensive bird identification book - Sibley’s Guide to the Birds of North America is his recommendation. Monkman, a retired elementary school teacher, has been enthusiastic about birds from the age of eleven, when his father built for him his first bird feeder.
“Spring is definitely the most exciting time of the year for birders,” he states, appertaining to the different species that return to the area from places as far away as Latin America. “The birds are in their breeding plumage too, which makes them – I guess you might say – more spectacular.”
Monkman maintains that the best birding is early in the morning, especially on a damp May morning, with light rains and winds from the south. His location of choice is along the edge of a field, or in a woodlot.
“I could say, personally, I feel most alive when I’m walking on a trail on a May morning watching and listening – smelling the air – just totally in the zone.” Monkman reveals that when he’s birding in the spring, he is listening as much as he’s watching. “I’m listening to the songs. Each of the warblers has a different song… and with practice, you can learn them.”
The benefits of birding are often farther-reaching than simply experiencing the joy of observing beautiful creatures, and the gratification from success in identification.
“An interest in birds leads to an interest in everything else, because to become a better birder you need to be, at a minimum, able to identify and know different habitat types. This means you have to have some knowledge of trees. Before you know it, you’re becoming a botanist too!”
And that inevitably leads to a greater consideration for nature as a whole.
“When you’ve been doing this for a long time,” Monkmon explains, “it becomes about the state of the environment… because you expect to see and hear certain species in certain habitats, at certain times of the year. And when those birds show up where and when you expect them to, there’s a certain satisfaction. The birds of May are returning. Everything is right with the world.”