Birding for Beginners

Spring 2008 CSANews Issue 66  |  Posted date : May 24, 2008.Back to list

One of the best things about seasonal migrations is being able to take in the best of the great outdoors year-round. Snowbirds' return north coincides with one of the continent's most spectacular events - the original great feathered migration involving several billion winged travellers, many arriving from the same wintering grounds as Canadian vacationers. Actually getting to know your fellow migrants is one great way to settle in back home, get some fresh air and experience a whole new world of sights and sounds.

A serviceable pair of binoculars (small ones make for less-burdened walking) provide the portal to this world. Pointed at seemingly nondescript, tiny birds, their field of view suddenly explodes into vivid colours. An oddly sweetly loquacious house sparrow turns out, with a look-see, to actually be a house finch, sporting liberal red splashes on its head, breast and lower back. A follow-up glance at a good field guide - Peterson's, National Geographic and Audubon are among the best - makes a positive ID simple. Best of all, birding can be readily combined with many other outdoor activities, from casual walks, to cycling, golf, camping and picnics.

May is the height of birding season. In addition to the birds arriving to nest in your area, many other species bound on longer journeys stop in to rest and refuel. Even large urban areas, parks, cemeteries, watersides and reasonably treed backyards can be visited by scarlet tanagers, indigo buntings, black-throated green warblers, rose-breasted grosbeaks and three-dozen different brightly coloured warblers heading for the hinterlands. Though they may pass through again during fall migration, by then, many will have changed into drabber, non-breeding plumage. And they will no longer be singing the symphony of mating calls that fills the spring air and gives away their locations. With practice, the songs of individual species can be learned, so that the listener knows which birds to look for when they signal their presence. Some of the most familiar, well-loved birds, such as robins, blue jays and cardinals, can offer an entree for observers to the wider avian world. The loud, persistent jeers of jays or crows often betray the presence of a red-tailed hawk or another bird of prey that they're trying to pester to leave the vicinity of their own nests. Similarly, a sudden burst of pigeons into the sky sometimes signals the cruising presence of a hawk, or even a falcon overhead.

Many lesser-known, but colourful species are really quite common and easy to find at the right time and place. In general, the earlier in the day, the better the chances of seeing lots of different birds. In spring, the most intense avian choruses are around dawn, with males singing in earnest to attract mates or proclaim the boundaries of their breeding territories as the day's first order of business. By midday, many seem to take a siesta and the pickings become slimmer for birdwatchers.

The best strategy for maximizing the number of birds seen on an outing is to visit many different types of habitats. Deep, shady forests are the haunts of incessantly calling red-eyed vireos, spotty-breasted hermit thrushes, great-crested flycatchers, yellow-bellied sapsuckers, tiny, tree-spiraling brown creepers, nuthatches, ovenbirds, whistling wood-pewees and ruffed grouse that startlingly burst out of the understory. Open fields of tall grass and wildflowers are inhabited by bobolinks, savannah sparrows and black-scarfed, yellow-breasted meadowlarks. Marshes and other wetlands reverberate with the calls of red-winged blackbirds, common yellowthroats, song sparrows and northern waterthrushes.

Usually, though, the greatest variety of species occurs around forest edges and tree-lined watersides. For example, Baltimore orioles - beautiful orange birds with a black head and wings - can be quite common in such spaces, even in cities and towns, as are yellow warblers, sporting striking streaks of rust on their lemony breasts. Other favourite edge habitat dwellers include goldfinches, cedar waxwings, yellow-shafted flickers, white-throated sparrows and northern mockingbirds. On quiet waters, great blue heron and green-crested wood ducks may be spotted, while tree swallows swirl overhead and kingfishers dive for their dinners. Birdwatching can be picked up as a hobby by anyone at any time, but joining a guided group outing is one way to get a head start. In short order, an expert can not only show you where to look, but can also make sense of the cacophony of bird song on a spring morning, picking out the voices of a dozen or more species singing simultaneously.

Those who catch the bug can go on to a wide world of seasonal birding activities if they choose, including hawk watching at prime migration sites in the spring and fall, as well as early-season waterfowl watching. And, of course, there are all the winter opportunities when snowbirds join in the migration to the sunny south.

Some websites to get you started includes fact sheets, links to other birding websites, information on identifying birds, suggested equipment, and hints for beginners. includes checklists of birds in your area. Hinterland's Who's Who website; contains fact sheets on the most common birds in Canada.

Did you know…
  • There are 10,000 species of birds in the world, but only about 100 are likely to show up in your backyard.
  • There are 462 species of birds in Canada (362 of these species are found in B.C. and 318 are found in Ontario).
  • Birding has become an increasingly popular hobby over the years. In the U.S., birdwatchers grew from 4% in 1970 to 56% in 1985.
  • "Twitching" (or "chasing") is a common British birding term gaining popularity in North America. It means, "the observation of a previously located rare bird."

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