Bird-Watching—A Fascinating Hobby for Everyone?
“The bird-watcher’s life is an endless succession of surprises.” W. H. Hudson—The Book of a Naturalist.
AT Kosi Bay, near the border between South Africa and Mozambique, Keith, Evelyn, Jannie, and their guide walked 15 miles [22 km] to see a bird. This was not just any bird! They were in search of the palm-nut vulture—a large black-and-white bird with red skin around the eyes. It feeds on dead fish and the fruit of oil palms.
Keith relates: “After the long walk, we came home disappointed at having seen only one—and that at a distance in flight. Upon arrival back at our camp, what did we find? Three palm-nut vultures sitting in a palm tree above us! We enjoyed their company for about half an hour before they took off, giving us a wonderful display with wings fully outstretched. The same day, we also saw a Pel’s fishing owl for the first time. Yes, an owl that catches fish!”
A Thrill for Anyone
The world over, birds are beautiful to watch and hear. The more than 9,600 species provide opportunities for any alert watcher. Who does not thrill to see the darting flash of color of a hummingbird or a kingfisher? Who does not stop when captivated by the repertoire of a mockingbird, a nightingale, or an Australian superb lyrebird or by the distinctive call of the cuckoo or the musical gurgling of the Australian magpie?
Bird-watching (birding, as it is commonly called in the United States) is the observation of wild birds. It can be as vigorous as you decide to make it. You may have no desire to slosh through swamps or climb mountains to find rare birds. However, many people find birding in their backyard or garden to be satisfying and refreshing. Many put out water and a bird feeder to attract the local bird life. Each year the number of enthusiasts increases. More and more people believe that it is worth the effort.
Why Is It So Popular?
According to the book An America Challenged, by Steve H. Murdock, between the years 1990 and 2050, bird-watching is expected to grow at a faster rate than the U.S. population. New Scientist magazine reported that “more and more people in India are taking to the pursuit of the feathered bipeds.” And Gordon Holtshausen, chairman of the Publications Committee of BirdLife South Africa, believes that “in South Africa . . . [bird] books are second only to the Bible.”
Once you see a bird through a bird-watcher’s eyes, you will be hooked! Birding is contagious. It can be an inexpensive diversion that takes you outdoors into the open spaces and challenges your mind. It has the appeal of the hunt without the killing. Since children and adults pick it up quickly, it can be enjoyed by families or by groups of friends. It can even be enjoyed alone. Birding is a clean, wholesome, healthy pastime and can be done year-round just about anywhere.
Basics for Birding
Do you sometimes see a bird and wonder what it is called? A sense of satisfaction comes from learning the names of not just imposing eagles, peacocks, and swans but also the easily overlooked nightjars and earthcreepers. There are also the look-alike sandpipers and fall plumage wood warblers and all those in between.*
In order to identify them, you will need a field guide to the birds of your country or region. This is a pocket-size book with illustrations and descriptions of the male and female of each species. The better guides also include immature and seasonal plumage.
What else does a beginner need? A good pair of binoculars is to a birder what a fishing rod or net is to a fisherman. You will be astonished by the details in your neighborhood birds when you see them through binoculars. For example, in Africa a huge hippopotamus is hard to miss. But unless you are using binoculars, you may not see the small red-billed oxpecker feeding on parasites while clinging to the hippo’s back.
Not all binoculars are designed for birding, and there is no substitute for actually comparing how various models perform. Among birders, two popular models are 7 x 42 and 8 x 40. The first number refers to the power of magnification, and the second, to the diameter of the large lens in millimeters. The National Geographic Field Guide to the Birds of North America explains that “a ratio of 1 to 5 between magnification power and lens size is generally considered ideal for light-gathering capability.” This allows you to pick out colors even in poor lighting conditions. Thus, higher magnification is not necessarily better. Clarity is what you want.
Where to Start Looking? Your Neighborhood
The person who knows the birds in his own neighborhood will be much better prepared for a trip to some other place to find less common or less visible birds. Do you know which species are the permanent residents around your home? Which ones are the flyovers that never seem to land, perhaps on their way to a nearby lake or marsh? What migratory transients pass through in their seasonal travels? Christopher Leahy, in his book The Birdwatcher’s Companion, wrote: “In North America, [migration] involves about 80 percent of the approximately 645 species of breeding birds.”
Some of these migrants may make a stopover near your home to refuel and rest up. Avid birders in some areas have identified more than 210 species of birds in their own backyard! You will find it interesting and educational to keep a log of the dates when you see a species for the first and last time each year.
Ways to Watch Birds
With binoculars around your neck and a field guide in your pocket, you are now ready to explore beyond the backyard. Bird checklists are often available at parks and nature reserves. These usually indicate in which seasons species are seen there and what the likelihood is of your finding them. A checklist will be a useful tool to verify your sightings. If the bird that you think you have just seen is listed as rare, then it would be good to scrutinize it, especially if you are a beginner.(See the box “Basic Guide for Identification.”) On the other hand, if it is listed as abundant, likely you have identified it correctly.
Try to obtain in advance a map showing the trails and the types of habitats you will encounter. The bird life is usually richer where two or more habitats meet. Whether you walk around or remain stationary, endeavor to blend in with the surroundings, and wait for the birds to come to you. Be patient.
In some places there is a telephone number that enthusiasts can call to listen to reports of interesting recent sightings in the area.
Advance Preparation Pays Off
Targeting specific birds is rewarding, but it is to your advantage to read up beforehand on those that you would like to see. If you are in the Caribbean, perhaps your heart is set on finding the tody, whether it be the Cuban, Puerto Rican, or Jamaican variety. It is a chunky little jewel of brightly colored green and red feathers. Herbert Raffaele’s Guide to the Birds of Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands tells us that it “is difficult to see, but is often heard.” The Cuban todies are known for their voracious appetites and the rapid rate at which they feed their young. After describing the bird’s method of feeding, Raffaele gives this advice: “Knocking two stones together will often attract them.”
You may want to time a field trip so you can witness a certain event in the life history of a species, such as the striking aerial display of one of the woodcocks in the early spring. Or it could be the impressive numbers of white storks at Gibraltar or the Bosporus preparing for their flight to Africa in the fall. Or the migration of birds over Israel.
Admittedly, planning to find a special bird is unlike visiting a historical monument that you know will always be there. Birds are constantly on the move. They are full of life. And variety. And surprises. But the search and the wait are worth the effort!
All of this is what makes bird-watching exciting. Despite your planning, the birds may not be there when you are—at least not the birds you are hoping to see. But no one can say what other unexpected discoveries await you. One thing is for sure, birds will never disappoint you. Just be patient. Happy bird-watching! And don’t forget their Designer!—Genesis 1:20; 2:19; Job 39:13-18, 27-29.
Birds are divided into eight main visual categories: (1) swimmers—ducks and ducklike birds, (2) aerialists—gulls and gull-like birds, (3) long-legged waders—herons and cranes, (4) smaller waders—plover and sandpipers, (5) fowllike birds—grouse and quail, (6) birds of prey—hawks, eagles, and owls, (7) passerine (perching) birds, and (8) nonpasserine land birds.—A Field Guide to the Birds East of the Rockies, by Roger Tory Peterson.
[Box on page 26]
Basic Guide for Identification
When first spotting an unfamiliar bird, it may be helpful to try to answer some of the following questions:
1. What kind of coloration does the bird have—solid, streaked, spotted or speckled?
2. In which habitat is the bird located—water, swamp, marsh, meadow or forest?
3. What size is the bird? Compare with a familiar bird—sparrow, robin, pigeon or hawk.
4. How does the bird behave—darts after insects, soars, bobs tail, holds tail up or down, or walks on the ground?
5. What shape is the bill—short and pointed, short and stout, long, curved or hooked?
By looking at these “Field Marks” and referring to a basic bird guide, even the novice can begin to recognize the common species.—Exhibit Guide, Merrill Creek Reservoir, New Jersey, U.S.A.
[Picture Credit Line on page 23]
Bird drawings on pages 23-7: The Complete Encyclopedia of Illustration/J. G. Heck
[Map/Pictures on page 24, 25]
(For fully formatted text, see publication)
Europe, North Africa
Europe, Africa, Asia
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Washington, D.C./Glen Smart
Courtesy of Green Chimney’s Farm
Courtesy of San Diego Wild Animal Park
Map: The Complete Encyclopedia of Illustration/ J. G. Heck
Courtesy of San Diego Wild Animal Park