So You Want to Be a Bird Watcher?
As with any new hobby, getting started can seem a little daunting. To make it easier, Eliot Berz, business and community access director with the Tennessee River Gorge Trust, suggests simply paying a little more attention to your surroundings while you are outdoors doing other activities you love.
“Birds are an incredibly diverse class of animals that have found a way to live on almost every corner of the Earth, and the good thing about them is that you can find them almost anywhere,” explains Berz. “My bird watching is generally combined with other outdoor activities or is done while conducting research. My favorite time to watch birds is while I’m fly fishing in the Hiwassee and Tellico Rivers.”
Kevin Calhoon, curator of forests with the Tennessee Aquarium, notes that, while birding is an activity that is easily accessible, you still need a sense of curiosity and a willingness to learn. “You need to be a good observer, learner, and you need passion. You have to want to learn,” he says. “There are a lot of great tools, but it still takes a lot of time to learn the information.”
For example, plumages, which are the layers of feathers that play a role in how a bird looks, can change from season to season, and Calhoon says it can easily take over a decade to get good at recognizing songs and calls. Even if you struggle to get the hang of recognizing calls, don’t let that deter you. Bird watchers come in all shapes and sizes.
An easy place to start is by researching the birds that are native to your area. Take some time to learn which birds should be seen at what time of year. Learning how different species feed, nest, and mate can also go a long way in helping you identify birds. If you are apprehensive about going out in the field for some active birding, first try your hand at backyard birding. Set up bird feeders and baths to get some practice observing and identifying different species.
After some time spent studying the birds you see every day, you’re ready to head to some of your favorite outdoor spots for some active birding. Keep in mind, there are a few things that will make for a more fruitful trip. Many birders agree that the most important piece of equipment is a pair of binoculars, and an identification guide of some sort is useful as well.
“People don’t really use field books anymore. The apps on the market now are really good and can not only help with identification and logging but also with songs,” advises Calhoon. “I remember toting around a Walkman that had various songs on it. I even used records and CDs to learn songs, but now all of that information is at your fingertips.”
Recognizing birds by their calls is a great way to up your birding game. Birds vocalize for many reasons such as claiming their territory or telling other birds when there is food or danger nearby. Learning to recognize birds by their noises will help you know which birds are nearby without even seeing them.
In addition to an identification guide and a good pair of binoculars, Danny Gaddy, president of the Tennessee Ornithological Society, also likes to carry around a scope with a tripod, especially for long-distance viewing across bodies of water. He also notes that more and more birders are beginning to carry cameras with a telephoto lens into the field. These pieces of camera equipment can magnify your field of view similar to a scope or binoculars, while also allowing you to take photographs for later documentation.