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Birding 101

Martha Stewart Living, May 2002

Few animals put on as much of a show as birds do. Your children will be enthralled by the flitting hummingbirds of the Rocky Mountains, the chattering parrots along the Rio Grande, the gawky herons of the Everglades, or any other birds you come across during your travels.

You don't have to make a special trip to see birds. North America is home to about nine hundred species. The largest concentrations are in Florida, Texas, and the southwest, but nearly every part of the country has some distinctive, easily spotted ones that kids will be able to identify and marvel at (especially after you remind them that birds may be descended from dinosaurs). Wetlands, mountains, and beaches are particularly full of life, especially during the spring and fall, when migrations occur.

Bring along a good field guide -- a glossary of birds that shows their markings and also describes their behavior, habitat, and seasonal range. As a supplement to the field guide, you'll want to have a more localized list of common birds, which can help you narrow down the vast range of possibilities. One of the advantages of birding at a national or state park or with an Audubon Society chapter is that they usually provide such lists.

Bring Binoculars:
Binoculars are also essential. You needn't buy the most expensive ones, but they must enable you to see the sometimes subtle details of small creatures at a distance. Pocket-size units usually aren't strong enough. Models with a magnification of eight or ten and a lens size between forty and forty-two work best for beginners. Children will find $50 versions useful and enjoyable; $100 models are fine for adults to start with. But a very satisfying degree of brightness, ease of focus, and durability is more likely to be found in the $250-and-up range.

Make it a Game:
Birding is really something of a game. You spot birds, try to identify the ones you see, and then add the sighted bird to your list. You might count how many birds you can spot in an hour or day,or in a particular state or park. In any case, the more distinctive looking the species, the easier it will be to identify, so if you have a list of common birds from a park, prepare by looking them up in your field guide and flagging the most unusual-looking ones.

When you're looking at birds, one member of the family should handle the bird book while another one takes notes; everyone in the expedition can describe the birds' markings. The basic characteristics are size and color. Other distinguishing details might be a crest, the tuft of feathers on a bird's head (such as those on many jays or cardinals); markings around the throat or eyes; and the shape of the wings, beak, and tail. Many bird names refer to obvious field marks: red-tailed hawk, blue jay, great horned owl. Maintaining a list is one of birding's essential activities, and recording what you've seen encourages continued interest.

For the Kids:
If your children do latch onto birding, consider joining an organized outing. Day trips, guided tours, and bird-finding walks are offered in nearly every part of the country, usually through nature groups, parks, or museums. State and local tourism officials often have information on the best birding spots in a region. Check with local Audubon Society chapters, the Sierra Club, or the Nature Conservancy. And even if there is no official activity to participate in, park rangers and docents are usually quite familiar with their area's winged inhabitants and will usually be happy to introduce them to visitors who express curiosity.

Great Locations:
To maximize spotting opportunities, select a route that includes locations abundant in birds -- like the Everglades, with more than three hundred species -- or take a long-distance trip through various habitats. The Winter Eagle Festival & Count, held in January in Brackendale, British Columbia is one of the greatest festivals, where thousands of bald eagles congregate along the banks of the Squamish River to feed on spawning salmon. The celebration spans a month of weekends and includes workshops, nature walks, Native American folklore, and arts and crafts. There are also about a dozen 'birdathons' held in North America throughout the spring, summer, and fall; these typically are long weekends spent following a specific route, trying to observe as many species as you can. Though birdathons attract competitive birders, many also offer family and beginner's components, including special kids' days.

Birding Resources:

Field Guides:
Recent years have seen a boom in the number of birding guides available. Birds of North America: Kaufman Focus Guides (Houghton Mifflin, 2001) is especially beginner-friendly. If you've already got a bird book, chances are it's a Peterson's A Field Guide to the Birds(Houghton Mifflin, 2002). First published in 1934, it remains the classic and is frequently updated; Peterson First Guides are adaptations for beginners. Also useful are Peterson FlashGuides; printed on laminated paper, they unfold like a roadmap, and are sorted by region and bird type.

Start with the American Birding Association; the group offers resources, including articles on birding with children, and advice; they also have an excellent bookshop and equipment store. The National Audubon Society will point you toward local chapters, which often run weekend introductory courses and trips. The National Park Service provides links to sites for each national park and monument, many of which include bird lists you can download.

The American Birding Associationhas a festival finder, which searches by month and state; in May, there are nearly sixty birding festivals held throughout the United States and Canada. Check the descriptions of the festivals for activities; most include information on their suitability for beginners and families. Festivals often include competitive birdathons, also known as "opens."

Text by Dan Koppel

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