DUXBURY — For someone with no experience bird-watching, it may seem like an uneventful way to spend an afternoon. However, my two summers as a bird monitor at Duxbury Beach on the South Shore showed me otherwise. I spent my days observing and recording the habits of the threatened piping plovers.
After a couple of weeks observing the plovers, I began to notice the many birding groups that frequented the beach. They intently observed the natural world that other beachgoers seemed to take for granted. My job as a bird monitor required the same intense observation. Because of the plovers’ small size and ability to blend in with their surroundings, I would sometimes spend hours just looking for movement in the sand. Then, when I finally lifted the binoculars to my eyes and saw their fluffy cotton ball-sized bodies, I felt a great sense of pride and accomplishment. I was witnessing something that most people don’t see.
According to an email interview with Lee Schlesinger, an associate professor of literature at The State University of New York at Purchase, and an avid birder since the late ’60s,”birding is in part a way of seeing.” He finds “that birding makes (him) more attentive, observant, and alert.” That is one of the greatest joys of birding; it offers a glimpse into the natural world that we so often overlook.
For those of you wishing to seek entry into the eye-opening world of birding, you must first arm yourself with the right equipment. A good pair of binoculars is essential to learning the basics of birding. Because the price of binoculars can range from $100 to $1000, Schlesinger recommends going to a store that carries binoculars and telling the clerk how much you are willing to spend. The clerk will then be able to show you what the store carries that suits your budget. He urges first-time buyers to test out the binoculars to see which models work best for them. “[Look for] clarity of image, truth of color, good feel in the hand, and [whether they are] light enough and easy to adjust,” he says.
Once you have your binoculars hanging comfortably around your neck, it’s time to buy a field guide. These are books with illustrations of different bird species and tips for identifying them. There are numerous guides to choose from, but one of the most popular is The Sibley Guide to Birds. Among longtime birders, David Allen Sibley’s guides are the most highly recommended. “[Sibley's] books are excellent, informed by current information and research, well laid-out, and attractive,” comments Schlesinger. He encourages beginners to purchase the field guide, which is small enough to carry in a large pocket. However, Schlesinger also recommends shopping around, as there are many different guides available that cater to specific birding interests. One appealing aspect of birding is that it is a relatively low-cost hobby. Schlesinger points out that another way to keep costs down is to remember, “libraries are also good resources. One might not be able to afford so many books, but checking them out of the library is an easy alternative.”
Where and When
With field guide and binoculars in hand you are ready to head out on your birding excursion. The Massachusetts coast is littered with scenic places teeming with avian wildlife. “Duxbury is probably one of the best, especially because there is a variety of shorebird and other bird species using the beach year-round,” says Becky Harris, director of the Mass Audubon Society’s Coastal Waterbird Program. She recommends visiting the beach in the late summer or early fall, as that is when the birds are resting and foraging in preparation for their migration south. Harris also suggests a couple of sites in the Greater Boston area, such as Winthrop Beach. She notes “Winthrop is especially good for migratory shorebirds later in the summer, and also has an American Oystercatcher pair that nests on the south end of the beach from March through August.” The raven birds, with their bright red bills, are not to be missed. According to Harris, the Boston Harbor Islands can be a great place to see heronries, the breeding grounds for “nesting wading birds such as the Glossy Ibis, Snowy Egret, Great Egret, and Black-crowned Night Heron.” And birding doesn’t have to leave you stranded on the shore. “These birds are visible from kayaks around islands such as Sarah Island in Hingham Harbor,” says Harris. She suggests that May through July is the best time for such an island excursion.
Schlesinger highlights that the beaches on Cape Cod are great places to see birds that stay out over the water, specifically First Encounter Beach, the National Seashore beaches, and the Wellfleet Bay Wildlife Sanctuary. He is partial to Cape Ann and other spots north of Boston, like Crane Beach in Ipswich and Plum Island in Newburyport. But, he says, even more urban beaches in Revere and Plymouth can be worth a birding visit. It is always important to keep in mind that no place should ever be completely off the list of birding possibilities. “A surprise bird in your backyard is as exciting as a standard list of birds from a more distant place,” says Schlesinger. So remember to always keep your eyes open, no matter where you are.
In the Field
Before you head out on your first birding trip, it is important to adjust your binoculars. “It is harder than you think to fix things in your field of vision,” says Schlesinger. “It is especially hard to fix things in your field of vision when those things fly, which often means fly away,” he adds.
Once you are actually out in the field, stop for a minute, close your eyes, and listen. What do you hear? According to Schlesinger, paying attention to any sounds and call notes you may hear is key. “Experienced birders rely on hearing at least as much as sight, and probably more,” he says. “Hearing a bird alerts you to his presence and directs you where to look.” While you may be eager to use your pre-adjusted binoculars, listening to a bird’s call first will direct you exactly where to point them.
It is also important to take some time to record every bird that you see. Specific notes to jot down include the bird’s species, when and where you spotted the bird, whether the bird is male or female (if you can tell), and a note about what the bird’s call sounds like. Pete Thayer of www.wildbirds.com recommends that even if you are on vacation or enjoying a moment of leisure, recording bird sightings wherever and whenever you see them will help you to become a knowledgeable and experienced birder. Make sure to use your guide as a resource when identifying birds, and don’t be afraid to make mistakes. “Very experienced birders [make mistakes] also, and the birding list servers are full of discussions of identification issues,” says Schlesinger.
Perhaps most importantly, be sure to respect the birds. Be careful not to get too close to their habitat. Rather than approaching birds, let them come to you. This requires a great deal of patience, but it will make your discoveries all the more rewarding.
Joining the Community
Contacting local birding groups is a great way to learn more about your hobby and meet other enthusiasts. Both Schlesinger and Harris acknowledge the advantages of local birding clubs. “It always helps to tag along with someone who knows what they are doing,” says Harris. Mass Audubon offers a number of bird walks, hikes, and information sessions. If you live in the Boston area, The Brookline Bird Club, the largest and oldest bird club in Massachusetts, is open to anyone who is interested. And for South Shore dwellers, the South Shore Bird Club places an emphasis on day trips throughout the local area. Schlesinger points out that many experienced birders are, “helpful and generous with their time.” He admits that even experienced birders like himself, “love birding with beginners; the familiar birds that I barely look at anymore are new to them, and their excitement and interest encourage me to look more generously at those birds.”
For Schlesinger, birding has helped him to see the world in a new way. “Birding has taken me to places, wonderful and interesting places I might not have gone to otherwise, and has encouraged me to see familiar things at a different angle, to see things new and oddly,” he says. The profound influence birding has on its enthusiasts is such that they will travel hundreds of miles to see a rare species. But perhaps even more meaningful, is the fact that this hobby causes them to look at familiar surroundings, such as their own backyards, in a completely new light. What at first appears to be a boring way to spend an afternoon becomes a transformative experience. “Birding has made me attentive to a world full of stuff,” says Schlesinger. “A lot of it (is) alive and vibrant and weird and interesting and often beautiful.”