Have binoculars, will bird-watch

April 14, 2005|by CHRIS COPLEY

A flash of color, a trill of song, a rat-a-tat-tat against a tree trunk. It's spring, and birds are returning to their summer homes.

Bird-watchers - veterans and first-timers - are gearing up to see the hundreds of thousands of birds migrating overhead or finding nesting sites in the Tri-State. It's a busy time of year.

"Birds are just starting to come up from the south. This is when birders get really excited," said Jean Neely, member of the Potomac Valley Audubon Society.


That's on top of an already full plate of bird-watching, according to Dave Weesner, park ranger with South Mountain Recreation Center. Although spring is the prime migration time, Weesner said there's plenty of activity year-round.

"If you're a hunter, you can only hunt a few months out of the year. Same with fishing and baseball and other things," Weesner said. "But if you're a birder, you can go birding all year 'round. There's probably only a couple months a year when birds aren't migrating. There's a constant flux of birds through the area. Some birds summer here, some winter here, some nest here."

The basics of bird-watching

The first thing a beginning bird-watcher must learn is to sharpen his observation skills. Birds are identified by sight - their color and shape, the way they fly - and by their call.

"I will just look around, whatever I'm doing," said Judy Lilga, former president of the Washington County Ornithological Society. "Birding just makes you so much more aware. It expands your whole range of awareness."

Bird-watching equipment is minimal. Washington County Ornithological Society Treasurer Shirley Ford recommended a good pair of binoculars - "I started out with a $200 or $300 pair and now I have a $1,200 pair," she said - and a decent bird guide with pictures of the birds and maps showing their range. Some birders bring notebooks to keep records of what they find.

Apart from equipment, one more thing can help first-time birders, Lilga said.

"Join a (bird-watching) group," she said. "We were all beginners once, so we're sympathetic. We'll pair you up with someone. You won't be a beginning birder for long."

Location, location, location

Birds can be seen practically anywhere in the Tri-State area, Weesner said - in locations exotic and mundane.

"If you can get to an area like (Hagerstown's) City Park, there's quite a few trees. You can stay within the city limits and see 50 to 60 species (during the year)," he said. "When I was young, I did some fishing with my father and grandfather and just noticed the birds around me. That's what got me started."

To see a wider variety of birds, go to a wider variety of habitats - rocky ridges, wetlands, fields, ponds, deciduous woods, evergreen forests, river banks. Each kind of habitat provides shelter and food for certain bird species, whether they are nesting, searching for food or stopping temporarily while migrating to a distant destination.

Weesner estimated that because of the Tri-State area's habitat diversity, a first-time bird-watcher could see a lot of birds close to home, as many as 120 to 150 species in their first year.

To see more species, Weesner said he gets out several times a month for birding excursions, especially during periods of heavy migration. He said he sees about 200 species annually in Maryland.

Weesner is especially drawn to migrating hawks.

"You see quite a few hawks at Washington Monument," he said. "I just saw my first broad-wing hawk this year. They spend the winter in South America, then migrate to the central and northern part of North America. A lot of them nest in this area or a bit further north."

The next few months are peak nesting time for many birds. When nesting, birds stay in one area for three or four months to lay eggs and raise chicks.

Not all species pair up and lay eggs in spring. Lilga said Maryland birders are compiling a report, or "atlas," showing the habits of nesting birds from January to August.

"The entire state is divided into 10-mile blocks," she said. "People go out monthly and count nesting birds - owls in January, then hawks, and so on. It goes through August, when the goldfinches start nesting."

Backyard birding

Lilga got her start in bird-watching by looking out her back window. She learned to attract a variety of birds by offering what birds need for survival.

"I've probably birded for 25 to 30 years - just a backyard birder," said Lilga. "Backyard birders can attract a variety of species by offering water, shelter and different kinds of food, will see dozens of species in a year.

Many garden shops sell bird feeders and bird seed designed to attract specific species.

Birds commonly found at backyard feeders or water sources are cardinals, chickadees, blue jays and sparrows. Neely pointed out that a human's desire for a tidy, trim yard might be unattractive for birds.

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