In the lead-up to our June 1st bird walk led by Kate Steele of the Nova Scotia Bird Society, fellow birder and photographer extraordinaire Russel Crosby writes about how he got into birding, and gives novices a few tips. Join us on June 1st on the Shearwater Flyer Trail to put your learning into practice!
As a long time birder I occasionally get asked about how I initially got into bird watching as a hobby, but I don’t remember any one specific event that led to a lifetime love of birds. My first interactions with birds were through my older brothers who were serious duck hunters before I was even old enough to fire a gun. Although I did go on a few of their early hunting trips where I witnessed ducks being killed, I opted instead to observe birds rather than to try to shoot them. My father supported my burgeoning hobby and bought me books he thought would interest me. They did!
I remember one of our neighbours had bird guides which I was fascinated with. They were summertime residents only, and since we were given the task of care taking their property, I would look at their books whenever I got a chance. At one point in my youth, I inherited a pair of less than perfect binoculars from a deceased relative – if I remember correctly, you could only look through one eyepiece at a time. Eventually I saved enough money to buy a decent pair from Canadian Tire and it was a thrill to finally be able to view birds close-up without having to keep one eye closed!
Somewhere along my birding journey a new high school teacher moved into our small town who also had a serious love of birds and birding. Partly to impress him, I successfully identified a Northern Mockingbird which had appeared recently in my father’s garden. It became one of the first entries in my birding journal which I still keep to this day. In it I record the date I saw the bird, the location, and a few details about the sighting. I started going on afternoon and weekend birding trips with my teacher – Mr. Perry, and eventually became involved in his birding club at school of which I was one of three members. I also became involved in the annual Christmas Bird Count around this time, an event in which I still participate.
I also bought a 35mm film camera when I was in high school and started photographing many of the birds I was seeing. These days I own a digital SLR with a good telephoto lens which I use for bird photography. Although it’s not a necessary tool for birding it can be useful for identification and it’s a great way to share your pastime with other like-minded people (and those who just like to gawk).
For beginning birders I would recommend a good pair of binoculars with a fairly wide field of view and not excessively powerful – something in the 7 x 35mm to 8 x 40mm range is ideal (here is a good source for more information about binocular strengths). A field guide is essential such as Sibley’s guide to Birds of Eastern North America or one of the Peterson’s field guides. These days there are lots of apps for computers and smart phones that can be very helpful and a library of bird songs on your phone can be a great asset in learning birds by their song. I learned the old-fashioned way mostly by hearing the song and then finding the bird that was making the sound. I’m old enough that I actually pre-date the home computer. I know, that may be hard for some to believe, but my generation grew up relying on books and our memories, noting certain field marks on the birds we were observing and then referring to bird guides to try to ascertain the correct identification. I won’t say I was always right but eventually the identification process got easier.
The Nova Scotia Bird Society is a great resource for beginning birders (also on Facebook). They publish a quarterly newsletter based on reports from members as well as organizing regular field trips for interested parties, including for beginners. They also host a Facebook page where members are encouraged to share their sightings and bird photos. The membership is always at the ready to help with identification especially if you’ve managed to snap a photo of the bird in question. There are also great online resources like eBird, All About Birds, The National Audubon Society and Bird Studies Canada to name a few which will be helpful in identification, tips, tricks, and more.
The month of May is probably one of the better times of the year to take up birding, the Spring migration is in full swing and the birds are dressed out in their most vivid breeding plumage. It’s hard to forget your first sighting of a male Baltimore Oriole in his bright orange and black or a Black-throated Blue Warbler with that amazing combination of blue back and white breast.
Happy birding everyone!
Russel Crosby is a Nova Scotia birder and bird photographer. His personal blog, South Shore Birder, features incredible images of birds from around Nova Scotia and is a wonderful resource for beginner and experienced birders alike. This is his first post with Halifax Diverse, although we look forward to featuring more of his images and stories about documenting the birds of Nova Scotia.