20 March 2014

How to Start Birdwatching on this First Day of Spring!

Good morning and Happy Spring to all North Americans!

Today is a great day to get started birdwatching. If you haven't tried it, or it sounds weird or just "off," please keep reading. Even if you live in a highly urbanized area please don't think that you'll only see pigeons and sparrows. It is educational, inexepensive, and healthy. Only a few simple steps can get you started the right way on this rewarding hobby:

1. Find your local chapter Audubon group. Like any other hobby, birdwatching (or "birding," as those in the know call it), can be difficult and frustrating if you try to start doing it entirely on your own. Instead, your local Audubon chapter has many events that are free and easy to attend. (Think of them like group piano lessons for piano playing, except they're free!) So go to audubon.org and go to "Find Audubon Near You." Just input your zip code and it will bring up the closest chapter. Once you find your closest chapter look for events called "birdwalks" and see when they are and plan to attend one. Birdwalks are typically aimed at beginners. Again, these events are free and you do NOT need to be a member or have any prior experience to attend. You are also under NO obligation to become a member/donate, or become involved in any other way. We birdwatchers are always elated to see new people come to our birdwalks.

2. Buy binoculars. This is pretty much an essential tool for birding and your biggest investment. Think of it as your piano or keyboard for your piano lessons. You have to have it in order to do it right. However, like finding the right piano you need a good instrument but the choices seem endless. Don't worry, I've made picking the right one easy: if possible try to invest $100 on the Yosemite 6x30 binocular from Leupold. (Avoid the temptation to get anything from Walmart or Target; or anything with higher magnification. Trust me, the Yosemite will be much, much better.) Binoculars can range from a $20 pair at store to $2500 German made; I find the Leupold 6x30 to be a wonderful value beginner's choice. You probably won't find it at your local sporting goods store, so get it from Eagle Optics here. They are a reputable small business that I've ordered from many times.

3. Get a bird guide. A field guide is like a map of birds, helping you see identifying features that you'd otherwise miss. (Just imagine trying to play the piano without sheet music!) It may not be as important during your first birdwalk (when there will be guides to show you around), but you'll find it essential as your birdwatching skills improve. I recommend The Sibley Guide to Birds, 2nd Edition., available many places but I'd recommend getting it from Buteo Books, another small business that cares about its customers. Sibley's 2nd Edition is new, big and great.

4. Start NOW. Attend the birdwalk as soon as you can. See, spring is the best time of the year to go birdwatching in most of North America. Males have their makeup on and are doing their best to attract females. This means they also sing loudest, and are the most active, making them easiest to find.

5. Hang-in there. Your first birdwalk may be somewhat frustrating. (Like with piano playing, one lesson will not make you an expert!) People will point out birds to you but you may miss many of them. You'll be amazed that the experts will notice and see things you don't. But keep at it; it took me about 3-4 birdwalks before I gathered my bearings so-to-speak, and began to learn how to see birds.

Following the five tips above will make it easy for you to get started on this fantastic hobby. Appreciating the natural world around you is an intrinsic value in an of itself, but it also has additional rewards. You'll appreciate the seasons more, your eyes and ears will open up to worlds that you didn't realize existed right before you. Vacations and trips will become much more rewarding than they are now, as you look forward to seeing what new species you'll see. Finally, should you choose to report your sightings birdwatching is one area of science where a "regular citizen" like you or I can genuinely contribute.

19 March 2014

Book Review: The Sibley Guide to Birds, 2nd Edition

The Sibley Guide to Birds: Left: 2nd Edition. Right: 1st Edition
The Sibley Field Guide to Birds has long been considered by many to be the standard-bearer among field guides to birds of North America. However, at thirteen years old, it was much in need of an update.
Enter the Second Edition of Sibley's Field Guide to Birds, released March 11th. As good as the first edition was, the new second edition is significant update and much improved.
Common Nighthawk, Sibley 1st Ed.
Common Nighthawk, Sibley Guide 2nd Ed.
2nd Edition, Orange Bishop and Nutmeg Mannikin
1st Edition, Orange Bishop and Nutmeg Mannikin

Immediately apparent are some superficial changes: new fonts and maps for example, and much bolder drawings. Species are of course updated: Rock Dove is now Rock Pigeon for example; Orange Bishop and Nutmeg Mannikin now get their own profile pages. Importantly, Sibley now includes many more rarities like Blue Mockingbird. (One hundred and eleven total new species!) Still, more improvements beyond taxonomic updates are substantial and helpful, and sure to aid you in identification. Perhaps most noticeable are the bold colors in the drawings. Gone is the soft "watercolor" look that many birds had, while retaining the accuracy that Sibley is known for. When possible, the drawings have gotten gotten larger and more distinct without diminishing accuracy, making it easier to see distinguishing details. (Petrels and swifts now look more unique, for example, and Orange-crown Warbler now has that more "difficult to describe" drab color.) Range maps now zoom in when possible; (much less squinting for species that have small ranges) and are updated. (Brown Thrasher is now listed as rare (one to a few occurrences every year) throughout the west, for example.)

2nd Edition, Hummingbird Flight Guide
1st Edition, Hummingbird Flight Guide

One area that I've always found Sibley excelled at is the helpful behavior tips. Hummingbird shuttle displays, spinning Phalaropes, upside-down chickadees and road-post perching Red-tail Hawks (and all the others from the first edition) remain. But to these Sibley has added even more. For example, there are now nine hummingbird shuttle displays and there's a drawing of a large flock of European Starlings mobbing a bird of prey. Woodpecker drumming patterns are now visualized and compared.
2nd Edition, Warbler-like Birds

Finally, Sibley begins many sections with helpful tips for difficult cases, so Sharp-shinned/Cooper's Hawks are compared, as are dowitchers, sandpipers, cormorants, gnatcatcher undertails, and even downy young ducks. (And many more!) If you've never had a Sibley guide, now is the time to get one; if you already have the first edition, this new edition is certainly a worthy upgrade as well.

An interview with David Sibley at Birdwatching Daily
nicely explains Sibley's thinking behind the updates; I recommend
reading it.

-Elias Zuniga

08 March 2014

On John Williams and Writing.....

The other day I was watching an interview with the great composer John Williams where he was asked about the secret to his success. Mr. Williams replied that he writes (music) everyday, no matter what. No matter how terrible it may be he insists on putting it down on paper. Sooner of later, something he writes is good, he said. I'm going to try. to follow his advice and try to put more of my thoughts on paper (or screen, to be more precise). Who knows what will happen....