Bird Course

Part one:  Birdwatching Basics

Spring arrived late afternoon on March 20—according to the calendar anyway.  Here in eastern Ontario, there’s still snow on the ground, and we can expect a few early-spring snowstorms over the next few weeks.  It doesn’t yet look like spring.

Except for the birds.

As if on cue, some of the birds who spend summers in the area returned in the first week of spring.  We saw the first song sparrow of the season, and the first red-winged blackbirds.  We saw grackles, and that faithful harbinger of spring, the robin.

Although many birds stuck around all winter—here we regularly saw chickadees, blue jays, cardinals, juncos, and tree sparrows—the spring and fall migrations provide an opportunity to see the widest variety of birds in a relatively short span of time.

Spring is an ideal time to begin, or resume, birdwatching.  With many birds on their repositioning cruise from their wintering homes to their summer breeding grounds, you’ll have an opportunity to see many familiar birds arrive, plus birds that only pass through briefly on their way further north.

Birdwatching may conjure up images of binocular-toting, cargo-vested bird fanatics (sometimes known at “twitchers”).  But birdwatching is also merely bird observing, an activity that is accessible to nearly everyone, everywhere.

A few reasons you might consider birdwatching this spring:

You can start today.  Birdwatching is one of the easiest activities to get into.  You don’t need any special equipment to get started—although a good bird guide helps—and you can bird-watch almost anywhere, at any time.  You can watch birds in parks, along shores, in urban areas, and right through your window at home.

You’ll become more engaged with nature.  When you routinely watch birds, you’ll become more aware of the progress of the seasons.  Some birds hang around all year, but many others fly south for the winter (and some you’ll only see in winter.)  You’ll witness a whole life-cycle, as birds find mates, build nests, lay eggs, raise young, then send them on their way.

You can do it anywhere, anytime.  Watching birds doesn’t mean you have to devote long stretches of time to the activity (although some birdwatchers do).  Birdwatching can be a past time, a diversion, a break in routine, or a way to notice the natural world.  You can spend a few minutes, a few moments, or no time at all in the course of each day.  The birds are there whether you notice them or not.

It’s a productive distraction.  Your brain and your eyes need periodic breaks.  If you’ve been staring at a screen for long periods, or have your head buried in a textbook, looking up and out the window will help clear your mind and allow your eyes to refocus.  If you can step outside to enjoy some fresh air, you’ll hear the birds as well as seeing them.  Sometimes a little break promotes clarity of thought or creative breakthroughs.  Plus, birds are just fun to watch.

It keeps the kids busy.  Kids are keen observers and are naturally curious.  Set them up with a beginner’s bird guide and a pair of inexpensive binoculars and they’ll have something to occupy their attention for (hopefully) hours—reducing their screen time, too.  They may not stay quiet and still because you told them to, but they’ll stay quiet and still to avoid scaring away birds!   Scanning the skies and treetops for birds can also keep the young ones occupied during car rides and other outings.

Birdwatching isn’t just idle staring out the window.  Watching the birds, getting to know them and their habits, is a way of engaging with the wider natural world.  Following the comings and goings of migratory birds adds another dimension to the seasonal dates noted on your calendar.

In next week’s article, we’ll highlight a few basic items that will enhance your birdwatching experience, plus a few tips to help you identify bird species.

In the meantime, look out the window!

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