Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Birding 101

The beautiful women of Bird Watching 101
On Sunday, I completed the last session of a 5-week course I designed and taught for the Black Mountain Parks and Recreation Department. I called it "Bird Watching 101" and invited everyone with an interest in birds and their behavior to join the class. Including late-comers, there were 11 participants, all from the Black Mountain/Asheville area.
Since most of the participants were novices, we focused on topics like; selecting and using binoculars, field guides and how to use them, attracting birds to the backyard and learning to identify the common species of western North Carolina.
It's not the first time I've presented the joys of birding. As a reporter for the Tideland News in Swansboro, NC, I wrote a weekly birding column for nearly six years. The upshot of "Bird Wise" was I became the resident "birdman" and as such, accepted dozens of speaking engagements to local garden clubs, school groups and rotary clubs. This time was a little different.
During this period of, ummmm, professional inactivity in my life, I am trying to prepare myself for a future in environmental education. Happily, the state of North Carolina has the NC Environmental Education Certification Program to which I have applied. I found the teaching techniques I've learned so far in this process greatly improved the learning experience for my students. I used to be a guy who stood up in front of the group and lectured, usually with the help of some visual aids - but, no more. Environmental education is about participation and getting outside.
One of the assignments I've had to complete for my EE certification, was to read a stack of articles on the subject. One of them, David Sobel's "Beyond Ecophobia," discusses this need for actual time in nature. He writes, "Most environmentalists attributed their commitment (to nature) to a combination of two sources: 'many hours spent outdoors in a keenly remembered wild or semi-wild place in childhood or adolescence, and an adult who taught respect for nature.' Not one of the conservationists surveyed explained his or her dedication as a reaction against exposure to an ugly environment."
I think about my own childhood experience and it fits Sobel's observation to a tea. I started bird watching with my father when I was around 6 years old. When we weren't birding, we were fishing. I can remember finding an underground nest of smooth green snakes and filling a sack with them, which I brought home and opened in front of my mom in the kitchen. She didn't bat an eye - just heard my account of the adventure with rapt attention, then gently suggested that I return the snakes to where I had found them. Thinking about this memory gives me a new-found respect for my mom. How she remained calm in the face of the potential accidental release of a dozen or so snakes into her house is remarkable, but it had a direct affect on my development into adulthood.
I don't know the background stories of everyone who took "Bird Watching 101" with me over the last month, but I'll bet they spent a lot of time outside during their youth. Watching birds is just a natural extension of environmental awareness. No other group of animals surrounds us so completely and colorfully as birds do. Perhaps they are the gateway drug to conservationism. If that's the case, consider me your pusher.
Oh, and in case you were wondering, here are the crib notes on the topics we covered in Bird Watching 101:
  • Don't go for the binoculars with the highest magnification (like 10X). They are also the heaviest (or cheapest), and least-stable (because they're hard to hold up to your eyes for long periods of time) and they often have a narrow field of view. Stick with models in the 7X to 8.5X range and you'll have all the magnification you need for 95% of the time you use them. Don't buy binoculars you haven't actually tested yourself. Different models from different manufacturers vary wildly in ergonomics, weight distribution and quality. You get what you pay for. $1,000 binoculars will last a lifetime and bring a new dimension to your outdoor experiences. $50 binoculars are good for paperweights. Many companies are making very good optics in the $250-500 range.
  • For birders East of the Mississippi, it's hard to think of a better field guide than Roger Tory Peterson's classic "Eastern Birds." For birders anywhere else in North America, my favorite guide for beginners to intermediates is National Geographic Society's "Field Guide to the Birds of North America." For more advanced birders, there is no substitute for "The Sibley Guide to Birds," by David Sibley. Just be sure you're comfortable with less text and more illustrations.
  • Birders focusing their efforts in western North Carolina should pick up a copy of the NC Wildlife Resources Commission's "The North Carolina Birding Trail; Mountain Trail Guide." I would be lost without mine.
  • On attracting birds to the backyard: Plant native plants that provide food and cover. Read the ingredients on your bags of mixed seeds. If milo is one of the top three, find something else. Milo is a cheap filler. Birds hardly ever eat it (except perhaps mourning doves, and they'll only eat it after everything else is gone). A bird bath is good (provided you are diligent about changing the water when it gets icky), and bird bath with an automated drip system is way better. 
As I used to end my "Bird Wise" columns back in the day: That's all for now. Keep looking up.


  1. You are the cutest guy ever! I cannot wait to see what your Boston friends will have to say about this one...I absolutely LOVE their Facebook comments. But seriously, excellent work on designing, advertising, and executing your first naturalist course!

  2. Thank you Jenny (God I hope you wrote this and not Warren). When shall we go birding here in the mountains?