For some people, tromping around woodlands or along rocky coastlines in winter is not their idea of how to spend downtime. But for many thousands of others, it is the perfect time to go birding. But first, let’s begin with a simple truth: There is birding, and there is birdwatching.
We will be discussing birding, which is the active pursuit out in nature to locate and identify birds. Birdwatching is the far more passive observation of birds, say in your backyard or that accidental meeting of a soaring eagle high above Leonard’s Pond; you stop, watch, and then go merrily on your way. That is not birding; that is birdwatching. Both are worthwhile activities, but the former requires much more engagement.
On February 10, the Marion Natural History Museum hosted a virtual presentation on the topic of birding and ways to get started in what can be family-oriented, fun-for-all-ages activity safely enjoyed outside in the fresh air. To introduce the participants to this one-of-a-kind hobby was birder Justin Barrett of Marion.
Barrett began by establishing why someone should take up birding. “First, it’s a way to connect with others, especially during the pandemic; a way of doing something together.” Secondly, “It’s a way to connect with nature,” he offered, and thirdly, “It’s a way to be part of science, a citizen scientist.” Barrett recalled the winter of 2019 when, while birding with children from the MNHM program, “We came upon the first red-wing blackbirds to migrate to the area.” The thrill of that shared moment still rung out in his voice. That’s what birding can do for the soul.
Barrett said this time of the year is a good time for birding along the wetlands of the seashore and inland-water sources where ducks can be found. With patience and persistence, two attributes one must either possess innately or develop to be a successful birder, one might spot ducks with names like Wood, Gadwall, Common Eider, Harlequin, or Merganser. Later, when spring becomes a promise we know will come true, the roseate terns return to Planting Island to nest, but you’ll have to view them from afar for their protection.
In the backyard, one could take up positions inviting your children to spend a bit of time observing the birds. You might think this is merely birdwatching, nay you would be wrong. Just try spotting a little brown sparrow as it chirps from the bushes. If it doesn’t move, you’ll have a hard time pegging its location. Other local year-round visitors such as the brilliantly red male cardinal, American goldfinch, or cedar waxwing are stunningly beautiful birds.
Barrett said that birding doesn’t require a heavy load of equipment or deep knowledge of bird physiology. A pair of binoculars is helpful, maybe a small pad of paper and pen to jot down notes or sketch a bird for later identification. A bird field guide is high on the list, too. It is important to wear drab clothing (birds apparently can be spooked by bright colors) and remain as quiet as possible when walking through habitats. To that end, noisy jackets made of nylon or similar materials should be avoided; it’s like the sound of someone unwrapping candy while in church, very noticeable.
Barrett suggests joining a bird club, which may further enhance the birding experience, especially if the club is tolerant of newcomers. The Nasketucket Bird Club, established in 2006 under the auspices of the Mattapoisett Land Trust, is now a standalone organization. He said the group as a whole is knowledgeable and welcoming to novice birders. Their motto is, “We’re not just bird-friendly, we’re friendly birders.” Barrett said the club takes about two walks each month year-round, staying fairly local. When COVID-19 restrictions are lifted, the club will resume its monthly meetings at the Mattapoisett Library. In the meantime, the group is continuing to meet outdoors.
Back to the migrating ducks now frequenting the area, Barrett said they would continue their journey north by April and remain in those cooler climes until October, when many will return to our part of the world.
In the spring, we’ll see the return of many migratory species. These returning winged animals will be primarily those that seek woodlands and mixed habitats. And let’s not forget the annual Great Backyard Bird Count.
This global, annual bird count, first established by Cornell University’s ornithology department, is a chance for people from around the globe to count the birds in their area and have that data included in a master database. It allows the average person to sprout their citizen-scientist wings (pun intended). The three-day event occurs every February and only requires participants to spend 15 minutes each day documenting the birds they find. Barrett said that in February 2019, people from 194 countries recorded seeing 7,000 species, a total of 27 million birds. To learn more about this annual event, go to birdcount.org. He said this yearly count was critical in gathering data that tracks where birds are, their numbers, and migratory trends.
Being mindful of the children participating in the online presentation, Barrett had them look at bird photographs and describe what they saw, such as beak and tail lengths, size of and shape of breast, and color patterns. He also asked the children to notice where the birds were spotted, either in the sky, a tree canopy, or on the ground. He said that such information helps to identify the bird. The children were very comfortable sharing their comments during the virtual event, with one invested youngster saying, “Do you know there are Peregrine Falcons [that] go to Cape Cod?” Listen to the children; they know stuff.
One final note on the hobby of birding, you might be interested to learn that it began in the 1800s in Britain and soon swept across the ocean, landing in the northeast (pun not intended). Two of the 15 most popular places to do birding are Arcadia National Park in Maine and Cape May, New Jersey. Just a short trek away, relatively speaking.
If you are interested in learning more about birding clubs in the local area, contact Justin Barrett at email@example.com and watch for upcoming events from the MNHM at marionmuseum.org.
By Marilou Newell