Beginning Bird Watching

It’s not often that home gardeners can compare themselves to Steve Martin, Jack Black, or Owen Wilson. The three actors recently starred as obsessive and competitive bird watchers in the film, “The Big Year”, based on the book by Mark Obmascik. My wife and I enjoyed the movie recently and as we walked out of the theater I thought, I can do that. Not the actor part, but the bird part. They portray individuals who are fanatical about bird watching, and the concept of becoming a person who not only enjoys watching birds but seeks out new ones and keeps track of the experience is oddly appealing to me.

I’ve written about birds in the garden and some of the ways you can attract them and support their habitats. In my opinion, a garden isn’t complete without the frenzied activities of birds, insects, and other wildlife. To date my bird knowledge is quite basic with a focus on the Robins, Doves, Jays, and Magpies that are easy to identify. Often a new bird makes a stopover in my garden and often I wonder what it is.

A Broad-Tailed Hummingbird

When I wrote about birds eating seeds in my garden last winter, it took over an hour for me to find an online source that was able to identify some of them as Common Grackles, a bird with which I was totally unfamiliar. Now I’m afraid that they may have been European Starlings.

That’s because I’m the proud owner of “National Geographic Field Guide to Birds,” the Colorado edition. My friend Deb suggested this book and it’s a great addition to my gardening library. It is filled with beautiful photos of birds that inhabit my region and includes wonderful information about their behavior, habitats, and local sites. Did you know that the Common Raven is the largest perching bird in North America and is monogamous for life? I think that’s interesting.

Gardeners have an inherent interest in nature or they wouldn’t venture outside to practice their hobby or passion. Bird watching can make gardening more enjoyable. The National Geographic book points out, “Looking for and identifying birds will sharpen and heighten your perceptions… and you’ll find that you notice everything else more acutely — the terrain, the season, the weather, the plant life, other animal life.”

Gardeners can miss the forest for the trees. We can become so focused on individual plants that we lose sight of the greater picture and how a our plants fit into nature as a whole. Taking a step back to look at and identify birds can help us identify our role, and our garden’s role, on nature’s stage.

I don’t know how many of the 183 birds listed in the book visit my gardens on a regular basis. The field guide can fit in my pocket and includes a small box to check off birds as I see them so I can keep track. I’ll never come close to observing the 745 birds recorded by the “winner” of the bird watching challenge in “The Big Year”, but I’ve set a personal goal of 50 by the end of next year.

The National Geographic book’s assessment of heightened perception through bird watching is accurate. To see a bird you have to watch the territory that it frequents. That means looking at trees, and bushes, and flowers, and grass. I do that as a gardener already, but now it is with more focus. When I see a rustle in a tree I wonder if it’s a bird or a leaf. If it’s a bird I watch it’s activity, but if it’s a leaf I find that I’m looking closer to identify it’s shape and color and health.

There’s no requirement for gardeners to know more about birds than the fundamental role they play in pollination, insect control, and seed propagation. Bird watching as a specified goal is a level or two above basic gardening activity. Learning the Linnaean taxonomy of plants is a similar goal. Adding a challenge to gardening can make it more interesting, even exciting.

Winter is a good time to kindle new interests in gardening. Physical activities are lessened which makes the season ideal for an increase in mental and intellectual activities. Educating myself about birds in my garden will help increase my awareness of the habitat and landscape of my gardens and a knowledgeable gardener is a better gardener.

A White-Crowned Sparrow in winter

National Geographic has a number of field guides for bird watching in many regions of North America. They also have a book for “Complete Birds of the World.” I purchased a few other bird watching guides and I’ll share my experiences as I determine which ones work best for me. My efforts won’t be as a competitive bird watcher but as a gardener who is interested in birds.

Of course I’ll take photos when I can. Birds are fascinating to observe and as seen in these bird guides they’re usually quite photogenic. This should be a fun activity to occupy my time in winter and through the next year. How about you? What will you do to keep your gardening mind active?


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: