Novice Adventures in Birding

I suppose I was fated to become a birder. I always loved the outdoors, and some of my first childhood interests were rocks, fossils, dinosaurs and birds. I grew up in the Klamath Basin of Oregon, a national hotspot for birding, but I really didnít realize it or put much value on my sightings of birds. I was interested in environmental issues and the conservation of endangered species, and closely followed the plight of the California Condor. I never really put any effort into watching birds, though. I noticed the finches and sparrows when they came to a yard feeder, and sometimes took a stab at identification from my parentsí field guide. Riding in the back seat of the car, Iíd notice birds: terns, Red-tailed Hawks, geese, Osprey, the occasional Bald Eagle. I got mad when the school janitor removed the Cliff Swallow nests from the eaves of our gym. One Halloween, I even had my mom make a Caspian Tern costume for me!

Although I have many memories of childhood experiences with birds, I must repeat that I didnít put any effort into my birdwatching. I spent my time reading, building models, and going fishing. I discovered astronomy, and would go out late at night to seek celestial sights. Yet hardly ever did I turn binoculars to birds by day. When I entered college, I took an ornithology course as part of my biology curriculum, and I finally spent more time looking at birds and learning about the local species in the Portland area. Even this spark soon faded, and even as my outdoor activities broadened to include mushrooms and edible plants I increasingly forgot to notice the birds.

Oddly enough, it was astronomy that helped get me back into birding. In the spring of 1997, I decided to purchase a good pair of binoculars for astronomy. My fatherís Sears 7x35 binos were misaligned and dim. Comet Hale-Bopp was a good impetus to come up with something better for nighttime viewing. I ended up spending over $200 on the Celestron Ultima 8x56. I even surprised myself with this spending spree, but the binoculars are great and I donít regret the expense. For some reason, I decided to take these brand new binoculars along on a jaunt to Oaks Bottom in Portland. When I found a pair of Wood Ducks and focused in on them, the color and brightness made me realize I had forgotten a source of beauty on the Earth by day.

Even then, I conceivably could have given up on birding had I not made a cross-country RV trip with my parents the following fall and winter. I had hoped to see some southern celestial objects from South Florida, Texas and Arizona. Sometimes I did, but more often the sky was cloudy. So, somewhere between Okefenokee and the Everglades I started to notice the birds. White Ibises, Wood Storks, Limpkins, Purple Gallinules... I started listing the birds I saw. What was really amazing was how quickly I became good at bird identification. I now consider that beginnerís luck, and am more amazed at how many birds I found, but at the time I was in sort of an elevated state. The birds of the Everglades were amazing, as were those of the Texas Gulf Coast. I got to see two family groups of Whooping Cranes at Aransas National Wildlife Refuge. Bentsen topped them all. Bentsen-Rio Grande State Park, at the southern tip of Texas, showed this area as it should be. Among the dirty urban sprawl of the border towns are a few enclaves of wild heaven. Here there are birds of the tropics, even in winter. ďRareĒ birds are more common than common ones. Green Jays, Chachalacas and White-tipped Doves come right into your campsite, and Great Kiskadees and Altamira Orioles flash nearby. Near the beaten path are even more amazing birds, like the Hook-billed Kite, a species that wasnít even illustrated in my field guide. And to think I missed many more of the local species than I saw!

Back home in Oregon, I almost let birding slide again. With a full-time job in Portland, I allocated most of my spare time to astronomy. That was fine through early fall, but when winter 1998-1999 came along, it brought one of the wettest and gloomiest blankets I had ever faced. To fight off depression and get some exercise, I began walking the Springwater Corridor path in Southeast Portland, a few blocks from my home. At first, I left my binoculars at home, but eventually I got them out and started to learn my Northwest wintering ducks. Hidden in the hordes of Mallards were beautiful Hooded Mergansers, Ring-necked Ducks, Green-winged Teal, Gadwall, and American Wigeon. Other birds beckoned as well, and for the first time I learned to distinguish Song Sparrows from Fox Sparrows (prowess comes from little steps like these, I hope). I started learning where and when to find birds along my route. Since I spent so much time standing still while looking for or at birds, I canít say the exercise plan worked, but the depression was certainly gone. Iíll forever treasure the moment when a Virginia Rail walked right out in plain sight a few feet from me.

Inevitably, I went farther afield in birding excursions, to view species not found in Portland. I encountered Oregon Birders On Line, a mailing list where people discuss bird sightings, especially rare ones. Good reading, but I donít have the best track record for finding rare birds that others have located. I fought with the identification problems of flycatchers and gulls (and still I fight). Spring migration came and went and left me mostly dazed and stunned, both by species I found and didnít find. I read a book that I had heard about a while ago: Kingbird Highway by Kenn Kaufman. From that book I went on to other birding books and then to more serious fare. Shorebirds of the Pacific Northwest by Dennis Paulson is one that Iím always checking out from the library. I still have a lot to learn about birding, but for the first time Iím having fun at it.

Web Resources

American Birding Association
Audubon Online
The Bird Guide

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