Photos: Michael Parker
There are many ways to walk on a trail. There are times when I walk in order to talk with a friend, get to know a person. Other times, I walk by myself, wondering as I wander like the Kentuckian folksinger John Jacob Niles. When, at 26 years old, a misplaced Kentuckian living in Montana, I learned how to “bird,” I found yet another way to walk, a way where my tinkering mind quieted, and I could hold each present moment, lingering in the forest, in the meadow, by the wetland, with my binoculars fixed to my eyes, watching wild birds do their secret magic of flying, full of hollow bones, covered in a quilt of feathers.
I had always thought of birding as solitary, still work. I thought of people sitting in silence, crouched in the brambles for hours, binoculars pulling at their necks. And birds were so elusive, always soaring high and back-lit by sun, no more than a profile or shadow. A flash of blue or red through a dense green canopy. But then, during a Master Naturalist class in Missoula, where I live most of the year, someone taught me how to watch birds, and I found this new way of walking. Here’s what you need to know if you want to give it a try.
1. Find a pair of binoculars. Maybe you have a relative who hunts, or a long-lost cousin birder who might lend you their pair. I got mine as a gift; they had been my grandfather’s binoculars. They still bear the piece of paper he taped to them that reads in typewriter print: Ed Stephens; If found please return; Reward $$.
2. Find a good bird book. The Sibley Field Guide to Birds of Eastern North America is my favorite, although it’s not the one I have. I use National Geographic’s old Field Guide to the Birds of North America. It’s nice to have a guide that covers the birds for all of North America. Then you can take it with you when you visit other places in different bio-regions across the USA. But a Kentucky bird book, I wouldn’t pass that up either. Orient yourself to the lists of birds and the pictures. Many bird books start with loons, ducks and other water birds. Then they move onto raptors—birds of prey. And finally, the back end of the book is devoted to the droves and droves of smaller birds, first those with long, narrow beaks—the insect-eaters—and then those with thick beaks—the nut- and seed-eaters. There is also a great, free bird identification app, the Merlin Bird ID App, put out by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. The Cornell Lab also hosts allaboutbirds.org, an online bird guide, as well as ebird.org, an online bird database where recreational and professional birders can record their observations, which are compiled into data sets that scientists can use to understand bird habitat.
3. Find a trail. Any trail will do. There are multitudes of birds and they all prefer different habitats. If you hike on a meadow trail, you’ll see birds that like open space: soaring hawks, meadowlarks. If you hike on a river trail, the birds there will be water loving: ducks, heron, bald eagles. If you hike on a woodland trail, the hawks will have longer tails, good for angling in and out of branches, and you might become familiar with the nuthatches.
4. Find a friend. It’s always helpful when you see a bird for the first time to whisper its field marks—the birder’s term for shape, color, markings—to a friend. Smaller than a robin, really long beak, blue-ish, band around the neck, mohawk on its head! Maybe you saw a belted kingfisher. It’s easier to remember what you see when you speak out loud, and if a friend helps you remember.
5. Now you walk. Find your normal pace. But while you walk, listen. If you talk with a friend, keep one ear on them, and the other always tuned to the forest canopy, the echoing lake. If there is a small bridge out on a body of water, walk out on it and look around. Explore around creeks and through fields. Hard not to trip when you’re looking up, so watch for roots underfoot.
6. Look. And don’t look away. Look closely if you have binoculars. To use binoculars, train your eyes on the bird at hand, and then—still watching—slowly lift the binoculars to your eyes. You’ll still be looking at that same bird, but now through the magnifying lens of your “binocs.” Adjust the knob at the center to focus. As long as the bird is perched and still or soaring overhead, keep watching. Don’t stop looking.
7. Speak. Whisper out loud, to yourself or a friend, what birders would call the field marks, the shape and colors of a birds feathering, a description of what it looks like. It’s bright red, streaked red and brown at its head and neck, smaller than a robin, thick beak. A house finch perhaps?
8. Remember the bird’s habitat. Remember where you saw it. Perched on a cattail in a wetland. Soaring on a high limestone palisade. In your backyard. The habitat is also part of the knowing.
9. Watch for what the bird is doing. Is it drumming its beak into hardwood? Or eating pine-cones at the top of an evergreen tree? Does it soar with broad wings or flap a lot when it flies? Is there a shape to its flight? Bouncing or zooming? Swirling or darting? Many people can identify a bird, but can they tell you a story about it?
10. When the bird flies from view, as birds are want to do, go to your book and flip through the pages until you find what you saw and heard. When you find it, get out your colored pencils or watercolors and do a quick sketch of what you saw. Drawing is a good way to help you remember the shape and details of what you saw. A scribble will do—nothing fancy. Once you have identified a bird, chances are, you’ll recognize it again. Another sharp-shinned hawk! Another black-capped chickadee! This is when knowing a bird will help you understand it even more. Now that you can identify a bird, when you watch it, you can better observe the way it moves, what it eats, how it communicates with other birds. In other words, you can observe its behavior, and better come to understand its character.
This past winter (a great time for birding with the trees free of foliage and the canopy open and visible) I was at a farm along Floyd’s Fork outside of Louisville. Bird-feeders fixed to the outside of the farmhouse windows sat empty of seed, covered in pollen and cobwebs. Watching bird feeders is another good way to study birds. My friend Amara and I, in a fit of farm chores, filled them up to the brim with sunflower seeds, spat on the suction cups, and pressed them back onto the windows.
Not inside for a minute and the birds descended from their hiding places in the canopy. First, it was a male robin, the great red bird. And then the female, whose markings bird books would call drab, but which are not drab at all seen up close, her brown feathers streaked with neon orange. And then flitted down the white-breasted nuthatch, a small bird, but one with a yearning habit, its legs far back under its belly, always tipped forward, leaning and reaching. We watched for a good half hour, the flurries to and from the feeders, the rigid pecking, the bickering calls. We watched these birds like we watched TV, transfixed and silent.
Another bird landed on the feeder sill, and I didn’t know what that one was. It was blue-gray, with a small mohawk at the top of its head and a black spot above its beak. Having been birding mostly in Montana, I didn’t know this one, ignorant as I was of my own homeland. Amara brought a Sibley Field Guide down from off the shelf. I flipped through pages of small birds just like this one. And then I found it: the tufted titmouse.
Those interested can check out some of the birding organizations in Kentucky: Audubon Society of Kentucky, Central Kentucky Audubon Society, Louisville Audubon Society, Kentucky Ornithological Society, and the Beckham Bird Club. Many of these organizations host events for beginning birders.